The Rice Shop
August 13, 2004
Crowds hurried along the dingy pavement. The buildings of Beijing pressed in on every side, and people waited in clumps by the crosswalks as public busses, cars, and hundreds of bicycles streamed through the intersection. Diana strolled along the busy sidewalk. Well-executed make-up hid the creases that were just beginning to show at the corners of her mouth and eyes. Her tailored dress from Saks Fifth Avenue set off a decent figure. The American woman’s gaze lighted momentarily on hawker stalls, old women sweeping trash, and signs that were unintelligible to her. Her right hand was on the shoulder strap of her leather handbag, which was protectively pressed between her body and elbow.
Near a bus stop, two beggars crouched and extended their palms. A filthy child rose from behind them and chased Diana for a few feet, repeating in a small shrill voice, “Hello? Hello?” Diana thought of a parrot. The child patted its mouth and then held its hand up to her, fingers spread. Her grip on her purse strap loosened slightly, then tightened again as she glanced apprehensively past the child to the now standing beggars. She quickened her step and walked straight ahead. Her heeled shoes detoured around wide muddy cracks in the sidewalk.
Diana passed two old gentlemen reading the newspaper plastered on a public billboard. One turned his head and stared after her. She was aware that the other man had also turned for another look at her as she passed. She swished her skirt a little more obviously and veered closer to the curb where the sunlight, wrestling free from the city buildings, could light up her blonde hair. A bony man was pushing a three-wheeled bicycle toward her. The plywood platform between the back wheels was piled with turnips, crusty dirt still clinging to their wizened root tips. The waves of people hurrying in both directions did not slow for the bulky cart. Diana was borne closer to it. She sidestepped left, closer to the buildings. Unaffected by her slowing pace, people pushed past her and shoved her against the wall as the cart squeezed past. Some space returned once the cart was out of the way, but Diana cringed each time her arm was brushed by passing bodies. Some clothing racks were set out on the sidewalk in front of a small shop and she stepped between them, taking shelter from the human torrent. She thumbed through some skirts.
“Goot aftanoon” suggested the tidy shopkeeper unobtrusively, smiling and nodding in obeisance. Diana smiled toward her with a slight nod of acknowledgement. Her green eyes scanned the exotic patterned skirts on the opposite wall, then returned to a snowy cashmere cardigan caressing her fingertips. Smells of warm rice drifted out of a tiny food shop on her left.
* * * * * *
A small-framed Chinese woman reached across an outdoor table to gather several dishes that cluttered its surface. Another patron sat down on the red plastic stool with a mumbled phrase. Ming Yan Mei nodded and shouted back through the pungent garlic air, “Da wan fan, sua la dou fu!” About to turn towards the back of her food-stall, Yan Mei paused with the stack of dirty bowls in her hands and took a second look at a blonde woman who had just passed and halted at the clothing store next door. Yan Mei nearly snickered at the woman’s long-nosed profile. The foreign woman fingered a white blouse, and peered at it like a bird eyeing a beetle. Yan Mei balanced the bowls in her left hand, wiped her right hand absently on her thigh, and wondered how much she should charge a Western woman for a plate of fried rice. She could probably serve an unordered dish of ginger beef too and insist that the woman pay for it.
The American raised her eyes from the blouse and, over the top of the clothing rack, collided with Yan Mei’s gaze. The white woman dropped the sleeve she was examining with a start, then quickly pulled a hanger from the rack, looked away from Yan Mei, and focused intently on a brilliant floral sweater.
Yan Mei suddenly became aware of her untidy ponytail and grimy apron. She realized the foreigner would never patronize her dingy shop. The greasy floor had footprints in the brown filth and the dark low interior was thick with smoke from the wok. She went to the back and deposited the dirty dishes in a plastic basin on the floor. Picking up a clean bowl from the tall stack on the back table, she scooped hot, moist rice into it from a 5-gallon wooden tub. The dark sides of the rice tub were damp with steam. Yan Mei mounded the wonderful white grains generously until pieces were crumbling off like snowflakes, falling back into the tub of fragrant drifts.
The girl cooking at the wok dumped its contents onto a plate, handed it to Yan Mei, and began tossing noodles in the same sizzling grease. Yan Mei took the plate of spicy Tofu, swimming in sauce, the surface shimmering with brilliant red dots of grease. She set the rice and Tofu in front of her patron. “Chee kwai.” He thrust her a limp blue bill and two smaller yellow ones. As she placed them in her apron pocket, she cast her attention again to the adjacent clothing shop. She watched the other woman draw crisp bills out of a purse with glossy-nailed hands. The shopkeeper took the bills decorously, and bobbed her head as she passed over a sack.
