Where does one buy chopsticks in Beijing? This isn’t simply a zen koan, the questions the masters ask their students in order to break habits of thought and open their minds. This question, that I asked myself one evening while contemplating the leftover spicy beef in the white cardboard box, on the third shelf of my fairly empty refrigerator, in the kitchen of my Beijing apartment, had real-life applications. The spicy beef was from last night’s dinner that I had da bao’d (the past tense of “take away” in Chinglish?) from the restaurant across the street from my home in the Just Make Building.
“Just Make what?” you might ask, everyone does. It was the restaurant with the elegant women, dressed in shiny satin chi-pao that were high necked and slit up the side, flanking the entrance and quietly luring in customers with their beauty. In winter their outfits changed to floor length red wool coats with white furry collars, making them look like Asian Santa’s helpers.
In my kitchen were forks, knives and spoons, but not a single chopstick, let alone a pair of them. I wanted chopsticks. I wanted to delicately pluck each morsel of beef from its tangy sauce. I wanted to savor each bite slowly, so much easier with the pinch and grab of the sticks rather than the scoop of a fork. I wanted to be an accomplished chopsticker, prepared for that day when the witty, wealthy, handsome expat of my dreams invited me to dinner. I certainly wouldn’t want to embarrass myself by inadvertently catapulting a slippery mushroom or chunk of eggplant into the air and marking my ineptitude with an oily brown stain on a pristine white tablecloth, or worse, his pants.
I weighed the possibilities. Around the corner was the “wet market” that sold fruit, vegetables, meats, rice by the scoop or the gunny- sack, and cooking oil in plastic gallon jugs. Next door was the tiny liquor store selling green glass flasks of baijou the local rotgut, handy when you needed to throw back a good stiff drink, but hardly the stuff for sipping delicately while swirling clinking ice cubes. They also sold cell phone cards, cigarettes, candy, and tasteless, sticky Chinese ice cream bars, but probably not chopsticks. Half way down the block was the even tinier shop, no larger than the master bath of an American McMansion, selling a virtual flower garden of colorful plastic buckets and mops, and shiny pots and pans. It overflowed the tiny space and oozed out onto the sidewalk. After taking stock of my neighborhood, I really had only one choice – April Gourmet, the grocery store specializing in catering to westerners. It was conveniently located on the first floor of Just Make, right past the Italian restaurant, the French butcher, and my nail shop, where on sunny days when business was slow, the girls in matching shirts and knock-off designer jeans played badminton on the sidewalk using a low hedge as a net.
I grabbed a hand basket and headed up to April Gourmet’s second floor. I walked past the bin of Mrs. Shannen’s bagels. Mrs. Shannen was neither Jewish, nor Irish, but Chinese, and she baked a perfect bagel. I cruised past the cornflakes, (Yup, the ones with the rooster), the Digestives from England and cereal from Sweden. I found the young clerk stocking paper goods. A quick “Ni Hao,” “hello,” being one of seventeen Chinese words I knew, started the conversation which quickly dissolved into a series of gestures. I held out my index and middle fingers opening and closing them like scissors. I pointed at my mouth and rubbed my belly. Until, eventually, the young man had an idea. He led me to the plastic cutlery. I reached for the pair of chopsticks buried between the packages of beige forks and knives, and he rewarded me with an ear-to-ear grin. Oh what a smile! His curiosity got the best of him. “What these call English?” he asked. We practiced -“chopsticks, chopsticks, chopsticks.”
I left the store with my chopsticks, French chocolate pudding, Indonesian ginger chews, Irish butter and a sense of euphoria. I could do this! I could live alone in a foreign country even if I couldn’t speak the language or read the signs. I could heal from the cataclysmic events of the past year, the death of my father and my marriage. Walking out of the store, I knew the answer – I would “Just Make” a new life. In China I became brave. I became bold. I was outgoing in situations where I used to be restrained, gregarious when I used to be reserved. I found new levels of competence. I found a powerful, creative voice hidden in the keys of my computer. I became free.
About the Author: Shari Cassutt is a retired kindergarten teacher from the United States and an aspiring writer. She put the finishing touches on this entry from her hotel room in a Beijing hutong where she was staying during her first trip back to the city, five years after her year of adventure and transformation ended. She is now proud to say she can eat peanuts, chocolate cake, and single grains of rice with her chopsticks.