Qingyundian Vignettes

Creative Nonfiction
Hannah Samuels

Cucumber vendor---Beijing
Photo Credit: Alexandra Moss

1. ping-pong

A gate just a few apartment buildings down from where we live looks exactly like the doorway to Bilbo Baggins’s home, a circle gate or, as the locals call it, “moon gate.”

Between the last apartment building and the highway rumbling outside of the moon gate there are three ping-pong tables lined up in a crooked row. Behind one of these tables is strung a large, forest-green cloth. The cloth is hung up to catch the balls that get hit too hard and aren’t hit back. The cloth quickens the game as it frees the players up from running after balls all of the time.

These ping-pong players are the real deal. They play every day, every season, every morning and every evening. There has rarely been a day that I do not pass them on my way out of the complex. One morning there was a storm rolling in, but the ping-pong players were not hunkering down, they were out at their game as usual. Winter mornings can be frigid, in the single digits Fahrenheit, but on they play—fierce competition in the brutal weather.

There was a morning one day where the rain was falling hard as I left for work. I couldn’t see far enough through the downpour to notice if a ping-pong game was going on.

2. Street Sweepers

I have read in books about the street sweepers of yesteryears. It’s almost a historic profession. In mind’s eye I see the grizzled man, hat cocked, sweeping streets that, even before he started, were cleaner than he was. Maybe these public service workers sing, like in My Fair Lady, “Oh, wouldn’t that be loverly?”

Street sweeping is something that I don’t see, I don’t talk about; I only read about it in a nostalgic way. Street sweeping seemed to me like a bygone job, replaced by machines and trucks, until I moved here to this little China-village and suddenly manual street sweeping was a daily sighting. Every morning they are there, the street sweepers, wearing their orange vests and carrying their handmade brooms or shovels.

The brooms are made out of wheat sheaves, or at least something similar. Dust that settled overnight is swept up into piles. I don’t know what is done with the piles. Some middle-aged ladies carry shovels; it is their job to transport trash into the dumpsters, or to lift spadefuls of waste from the dumpsters into the pickup-like trucks which deposit this rubbish into the ditches where it is later burned.

Every morning I see them, some busily at work, others chatting with their coworkers and drinking green tea.

3. A Street Breakfast

The friendly face of the Xian’r Bing baker smiles over his glass-enclosed case of freshly fried “bing” at me. “What would you like today?” he asks in his accented Mandarin. I ask which type is the hottest and he gestures to the moon-shaped breads in the corner, “chives and egg,” he says, and then motioning over to the rectangular layers of dough and ground meat, “and these meat ones.” I ask about red bean paste, my favorite filling as long as the bing is hot; he points to them, and nods his head when I ask if they are still warm.

I buy one chive-and-egg bing, and another red-bean-paste one. I pay the man one yuan, the equivalent of fifteen cents in America. That is, I pay him one yuan for both breads; this is the cheapest food in China—round bing at 0.5 yuan a piece.The tiny plastic bag they are served with seems too thin to keep the heat in and I worry that the hot breads will melt a hole right through.

Biting through the crispy bread and into the hot filling, I sigh with pleasure. Street food carries such a magical charm.

4. A Busy Corner

Since the police told all of the farmers a few months ago that they could no longer peddle their fruits and vegetables and freshly-made tofu at the town center, the village has not been quite like itself. The center of town is quiet, the streets are wider and a sense of impressed industry overshadows our once rustically-productive village.

But I have made one of the happiest discoveries during my daily walks through town that, until a quarter till eight, a new “center of town” emerges down the street, with all of the bustling and bartering of fresh products that feels so natural. It seems that the farmers have decided that, for as long as they can, they will continue to use the village as their marketplace, so they have chosen a new location for congregation.

I can hardly get through this back street as I walk in to work, but I love the challenge and the smells and the sounds: the carts of the farmers are so heavily laden with brightly-colored vegetables and the villagers on their bikes and in their own carts and on foot clog up the road in the most festive manner.