* * * * * *
Turning her head as she stepped away from the clothing racks, Diana once more noticed the disheveled woman standing with a fist in her apron. Diana bestowed an attractive red-lipped smile. Yan Mei’s lips did not twitch as she held them tight over her browned and crooked teeth. When an instant’s pause rewarded Diana with no sign of acknowledgment, she jerked her face suddenly away with a swish of pale hair and looked toward the road. Diana lifted her marble chin, exhibiting a supple pout to a sidewalk audience. Within three more steps, her face had smoothed and there was again a slight smile on display. Her clicking heels receded, and Yan Mei noted that they headed in the direction of the expensive hotels.
Yan Mei’s hand was still in her apron pocket. She felt the pile of soft paper bills that had accumulated with the intermittent customers. She walked to the back of her shop and unlocked the little cash box. Its hinges squeaked. Yan Mei drew out the pile of small denominations and carefully counted them. She rifled the worn edges with her left thumb, then placed them in the metal box. As she locked it, she noticed the rice that had spilled onto the cabinet around the rice tub. Yan Mei brushed the grains into a little mound. White kernels stuck to the side of her hand and some got smushed. She cupped her left hand at the edge of the counter and brushed the heap into it. In the corner was a bucket of carrot peelings, onion skins, and anemic white cabbage cores. Yan Mei tossed the handful of rice on top, then stood for a moment and contemplated the back of her young employee. The girl was diligently sautéing finely chopped garlic over the gas burner’s high blue flame. She reached into the rice tub, but Yan Mei interrupted the movement. “Ni shiu shi ba.” The girl nodded, wiped her hands on a dingy dish towel, and moved to the front of the shop. Yan Mei took her place at the hot stove.
* * * * * *
Diana found a chair in the lobby of the Hyatt, near a front window. Her body relaxed into the white upholstery and a slight sigh escaped. She set her bag down on a shiny mahogany side table, next to a fresh flower arrangement. The luxuriant foliage harbored white carnations and red roses. The large arrangement blocked her view of the street through the window. Diana crossed her legs daintily and flicked her airborne toe a bit. Then she pulled a bottle of hand sanitizer out of her bag and rubbed it into her palms, the artificial lemon scent hovering momentarily, then evaporating. After several minutes she set both feet on the floor and leaned forward out of the chair to peer around the side table and vase, out the window. Dingy, crammed traffic passed the hotel and bellboys in red uniforms and black hair lounged under the front canopy. Leaning back again, she re-crossed her legs and arranged her skirt over the knob of her knee. Her eyes roved aimlessly over the Chinese lanterns above the check-in desk, across to the gilded Buddha reigning over an ash tray. With a delicate shimmer of her elbow, she shook her left sleeve away from her wrist, revealing a glittering watch. The watch’s glass face caught a sunbeam and recast a dot of light onto the flower bouquet. Diana paused a moment and followed the bright spot, as it hovered on the rough petal of a slightly wilting rose. The rose was low, near the gold lip of the cloisonné vase. The outer petals limped down from a browning centre. Her eyes lingered on the aged rose a moment. Then she turned her attention to her watch. With a frown, she noted that it read 1:37.
“Ah you Mrs. Miller?” A fresh Asian girl in a receptionist uniform stood at Diana’s elbow.
Diana double-checked the time before she acknowledged the girl’s presence. “Yes.” Diana’s eyebrows wrinkled and she looked suspiciously at the girl.
“Mistah Miller has left a message for you. He will not see you for lunch. We ah very sorry, Mrs. Miller.” The girl backed up several steps before turning around and returning to her post at the front desk. For an instant the light from the window again caught Diana’s watch face and sent sprinkles of light over the bouquet at her side. Abruptly Diana snatched the wilting rose from the vase and crushed the core of remaining petals in her fist. Then she dropped her hand limply and let the petals trickle from her fingers as she stared blankly at the hotel doorway.
* * * * * * * *
Yan Mei plunged a large spoon into the mounds of rice and filled the wok. She unscrewed the red lid from a bottle of soy sauce, and poured a dark stain onto the ivory grains. After rescrewing the grimy lid, Yan Mei dexterously stirred in the potent liquid. The pure kernels gradually took on a honey color, dyed with flavor, and Yan Mei tossed in bits of chicken and chopped vegetables. A deep hot aroma rose in front of Yan Mei’s face. She closed her eyes an instant, breathing. Reopening her eyes, she dumped fried rice onto a plate and carried it to a waiting customer.