I was going to type “old friends” as the title of this post, but it didn’t seem quite right. The Chinese translation, as you see above, somehow fits 10 times better for me. I talked to an old friend this week. She and I met in the summer of 1999 when I was studying in Beijing. We clicked immediately because of mutual interests in current events, languages, journalism etc. We talked at length about religion and spent a lot of time together over the years. Our conversation triggered memories that I still savor.
When I left the U.S. for the first time that summer it was as if something had awakened for the first time in my soul. Beijing is a monumentally large metropolis literally full of people. I was captivated by all of them. I could ride my bicycle around the streets of Beijing to go do some mundane task and be completely entertained and satisfied watching people. Daily life had never seemed so fascinating.
People sold fruit and butchered animals outside in neighborhood markets, people biked like we drive cars in the States. You could never believe how many bikes until you have seen them. Seemingly ancient, run-down alley houses intermingle with huge metal and glass skyscrapers. 30-something yuppies types in fancy suits (on bikes) pass gritty, old, Mao-suit wearing laborers pulling flatbed cargo trailers (on bikes). Both simultaneously pedal and talk on cell phones. It’s dry in Beijing, and people say the government seeds the clouds to make it rain. (I found out later that that’s actually true!) At dawn on campus, old men and women practice tai-chi in the park, their faces so much more calming than the colors of their mismatched sweatsuits.
After I got semi-used to my environment I used to look out for some of my favorite roadside treats. There was pineapple season, when suddenly the fruit stands were selling nothing but pineapple. Whole pineapple, skinned pineapple halves on sticks and the best, a freshly skinned pineapple to take home in a plastic bag for later enjoyment. Those fruit sellers had something I still akin to a magic knife trick to remove the outside of a pineapple in less than 30 seconds, without a cutting board. Another treat was a Beijing specialty called Tang Hu Lu, something like sweet crab apples. I would imagine that if you went to Beijing today you would see stands all over the city selling little red apple-like fruits on skewers covered in an amazing sweet crunchy coating. My aforementioned friend once told me when I told her of my love of tang hu lu that they are usually a treat for children. My favorite memory of street food, however, happened around Thanksgiving. Sometimes a pedestrian is lucky enough to find a seller pushing around a huge heated barrel with roasting sweet potatoes on top. They usually seemed to be dribbled with caramel and smelled amazing. One day my roommate and I wanted to safe some time and buy a bunch to mash up and bring to an American Thanksgiving party. We went out in the morning looking and it didn’t take us too long to find a lady with 15 or so hot sweet potatoes. She smiled in amazement at us we reassured her that we were really taking all of them, passed her the cash and went on our way. Chances are, we just gave her the morning off. =)