“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”
~ Jack Kerouac
“All right, I think I’ve had my fill,” I called out to my husband as we pushed our way through the vibrant spice aisle, rounding the final corner of the local vegetable market we had frequented during our two years living in China. “You good?”
“I’m ready when you are,” he replied over his shoulder, taking care to negotiate his way past the vendors and produce without squashing any of the produce that had fallen to the ground.
It was our last Saturday in China, and we decided to take one final stroll through the indoor market to cement its image in our minds and symbolically bid farewell to the vendors we had purchased from over the past twenty months. It was perhaps our most uneventful visit ever, and we both found ourselves quickly overwhelmed by the noise, the smells, the pushing, the shoving.
“Let’s head out the back,” I suggested, feeling more annoyed than nostalgic. “That way we don’t have to push through the crowd again.”
We ducked out a side door, leading to the alleyway behind the market, getting slapped in the face by the plastic door flaps on our way out. I quickly recovered from the face slap in time to side-step a caged chicken placed just outside the doorway. As I turned to take one last picture of the chaotic and eclectic scene, I noticed my awkward little dance had caught the eye of two men in the alleyway. Our eyes met as we oscillated between friendly smiles and confused glances. I looked down and noticed the men were playing a game of Chinese chess.
“Ni hao,” I offered sheepishly, waving. [hello]
“Oooh, oooh, ni hao, ni hao,” they replied in unison, giggling awkwardly. They then gestured toward their game, asking if I’d like to play.
“Oh, bu yao, xie xie,” I replied. [ No, thank you. ]
As I walked closer, their faces grew in curiosity and amusement. I held up my camera and pointed. “Ok?” I asked, indicating I’d like to have a picture of them.
Their eyes grew wide in surprise. “Us?” they seemed to be thinking. They exchanged a glance to one another, and then nodded, motioning me over.
As I stooped to get even with their eye level, they perked up, straightened their collars, and gave me their best smiles as they posed for the photo. As soon as I took the picture, the man on the left became as giddy as a little kid and grabbed my arm, pulling my camera down toward himself to take a look. The other man impatiently waved me over to his side to see the image. They began to laugh and point at one another, seemingly commenting on how the other each looked.
The man on the left turned back to me and asked where I was from. “Wo men shi Mei guo ren,” I replied. [ We’re Americans. ]
As I told them we were from America, they nodded enthusiastically, gave the thumbs up, and said, “Meiguo hao! Meiguo hao!” [ America is good. ]
It was a moment like hundreds of others I’d lived over the past two years; one in which I have so much to say, but not enough words of Mandarin to express. So I smiled, and simply replied, “Xie xie. Zai jien!” [ Thank you. Goodbye! ] They waved, returning to their conversation with one another, continuing to analyze who had the better looks in the photo.
My photo shoot with the back alley locksmiths is one of the most precious memories from my two years in China.
This photo ended up being my favorite image I shot during the entire time I lived overseas. It personifies everything that I have come to appreciate about China: the curiosity about others, the human interactions, the ability to find joy in simple things like playing a board game or a foreigner coming into town, and the wrinkled faces that hint at a tumultuous past in a society that is both wounded and resilient; a place whose story is not over yet.
Thank you, China, for all you have given to me and for all you have taken away. The absence of either, and I would not be who I am, or where I am, today. You are forever an integral part of my story, and for that I am grateful.