My house has a secret passage, which almost makes up for the waxed wood and marble floors that are slick as glass and require that slidey slippers be worn indoors. Chase has banged his heel, Porter has fallen down the stairs three times, and Abby has fallen four times, taking an entire flight on her back. “I’m done with this house, Mom, I’m so done.” But even she admits the secret passage is pretty cool. Today my husband surprised her with a white baby bunny from a mobile pet store pulled by a bicycle and parked at an intersection. Baby bunnies are great healers of bruises.
I doubt most Chinese houses contain secret passages. In fact, this whole part of town which at first seemed so wondrous strange to my untutored eyes, is slowly beginning to look comparatively westernized the further I venture past the Cold Stone where one of the clerks speaks some English and we pay ruinous sums for three teaspoons of ice cream. Much is available here and the people are used to foreigners who are, in turn, used to high prices, so many westerners never leave this area. But my husband has spent has life on safari, hunting the two-headed beast known as Exotic and Cheap.
“I found Real China,” he said today, laying take-out cartons on the kitchen table. “It’s two blocks past Auchan,” the crowded and exhausting discount store the size of a shopping mall that makes me want to slit my wrists. I admit, I was curious about the fabled Real China, but I wanted to take a cab, like other people who want to live. Yet somehow I found myself on the back of my husband’s e-bike, squeezing my knees together to avoid losing my kneecaps to passing cars, e-bikes, and pedestrians. “Quit squeezing, Paula, you’re hurting me.” I wanted to say, “Quit getting so close,” but we are in China, and real or fake there’s nowhere to go but close, so I kept my mouth shut. Abby followed behind us looking very chic in her hounds tooth coat and big white sunglasses, tooting the tinny horn of her girly pink e-bike. Tooting the horn is extremely important in avoiding collisions, but as I prayed for a safe return, I realized that because Seth and Abby cannot always talk and drive, they have developed an a-bike language, a complex audible Braille of beep beep beginning at Shave and a Haircut and budding out from there.
My husband did find Real China, a giant Indoor/outdoor market winding through a maze of buildings and claustrophobic alleys where live fish in shallow bins make braveheart bids for freedom, leaping into the open air and flolloping down the cracked concrete, only to be chased down by vigilant shopkeepers. Some fish were so tenacious of life that even cut in two, laying in blood with the entrails exposed and sliming out the severed head, the gills continued to struggle for breath. There were vegetables of every kind, all manner of eggs and seafood, and cow tails naked and bloody for the first foot and furry after that. Live frogs and eels of course, and ducks and chickens, I wanted to explain that “chicken” is boneless white meat wrapped in plastic, silent and without feathers, but I knew the clerk would doubt my word, so I kept it to myself. There were also fresh noodles made by a scowling teenager feeding dough through an ancient press and cutter, then hanging the twelve foot ribbons over wooden dowels. I smiled at him, but I know I looked every inch the wide-eyed tourist, for all I have a home address not so far away. I don’t blame him for scowling at my intrusion on his real life. A girl shocked by the dried jellyfish in Auchan has no business prowling the messy alleys of reality, yet I wished I could talk to the boy, find out about his job and his school. That boy lives his life in a secret passage known only to the Chinese, and we had no common beep beep to get us past the Tourist and the Noodle Maker. I walked past and we each kept our passages locked in our separate languages. I was in real China, but I would never be of it.
It’s Friday night and I can hear music from the square not far away where they will have a laser show and the fountains will dance. Soon there will be fireworks that Porter can see from his bed, after all, this is China.