At quarter till eight, however, the police come and, starting at the far corner, slowly drive their cars through the jam-packed streets, telling each seller, one by one, to leave. It’s a very slow process, as the road is congested with activity and it takes each seller a few minutes to finish their latest transaction and pack up their wares. Every policeman that I have seen on this route wears a look of bored frustration. I have been noticing that the policemen assigned to this piece of road are younger and younger, almost as if it is becoming the appointed job of the rookies as a possible form of initiation into the police force.

5. The Vegetable Seller

After the farmers were kicked out of the center of town, one couple needed to find a new location for their vegetable stand. Walking down the road, they discovered a wide alley and, realizing that it was an unfrequented path, chose to set up their shop there. The board-on-stick table that they used fit perfectly in the narrow entrance and there was just enough light to tell broccoli from cauliflower and lettuce from cabbage.

Every morning the couple drive their little cart with the table hitched to the back, down through the alleys until they get to the one adjacent to the main road. There, setting up their wares, they settle for a day of chatting, sitting, and selling. More often than not I see a friendly chat going on, as opposed to a business transaction.

Gan Maiya?” A passerby calls out, the equivalent to “What’s up?”

“Nothing really,” they reply. “Just being. Buy some vegetables? Come and sit a bit?”

They know how to be. These people know how to keep life from being choked up in tasks and forced productivity. They’re not beating themselves down for being lazy, because sitting is not lazy. Sitting is just being. Get out into the city and you’ll see just the opposite—the anxious, Westernized task-oriented behaviors that squeeze life out of living. But here, in quaint Qingyundian, life moves not at the pace of schedules, but at the pace of inspiration.

6. Corn Harvest

I thought that all of the corn in the village had been harvested and shucked and laid out to dry and then bagged into sacks to either be sent to be ground into meal, or saved to feed the pigs. I was wrong. Walking through the town on the first day of October—a special holiday—it seemed like the village population had doubled and the corn harvest had tripled. There, laid out on the streets where the corn of last week had already been bagged into sacks, were piles and piles of corn cobs, bright orange and bold.

I think that I saw every village mother and grandmother sitting out on their stools and shucking the corn, chatting about the last year. The grandchildren and children and cousins were all running about in their split pants and oddly-shaved heads. The young men played basketball and the fathers and grandfathers ran the cobs through a manual machine that shaved the cobs of their kernels. I stood and stared and soaked in this festivity that was everywhere.

A child, less than two years old, too young to know much of anything I thought, suddenly turned around and saw me. She gasped and put her hand to her mouth. I smiled at her. “Baba, waiguoren!” she exclaimed. Daddy, a foreigner!

7. Cora’s Story

When Cora gave birth to a daughter, her mother-in-law was enraged and refused to look at the baby girl. When Cora found out that she was pregnant again, she and her husband loaded up their bicycle-cart with vegetables and biked the hours to another village. They stayed there for nine months while the grandmother, Cora’s mother-in-law, who had since become more accepting of her granddaughter, looked after the little girl.

When Cora gave birth to a son, her husband called his mother from the distant village they had escaped to and told her. There were happy tears on both ends of the line. The family quickly scraped up their life savings and borrowed from relatives to pay the high additional-child fine.

If Cora’s second child had been another daughter, she doesn’t know what she would have done.

8. Prayer

Ni meiyou nancheng de shi’r.

I think that I know what this phrase means. My mind starts thinking as Amy continues to pray, her full, yet mellow, voice rising and falling with the tones common to Mandarin.

Ni.” I know that one. It’s one of the first characters that I learned when I first began to show an interest in China, over ten years ago. “Ni” means “you.” “Meiyou” is such a common phrase. Do you have something? No? Then “meiyou.” It means “have not” and even little children learn this early. “Nancheng.” Now here’s a word that maybe I haven’t heard before, but I know that “nan” means difficult, so I’ll just go from there. “De” indicates that there is some possessiveness going on here and “shi’r“… I think that “shi’r” means “task” or “thing.”

