I mostly shop for 'photo ops'

THEY say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in my case, a really great picture is worth anything from a freshly plucked chicken to a slab of jiggling pork fat.

In China, buying a merchant's goods is often the price I pay for getting a picture of the person I want. I am not a professional photographer, nor am I really an amateur photographer, for that matter. I just like to take pictures of people who interest me. Living in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, only further stirs my desire to grab that automatic camera off the shelf and head out into the streets of the city to capture whatever intriguing individuals I can.

Years ago, I was an obnoxious, camera-wielding foreigner. Wherever my journeys took me, I would descend upon startled natives and snap away, regardless of their sour looks or frantic pleas of "No, no!" I wanted my "thousand word" picture and, by golly, I was going to get it!

But now I have learned the wisdom in Robert Frost's "Mending Wall": "Something there is that doesn't love a wall,/ that wants it down." Among the people of Hohhot, I try my best to establish relationships and to not let my camera become a wall between us.

As in any Chinese city, interesting people abound here, yet the most fascinating are the local street venders who congregate in the back alleys near the Telecommunications Building. It is here that I find myself leisurely strolling among a confusion of bicyclers and pushy shoppers.

Specialty foods of Inner Mongolia line the sidewalk, and I am drawn to one of them by a weathered man in a heavy Russian army coat. He stands next to his bicycle, which displays skewers of sugar-glazed haw (a crab apple-like fruit) jutting up from a Styrofoam base. I stop to peer closely at this food item. The man's curbmates begin poking at one another, obviously amused at the foreigner's fascination with this children's after-school favorite.

"What's the name of this?" I ask him in Chinese.

The seller appears startled, but pleased, that I can communicate with him. "Tang hu lu," he replies.

"Are they good?" I question.

"Very good!"

"Are they sweet?" I continue.

"Very sweet!"

"Are they expensive?" I tease.

"Very expensive!" an eavesdropping comedian shouts from across the way.

My seller waves him away with annoyance and quickly counters, "No, no! Not expensive. This one, only 1 kuai. This bigger one with sesame, 2 kuai."

I pause, calculating:12 and 24 US cents.

"Two kuai is more delicious!" he urges.

Ah, he has me. I hand over my 2-kuai note. He pulls out a skewer, carefully holding the wooden stick so as not to touch the candy with his fingers.

I take a tentative bite into the first haw. It is soft and tangy. I nod approval; he grins at the sale. And when I ask for a picture, he is only too happy to stand with his cherry-red treats and let his new foreign friend take her photograph.

While gnawing on my tang hu lu, I come to a cluster of buyers enveloped in a cloud of steam. An elderly man has just lifted off the first covering of a six-layered bamboo steamer, exposing hot baozi (meat-filled buns). His young aproned assistant is quickly bagging these for customers who shout out the number they want.

I like baozi, so I push my way to the front and order four. The impatient attendant shoves me my buns and gruffly snatches the money from my hand, but the old man smiles at me.

Stepping out of consumer traffic, I talk briefly with him about his business and my love of this popular Chinese snack food, which is difficult to find in America. In this case, it is he who insists on posing with his steamer for a picture so that I may show my American friends the "real" food of China.

And so it goes as I slowly make my way down the road lined with sellers: the donkey-cart driver with his tangerines, the dark-skinned woman with her roasted sunflower seeds, the Muslim-capped northerner with his beizi ("blanket bread"), the Mongolian farmer with his sour-milk candies, and the pedicab driver with his freshly plucked chickens. I stop to chat at cart after cart, and find myself another pound heavier and another picture lighter.

FOR the taxi ride home, I am barely able to squeeze myself and my purchases into the back seat of the cab. The curious driver glances at all my bags, then spies the lifeless chicken, its head dangling out of my backpack.

"Can you cook that yourself?" he asks me.

I look at the pitiful, featherless thing flopping against the tangerines.

"No," I honestly tell him. "I don't know how to cook a fresh chicken."

"Then why did you buy it?"

He is eagerly awaiting an answer, but something tells me he will not understand my Frostian revelation. All I can do is laugh, shrug my shoulders, and tell him the way home.

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