Sunday, July 28, 2013

Fun at the Fabric Market

Most folks think of a 95-degree day as an opportunity to hang out at the pool, go to the beach, or stay cool inside an air-conditioned home.

As for us, we like to head across town to the Muxiyuan fabric market. It's a giant market, rows of covered arcades with hundreds of individual fabric stores, many of them filled with leopard prints, hot orange, and patterns that have never been found in nature. But you can also find beautiful raw silk, tweed, cotton, and brocade, gorgeous if you're willing to wander and to dig.

And Joanna waited until the very end of her two years in Asia to decide to have something made. So on a blazingly hot Sunday afternoon we set off to Muxiyuan, a place I discovered thanks to Rachel and her friend Kate, a veteran seamstress.

It's a very Chinese sort of place, with little bare-bottomed children wandering around, motorcycles roaring through, and every vendor unfailingly polite as we slid open their glass doors to poke our way through mountains of fabric. Some shops reeked of fish that the workers must have had for lunch, others were filled with smoke from cigarettes.

The last time I was at Muxiyuan, I found fabric for a bedspread and more for a blouse within the first 20 minutes. I'm decisive that way. Joanna needs time to ponder, so we circled around and back and looked at pretty prints, and finally bought a couple of meters of fabric to make two dresses for her and one for me. The cab rides there and back cost almost as much as what we paid for the fabric, but it was all part of the adventure.

On the way home, we got one of Beijing's classic taxi drivers, a cheery guy who had only a vague sense of where we were going but was clearly delighted to have a couple of foreigners in his cab. He started shooting questions at us. We understood roughly half.
Where we we from? (that's always the first question)
Are you from Russia?
No, Meiguo, we answered.

Our Chinese was good, he announced. (That's always the second comment, no matter how bad your Chinese is.)

Then he asked us how long we had lived in Beijing, what we did for a living, was I married, did Joanna have a boyfriend, how old were we, and did I have a son?

Yes, I told him. I have a son and a daughter.
That drew a big thumbs up from our driver, who twisted around in his seat and gave me a big grin. Chinese people think that having one son and one daughter is about the best thing you can do on this earth, and congratulate me as if I've accomplished something impressive. I guess if you're facing a one-child policy, it is impressive to have two of any gender.

With every answer, he smiled. When he asked us something we didn't understand, he cracked up, every single time. It's hard to imagine why it's so consistently funny that a couple of Americans can't quite follow the rapid questions from a Beijing cab driver, but he found it endlessly amusing.

Joanna imagined the guy going home to his wife and telling her about the hysterical fare he had this afternoon. So funny!

The whole experience reinforced my idea of most Chinese as relatively cheerful people. They put up with a lot, standing in long lines to wait to get on a crowded bus, living in apartments with no air conditioning, eating street food that may or may not be contaminated, and never having much peace and quiet in a city of 20 million people.

Every time I encounter a child when I get on an elevator, I say hello, as much for the shy "ni hao" I get back from the babies as it is for the beaming look on the grandfather's or ayi's face as I clearly recognize the wonderfulness of this child.

The default here is a smile. The chance encounters are always pleasant. It's my silver lining in a place that can try the most patient among us. 

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