The people that live in our building are very nice, and rather quiet. It is a small, older building that was probably built in the 1940s-50s as part of a factory complex, perhaps housing the factory employees. There are six other buildings around it that share the same basic construction and look. It’s a five story building, with no elevators, and the stairwells are entirely concrete. With the nearby construction dust, occasional sandstorms from the Gobi, and the pollution in the city, the stairwells are perpetually dirty.
A couple days ago, I headed downstairs to go to a convenience store. As I exited the building, a tiny old woman politely accosted me. Yes, I realize that politely and accosted are rarely seen in the same sentence, much less together, but there really is no other way to describe the encounter. She completely blocked my ability to exit the building, despite being well short of 5′ tall and old enough to have great-great-great-grandchildren. She had a big smile on her face, and I had seen her once before. My wife spoke with her in Mandarin about recycling a few days earlier, and told me afterwards that she was requesting we give her our bottles when we are done with them. She seemed nice enough, so I didn’t have a problem with that. But hunting her down to give them to her sounded like pointless extra work. If she was around when we were taking them out, fine. But I didn’t see a logic in making special trips.
As she blocked my exit, she started trying to converse with me in Mandarin. I speak less than 80 words, and the words I do know don’t exactly string together into sentences unless you wanted to try to make a sentence out of “eight mountain north sister you tall add oil”. Believe me I have tried. But it’s pretty rare for that particular sentence to prove useful, and I suspected it would fail yet again on this day.
I blurted out the phrase I utter more than any other in China, “ting bu dong”, which pretty much means “I don’t understand.” She smiled sweetly and proceeded to offer other sentences in my direction. Maybe it was alternative vocabulary for her previous request, maybe she was quoting Laozi, or maybe she was suggesting a recipe for fried squid. I replied “ting bu dong” again around five times before finally she relented and decided that maybe I truly did not understand what she was saying. Then she pointed at a plastic bottle on the ground and back at me and said something else.
If this was a Belgian horror film, the subtitles would have explained how she was describing exactly the method she would use to boil down my entrails in her giant wok and then fill the plastic bottle with them and feed the beverage to her goats. But I saw no camera crew, so I don’t think it was a Belgian horror film. Instead I pointed at the bottle, smiled and nodded, and then gave her a thumbsup. At this she permitted me to pass. Hopefully I agreed to bring her my plastic bottles, and didn’t somehow sign a verbal contract to be a backup dancer in her next music video. Because believe me, The Bearded Giant is the worst dancer on Earth. You think Alex Van Halen is bad, dancing in the background of old Van Halen videos? Yeah, you haven’t seen anything like me.
As I walked away from being politely accosted by the elderly woman, I heard a violent noise behind me and turned around to see her hock up the biggest, ugliest ball of phlegm I have seen in my life and spit it with authority onto the ground. Because China…