Every afternoon, a small bevy of old women gathers on the corner near my building. They crouch or bring tiny stools that lift their thick haunches only a foot off the ground, so they give the impression of being balled up in a permanent squat, like gravity has finally won them over, and they have sunk into round, wobbling spheres of their former selves, like great big squashes rooted to the street. They are of a kind, these ladies, each with the sensible, short-cropped grey haircut of their generation, the mannish chop that implies a great indifference to bourgeois notions of feminine beauty. They wear the same dark-colored pants, the same thick tops and colored jackets and brocade vests, the little uniform of their age. They gather in groups of three or four, sometimes close together, sometimes spread out by a few yards, and they cluck and chatter and laugh in their old-crone voices like a murder of gossipy crows. They scare me the way all powerful women scare me. I adore them. Before each of them rests a pot or two, a barrel-like tub with a lid and a tea towel, and an example of what rests within lain on top, usually a yam, a sweet potato, taro, or corn. In the fall, they have soybeans and boiled peanuts. They cook great piles of the things at home, and then trot them out in the afternoons to sell for a tiny profit. I get the feeling this little bit of free trade also constitutes the bulk of their social day, like playing mahjong or doing taijiquan with other ladies from the neighborhood.
They come out around 3 pm, when students’ lunches have worn off and the stretch before dinnertime starts to feel long. They crouch and they wait, and slowly, the students wander past on their way to and from classes, and they lean over the old ladies’ vats and poke around inside, picking out a warm, starchy snack to tide them over till supper. The women sit there for hours, sometimes caught up in busy trade, sometimes only chatting, talking about I don’t know what, while their tubs dribble steam and their goods become waterlogged and slowly cool to mush.
Yesterday, I was really, really hungry. I didn’t feel like walking all the way out to the South Gate to hit the vegetable market, and I wasn’t in the mood to talk with my vegetable lady, anyway. I formed an accidental friendship with one of the vendors in the produce alley, even visiting her in the hospital when she was in a terrible bicycle wreck, but her Sichuanese accent and my weak Chinese often make her enthusiastic chatter more of a trial than a pleasure for me, and our bond makes me feel like visiting another stall would be somehow traitorous. So, sometimes I don’t buy veggies when I need to, more out of mental and social exhaustion than laziness. In any case, our tiny cupboards were effectively bare, and so I trotted out to the corner in my flip-flops and braved the mockery of the crow-ladies with the pots of afternoon snacks.
One immediately pounced: “Ni mai shenme!” she barked, “What do you want to buy!” It was an order more than a question. She lifted up her lids with hands wrapped in towels. Big clouds of steam flooded my face as I crouched in front of her. She had pale-looking corn floating in one pot, and bruised sweet potatoes with their skins still on in the other. Thinking of dinner later, I asked for two of each. She wrapped the corn in plastic baggies, and shouted a price that I knew was too much. People all around the world seem to labor under the impression that being louder will somehow help a foreigner understand. It doesn’t. I was at least glad she spoke; some vendors here assume I will comprehend nothing, even when I have already addressed them in Chinese, and they proceed to communicate only in esoteric hand gestures and grunts, a practice I find maddening and even more incomprehensible than the Sichuanese dialect. The other ladies clucked and chuckled over the price – it was roughly the equivalent of 50 cents an ear, a price I could live with and didn’t feel up to arguing over. She then picked out a couple of ugly sweet potatoes, “I’ll give you the big ones,” she said. Her face was broad and wrinkly and cracked open with a huge grin as she yelled; she was missing a lot of teeth. I said that big ones would be fine. She then seemed to feel sorry for having overcharged me, and after I paid her, she reached back into her tub and grabbed a pair of fingerlings, quickly stuffing them into a bag and then into my palms. She leaned in close to my face, her leathery squint growing tighter and brighter as she laughed a wheezy, windy laugh: “These are a gift for you,” she said. They smelled like sugar and loam and were warm like living creatures in my hand. She shooed me away as a group of students came by, and I practically ran back to the apartment with my load of boiled goodies.
Once I was in my kitchen, I tasted the corn first, as it looked ashen and had obviously been sitting in the water for hours. It was just as I’d expected: starchy and tasteless, like little pops of goo stuck to a cardboard cob. There is no sweet corn in China, as far as I’m aware; everything is seed corn, or the kind they feed to pigs. Both ears went in the trash.
Then, I pulled out one of my little sweet potato gifts. It was still steaming slightly, the skin on but scrubbed, and the bad bits whittled off, so it had a patchy, mangy look to it along with the bruising and pale russet of the peel. It was soft and broke easily into two pieces in my hands. I dusted it a little with salt, and was immediately overwhelmed: earthy, warm, and dizzyingly sweet. It was magic, a perfect size, a perfect weight, rich and deep in ways that vegetables never get credit for being. It tasted like candy and soup and bread and roots all at once, like the ultimate sustenance. I felt like I could be lost in a forest and dig up only these magical tubers for years and be utterly nourished, like they somehow were all food groups and vitamins rolled into one. I probably drooled. I inhaled one and set the other in the fridge for another day, and happily carved up the big ones for dinner. They were glorious with a little butter and some rice and beans.