Monday, December 8, 2014

Smell Before You Touch

Getting off the airplane was like stepping inside of Dr. Who's Tardus. Everything suddenly got bigger. Think New York City and then multiply your mental image by 10. Think red woods in Cali, then cry. China is huge. Every building scans upward infinitely. Every building is vast, taking up so much space in diameter that circling around the base of one would take a fair chunk of time out of your day, not to mention walking around a whole "garden" filled with identical structures. Zoom out and see that it isn't just inside of the garden that buildings form a giant, towering maze. These structures are China. Step outside of the garden and there are more gardens. Buildings are wall to wall, leaving enough narrow space in between each other for people to walk, single file down the alleys the buildings form. Some buildings are crumbling, and some are brand new. They all share equal space, they all have many inhabitants, they all are too much for the eye to truly consume their details. Everything is overwhelming.

Inside the garden are brick pathways and tall plants. Bridges, lakes, rats in every bush, small children squatting to use the restroom, the sun in your eyes, some man in a straw hat, a bamboo pole across his shoulder and a bucket of water teetering on each end. Walking quickly past him is a young man in a tailored business suit, eating a shrink-wrapped chicken-foot and staring at me like I'm the one that is out of place.  Children wizz by and school girls on their bikes ding bells to tell everyone that they are coming around the bend. Cars are parked on the sidewalk. Cars are parked in the street. Everything moves and nothing is still.

Outside the garden a cloud of confetti explodes in my face. People in colors walking around. They all move at the same pace, but together they twist and turn around each other with such fluidity that I am not sure what I'm watching. Car horns and babies. All I can hear is car horns, and babies. One of the guards at the gate is saying hello to me, and I walk by in a daze, but I'm sure to wave. Everyone is staring. The side walk is so wide; a bike lane, a walking lane; a lane for plants. And I am always swimming upstream. Poor salmon. There are bamboo pagodas back to back on the sidewalk outside of my garden. One is selling fruit, rows and rows of fruit. The next is selling socks and stockings, and the next one has children's toys-- one isn't a pagoda at all, but a wooden wheel-barrows of nuts. Or are they nuts? Everyone is yelling and frowning. They look so angry. They aren't angry though, they are just talking. To see someone smile, is rare. To hear someone laugh, is even more rare. But they aren't sad, angry people. This is just their culture. My smile is strange to them. My laughter is strange to them. People everywhere rushing around, their forms pause only long enough for them to take a good look at me before putting their foot firmly into the next step in their day.

Six feet by six feet. This is the size of the restaurants along the base of every block. Massive buildings that lose themselves in the foggy sky all meet the earth with this one thing in common: restaurants. At the base of every building there are several restaurants. All back to back, all with wicker baskets sitting in the entry way, steaming something that smells like vegetables and something that smells sweet like custard. It smells amazing. Tables are set up on the giant side walks, round tables with places for 10 people to sit. families share tables, strangers share tables. Everyone grabs with their chopsticks from the same bowl and they all eat together. I can hear them chew, I can hear them yell. Everyone is drinking.   Steam drifts up into the already humid and sticky air, and I am hungry.

Every block is so massive, it has at least one (if not, several), corner store(s). China's version of the 7-11 has a red M shape on top of it, so they have been labeled, "m-marts." The one downstairs and out the garden gate is small, but the owners are very friendly. Inside are rows of packaged chicken feet. They are cured in something brown and peppery looking. There are chicken's eggs, also marinating in some strange brown juice. My appetite loses itself.  On one wall there is a variety of noodle bowls made for the microwave, all featuring a man's face smiling and some part of the cow that we don't speak of. The coolers along the wall have bottles of tea and juice; when I open the door though, I find that the cooler isn't "cool" at all, but rather, it simply isn't warm. The Juice bottles themselves feature bright pictures of fruit (who knows if that is a blue berry or a dingleberry, either way I'm nervous). The man behind the counter is smiling, watching me hesitate over, well, everything. I can't be rude, I must buy something. . .


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