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What Happens in the Marketplace
It was Beijing and nearly Christmas. I remember because my body was numb all over with the cold as I desperately searched for a new building to go into to warm myself. People walking down the street hardly seemed to mind with their light jackets. But they were used to it, I suppose.
It was the people, the real Beijing that I was interested in. I wasn’t one of those touristy-travelers, searching desperately for anything in English. I wanted to be part of Beijing, look into its eyes, learn its deep history, meet its people and hear its true tongue. None of the Western masks. Considering I was probably the only white face for the next several blocks, I thought I was probably doing my job pretty well.
Wangfujing street looked like any other city with bright neon signs strung across stories of concrete, seas of faces crowding the thin sidewalks, pop music blasting from little stores. The flocks of bicycles weaving in between cars on the intersection were a shock, though, along with the drastic contrast between rich and poor. But beyond the billboards of NBA and McDonalds, there was a world opened by a little pagoda of gold, nestled away in a corner with the scents of unidentifiable foods and the sounds of foreign shouts. Like the hutong house regions farther down, it seemed to be a place forgotten by the alien eye: a place where only the true people of Beijing met.
Most market places, no matter which country one’s in, are similar. There are sounds and pushes from all sides, all sorts of things to buy, and all sorts of people trying to convince you to buy them. I suppose I wasn’t quite used to this concept yet, only finding myself entranced by the piles of bright purses and chopsticks along with the jade figures and pottery. My interest caught a seller’s eye.
“How much you pay?” she got right to the point.
“How much you pay!” she took in her hand a large red silk coin purse, waving it before my face. “Only fifty yuan, a special deal for you!”
Why did I have to be so entranced by the bright coloured nick-knacks? “Oh thank you, but I’m not interested!”
But she would not take my answer. “If you buy two, I’ll give a special deal! Only thirty yuan each!” When I continued to walk away, I felt her hand grasp my wrist. Even though she was later in years, her grip was as strong as any young man’s, showing no sign of letting go. In desperation to sell, she cried out, “Ten yuan! Wonderful price for you! How many would you like?”
“I don’t want any, thank you!” I cried out, noticing a few eyes take notice to the scene. More importantly, I saw my group far ahead down the street, nearly out of sight. “I must go, I really must go!” I struggled, but her grip wouldn’t give way. Never had I seen such persistence!
“We’re really not interested.” I turned my head as I felt a jolt on my other arm, to see my mother. Even at my age, she dared not let me be out of her sight for a moment, let alone allow me to be dragged over by some desperate merchant.
So now the center of the marketplace was the place to watch. How many days did the people see a young white woman as the target of a tug-a-war match between a traveler and a merchant? Feeling sets of eyes watch me did not make the moment any lighter.
With loud shouts and a final firm tug, my mother won. Continuing down the street, my eyes were too afraid to be drawn in by the colorful dragon and panda designs that lined the streets. For that moment, that is. My mother, however, took our little fiasco as a reason to stay away from the market places. “Keep your head up, pretend you are the queen,” I believe she said. A frown rose over her lips, as if to say, This is why we should have stayed on the main street, which disappointed me a bit. Perhaps she didn’t see what I had in that moment.
This was Beijing.
There was no hiding, no conforming to a Westernized way, no change from how things had been for hundreds of years before. It was different than what she was used to, what I was used to, but that’s what I loved about it. That’s what she hated about it. To mingle with foreign people steps out of one’s comfort zone. It’s not standard; it’s change; it’s not the same as everything else. Perhaps that’s why I laughed whenever I thought of the market on Wangfujing, and why I was more eager than ever to go to visit the marketplaces in my later travels. This was where I could see real culture in people’s eyes. This was what traveling truly was about.