It’s Sunday evening and I have spent the day, eyes glued to my computer screen. It’s been windy here all day and cold as, well, as it can be at the end of February. The Spring Festival has come and has now been gone now for about a fortnight. Winter also came a long time ago but spring is still far behind. There is no sign of spring here. In any case, I was warned Huainan has long winters and long summers, with little else in between.
Dinner is a slow affair at the Xiawu Fandian (Afternooon Restaurant). It has started late by Chinese standards where people, generally, eat early. I had to pull myself away from my hunt for money-making opportunities online. I probably made a couple of dollars filling in surveys and the like. Most of my chase ended in dead-ends as even surveys are limited to the developed world. People from the underdeveloped world need not eat nor provide for their old age, I think as I am stonewalled by one dead-end after another. A terse, ‘for US residents only’ is all they say! Writers, in any case, are not expected to make much from their writing. It’s enough that people read their work!
Anyway, Xiawu Fandian! There’s a group of rustics, a family, dressed in dirty clothes, presided over by a young man in a fine suit – fine, by comparison. Farmers are too earthy to bother about appearances and the educated are too flighty not to. It’s a group of some half a dozen adults and an equal number of kids. Everyone’s cheeks are pink. A boy of about seven yoyos between his table and mine, where I sit alone. He wants to make conversation but I pretend I understand nothing, answering his ‘na ge guo jia’ (where are you from) with a not-knowing smile. He bats his eyelids conspiratorially. I respond with the same, happy to use body language in place of words. I am soaking in their rusticity.
The chatter is loud as the kids have finished their meal and are busy exploring the little fandian and it’s surroundings. A sweet little pigtailed girl, her uneven plaits tied down with rubber bands watches me. She’s studying me as much as I am studying her and her family. The suited man turns every now and then to see how everyone is doing and if the laowai (foreigner) is talking with his kin. The girl is dressed in a grubby pink jacket with cloth shoes of matching colour. The gold of the little embroidered peonies on her shoes has faded but her cheeks glow and eyes shine.
In the restaurant, the eyelid-batting boy comes and goes, talking of Chinese Michaelangelos!
The man in the suit has invited the laoban (boss) who also doubles as the chef and the laoban niang (female boss) to his table to share a drink of baijiu (white, rice wine). They sit and the chatter grows louder as the waitresses, for a while, feel less observed. I sit nursing my drink, a sweet wine called jinjiu (a dark yellow-brown coloured wine that’s believed to be healthier than the fiery baijiu). Dinner, a bowl of shredded pieces of chicken, cabbage and noodles in a watery broth, jitang or chicken soup lies waiting for me to turn my attention to it. But, my eyes are feasting on a piece of ruralia.
One by one, the women finish their meal and leave the table to join their little kids. The smallest member of the group, a chubby four-year old girl with beetroot cheeks ventures close to me and eyes a little plastic ring with a cupid’s heart and arrow on my little finger. Her little fingers close around the ring and I want to take it off and give it to her. After all, a student of mine gave it to me and I see no harm in passing it around. In any case, the red of the ring looks pretty awkward on my thick little finger. But, I hold back to consider and she disappears in a flash and is lost in a game of marbles with metal bottle caps that little boys are playing outside.
I know I must return to my computer to continue my elusive search for wealth and am soon absorbed in my simple dinner. My chopstickes shuttle between the bowl of jitang and rice and my hungry lips and I fail to notice that the chatter has ebbed. I finish what is left, marvelling at how delicious a simple Chinese meal can be.
I step out of Xiawu Fandian and am greeted by the unrelenting wind from the north. Unafraid, bolstered by a healthy meal, I turn to the wind and walk northwards, the wind on my face and chest as Sunday evening gives way to Sunday night.