Winter morning light had broken clear and cold, so early that night’s shadows were still about and a wispy moon hung in the sky. A small collection of street food vendors had already parked their hand carts by the college gates, and by this time there was usually a crowd of girls in jeans and padded coats huddled there, refugees from cafeteria food, scoffing thin stuffed pancakes or dishes of steaming noodles. But today the road was clear of its suicidal clutter of electric bikes and buses, and death defying pedestrians. The girls were still in bed. It was New Year’s morning, and a holiday.
The old foreign teacher hurried through a small gap in the security gate with his collar turned up against the chill. The gate guard always grinned at the other foreigner, a heavy blonde lady with a penchant for whisky and late night partying. He always ignored the old man, who ran laps and lacked visible vices. The old man made this brisk ten minute walk every morning before classes. His route took him between two hospitals. This was a place of hospitals, eight within two blocks. The road in front of the nursing college was called Recovery Front Street in its quaint English translation. The Chinese was more safely opaque to suggestion, Kangfu Qianjie.
Now he edged past a magazine kiosk, its narrow counter cluttered with six different brands of plastic-bottled mineral water and green tea. Even the street sweepers were away this morning. Ten years ago, he recalled, there were few street sweepers in their yellow and orange vests, and the pavements in the other city where he had hung out in those days were sometimes knee deep in discarded trash. That was progress. But the grimy sidewalk blocks still stuck up at crazy angles to trip the unwary, and he’d long developed automatic radar to dodge gooey patches of phlegm. The average Chinese man, and many a dainty lady, did not seem comfortable without hawking noisily every few minutes.
He scuttled across the intersection to Recovery Middle Street, trying to look as usual in six different directions at once, deeply distrustful of the apparently empty road. Another awesome recent innovation had been the electric bikes, seventy million of them in the country now. They were universally unregistered, cheap, swift, and deadly. The road was, he reflected almost a perfect parable for fascism. Might was right, meaning a truck never gave way to a car, nor a car to a bike, and especially never a bike to a mere man walking. On the principle that it never happens to you, his Chinese colleagues were all convinced that they were perfectly safe. As a matter of pride and lifelong training not one of them would look left or right before stepping blindly into the maelstrom. Statistics said something rude along the lines that 600 people were killed daily, and 42,000 wounded. It sounded like a war, so the foreigner properly considered the Recovery Streets a war zone, but foreigners were expected to be strange.
The old man’s destination was a small shop next to a bank at the intersection with Recovery Back Street. Recovery Back Street to the left of the intersection was always an impromptu farmer’s market, a roadside collection of dried chilies spread on bits of cloth, pedal carts with the most recent glut of small motley oranges, bunches of onions or dried nuts. There would be trailers pulled by big, dirty two wheeled rotary hoes in a strange balancing act, and little handcarts with fried biscuits displayed behind the makeshift cleanliness of a glass box in a fragile whitewashed frame. The market was stocked by the province’s special three wheeled blue one ton trucks with their deep throated chunking diesel engines, seen early in the morning, and usually driven by a florid farmer in the puzzling trademark tattered business suit of manual workers, together with his stolid wife bundled up against the contamination of city air. On this morning though, what was left of the market was wrapped down with sheets of plastic, blue, white and pink.
Recovery Back Street had an ominous reputation with the college girls. Few came from the city, and the induction into its wicked ways was roughly chaperoned by strict curfews and long talks on the good deeds of young Communist Pioneers. But girls being girls, they whispered about the bodies kept in vats of formaldehyde under the building by the college front gate. As first year nursing student novices, they got over any innocence by cutting up live rabbits. The cadavers were saved up for third year seniors to play with. But even the nurses’ trained indifference to mortality could not quite overcome the dread of Recovery Back Street to the right of the intersection. That was where you found the shops for the dead, the coffin makers, the sellers of wreaths and tassels and trinkets that the newly departed would need on their trip to Huang Quan Lu, the road to the underworld. In this place of hospitals, which are surely the bleakest of departure halls from life’s gaudy times, they did a steady trade. Yet on this chilly New Year’s morning they too were shuttered.