It’s almost my turn to pray. This room full of Chinese and foreigners is going around the circle; each person takes a point on our list. Some pray for things like protection, for our sponsors to be blessed, or for the doctors to be endowed with supernatural wisdom as they perform difficult surgeries on our little ones. Sometimes we just pray for the children, each by name, lifting up their specific medical needs, or their immediate need of a forever family—an adoptive family, every orphan’s ultimate dream. It’s almost my turn and I have figured out what Amy said: “Ni meiyou nancheng de shi’r” means “Nothing is too hard for you.”

I sigh; it’s true. My turn to pray, “Father, nothing is too hard for you…”

9. Cute and Cuter

Stella and Lewis arrived fresh from the orphanage and, freshly bathed, I posted their arrival pictures on the foster home’s Facebook page. Neither of them had English names yet, so I just called them Ying Ying and Chao Chao, nicknames created from their real Chinese names, assigned by their orphanages.

Within minutes people all over the country were liking and commenting and sharing the photos. In a few hours, Ying Ying’s picture had garnered over twenty comments; by the end of the day it had forty. Poor Chao Chao, however, only received seven comments on his arrival picture and it remains at that low number to this day.

Of course, it seems totally wrong for one child to quickly become more special in the eyes of the public than another. For publicity purposes, I’m glad that little Miss Ying Ying arrived. It’s fun to welcome the cutest little babies into the foster home, but a part of me wishes that we only brought in the not-so-cute. But when I overthink it, I start wondering if she should even be here at all, and if maybe a more needy child should have been brought in. Those huge, soulful eyes will find a family for her regardless of where she’s living, who does her much-needed urology surgery, and how often she gets a bath. Chao Chao, on the other hand… I can just see it in his eyes; he needs us.

If a family is each child’s greatest need, then it’s the babies that aren’t all that adorable who need our care the most.

10. Mia’s Giggle

Mia will celebrate her first birthday in November, but she’s probably spent at least six of the nearly twelve months in the hospital. Mia has had over five surgeries and has had pneumonia more times than I have had the flu. Today she is done, done with hospitals and surgeries and near-death experiences. She’s had her final heart surgery and will no longer turn blue and stop breathing… what a relief.

When Mia came home from the hospital for the last time, she didn’t smile. In fact, I don’t remember ever having seen her smile at all. Daphne, a nanny who stayed with her for a few of those hospitalizations, claimed that by rubbing Mia’s cheek and talking sweetly to her, Mia had flashed a tiny smile once. This report was the only one I had ever heard of Mia smiling.

A few weeks after coming home, Mia smiled when I gently ticked her and told her how special and loved she was. Her smile was bigger and happier than I had ever imagined. Yesterday I heard her giggle. And I observed with those smiles and that giggle, that little Miss Mia has a dimple.

11. Gaining .2 kg

This little darling who I hold in my arms was born four months ago and abandoned around that same time at a local hospital. A hospital has been her home for all of this time. This little treasure has lived in PICU and been nourished through an IV since the day she was born, because there was a hole between her trachea and her esophagus, and her esophagus never actually went into her stomach.

When she was released from the hospital, she only weighed 2.8 kilograms. A few days after coming home for the first time she weighed 2.9 and yesterday, when I weighed her, she was 3.0 kilograms. That’s 6.6 pounds, impressive, though still tinier than I was when I was born.

“She gained 0.2 kilograms in just two days?” I was surprised.

“I think that it’s a real gain,” her nanny said. “See how well she eats? In the hospital there was not this much closeness and love, so of course she wouldn’t have gained as much when she ate. Here, we hold her close and talk to her when we feed her. I think that is why she really has gained so much so quickly.”


Hannah Samuels is a current undergraduate student attending Thomas Edison State College, majoring in English and living in China. Email: beforethethrone29[at]gmail.com