The small shop next to the bank was in the humble business of selling hot flat bread, shao bing, freshly baked in a coal oven, irresistible to those raised on its crisp crusts. It opened very early, and shut very late. The shao bing came piping hot, and sold for a song at five jiao apiece. Yet the customers were mostly middle aged, plain looking folk on bicycles. For the college girls, ‘hot’ was a show-off English pop word for their fake brand name jeans and bags, or the newly fashionable chain bakery shops which sold flabby pastries in cellophane at five times the price of a shao bing. The old foreigner didn’t care for flabby pastries in cellophane. The shao bing shop front was barely three meters across, crudely whitewashed wood with fragile windows of thin glass at chest level. The only thing that looked like a sign was a spidery flourish of Arabic script on a strip of dark green background above the door. Certainly no Han Chinese could read it, and the old foreigner doubted if the owner knew it as more than a rote memory either, yet that little bit of Arabic, so far from its ancient home down the fabled Silk Road, said everything that was necessary.
These were Hui people, Muslims, so intermarried with Han over centuries that any trace of another racial heritage had long since vanished, yet indelibly marked as an “ethnic minority”. The old foreigner sometimes wondered mildly why Christians and miscellaneous god-lovers were not also ethnic minorities, but perhaps in this country where pigs were surely deified as food, these other outlanders could at least be persuaded to partake. The other Han oddity was that they never baked food. This was truly strange, yet it gave a street corner to the Hui. It was more than business that seemed to give these Hui folk a special fellowship with the old man. The birthed foreigner and the ancient cultural foreigners could share some kind of identity. Privately he was as heathen as any pig lover, but they need not know that. At the little shao bing shop he was a special celebrity. Each day they said kind words, not minding at all his helpless shrug of ting bu dong — don’t understand. At different times he had seen an aging lady with kind eyes, and a younger lady tucked in generous rolls of fat. An older man had come back from the hajj, proud in his white cap, and for a couple of months gotten by with a weekly shave in the Arabic fashion, but now his wife had him meekly smooth again. Nowadays a leaner man seemed to be doing the hard work, taciturn, unsmiling, perhaps thirty. He had nevertheless learned to acknowledge the old foreigner too, and usually had his little packet of four shao bing waiting by the time he had crossed the intersection at Recovery Back Street.
On New Year’s morning a shabby electric bike pulled up to the shao bing shop window just before the foreigner crossed the road. It’s owner snuffled away with the only four shao bing baked at this early hour. For a moment the dour baker glanced at the foreigner nonplussed, then he stepped away from the window and slid open an old wooden door. His invitation to enter wasn’t even a question. There would be a wait, and it was cold outside. The bakery, not much larger than a decent bathroom, was dimly lit with unlined walls and full of dark corners best not investigated too closely. To one side stood a low table, tacked over with tin and dusted with flour, where the older Hui man prodded away patiently at a large blob of dough. To the left was a narrow counter where the baker formed up the unbaked shao bing, and behind that was the oven. The oven, grubbily whitewashed like everything else, had begun life as a forty-four gallon drum. Now a large hole had been cut in its side. It rested on a bed of bricks with a grate below, and through its gaping hole the foreigner could see a glowing bed of coals with small licks of blue and yellow flame dancing on the surface. The genius of this oven though lay in its cap, a kind of tall mushroom of baked clay that sealed and overhung the drum. As the baker formed blobs of dough, he deftly reached into the oven and slapped them onto the inside of the clay dome where they bubbled and dried and baked. Each was done when it was ready to fall off the clay.
As the old foreigner stepped into the shop he turned around awkwardly, looking for a spot to be out of the way. He needn’t have worried. There was no false ritual of welcomes here. The two other men turned their backs without ceremony to get on with their work, yet he knew somehow that there was no intrusion. A batch of shao bing set to the oven’s roof, the taciturn baker turned around suddenly. He was holding out a cigarette. The old foreigner was startled. He didn’t smoke. He had never smoked. Once as a child he had naughtily tried a cigarette and hated it. Even at a time in his distant memory of wanting to be hot, when hot chicks liked cool guys with fags, he had never smoked. The baker wasn’t asking. He knew very well that Han always politely turned down a gift twice. Maybe the foreigner had some custom too. He wasn’t asking, but he was offering unspoken acceptance without fuss, without a blink or a smile. Just honest acceptance. The old foreigner took the cigarette and bent over to draw on the flame in the other’s cupped hands. They stood there in the semi darkness, smoking silently until the shao bing was done.