Even though it’s been over a decade, I can still remember the walk to the street market from my flat.
Down five flights of echoing stairs, hearing the sounds of each unique family as I passed their doors. Out of the dimly lit tunnel and into the open space where hundreds of bicycles were parked. Through the courtyard with the sign warning me “Please do not make noises. To keep slient [yes, slient]. Not to play the football and the basketball.”
Once I was out of my apartment complex, I’d pass through two more complexes before I’d arrive at the street the market was on. “The Sisters”, a small restaurant, was immediately on my left. I made the mistake in that restaurant of ordering something with the character for “cow” before I learned the character for “meat” and got a steaming plate of innards. I was never a fan of that damn restaurant. I know it wasn’t their fault but forcing down tripe because I didn’t know how to ask to return it or get it to go is still a memory burned into my brain.
Once I began walking down the street I’d usually wave to the woman with the rolling cart who sold me vegetables. After a few months of not haggling over prices, she began to treat me like a local and charge me cheaper prices. At the intersection, the MaiDangLao with its golden arches beckoned me to come in and get the #5 Spicy Chicken Burger combo. I got diarrhea every time I ordered it. Worth it. Across the street was the rival in the great capitalist battle. Mr. KenDeJi, the Great White Colonel with his signature blend of spices. I ate there once and regretted it. No diarrhea but it wasn’t Popeyes.
Once I was past the Corporate Outposts and the storefront selling glasses, I hit the proper beginning of the market. In the Fall, the man with a wok full of melted sugar and fruit on skewers -candied to order- was a seasonal snack I got every time I went to the market. If it wasn’t Fall, I’d press on into the smells of rotten food, fermented tofu, perspiration, oil, spices, and bread. Bad covers of American pop songs or even worse original Chinese pop songs blared too loudly from speakers in an attempt to entertain the people working in the market as well as grab the attention of passerbys. People always ran into you in the market because the space was crammed so tightly and the city had 11 million people. You just got used to small shoves, brushes, and knocks.
The fried chicken stand on the left (its diarrhea was soooo much worse than McDonald’s) always had cheap breast meat because only the foreigners liked dry meat not served on the bone. I don’t know what kind of fat they fried their chicken in but it was epically delicious (until about four hours later).
Deeper into the market, right across from each other, were the bing maker and the yangrouchuanr stall. Bing is a wheat-based, Western/Northern Chinese flatbread. The smell of a steaming bing fresh off of the griddle was comforting. Its warmth in my hands on a cold winter day brought more comfort than my three layers of clothing ever did.
The yangrouchuanr was sold by a Uighur named YiLi. Uighurs are a Muslim minority from the far west of China. They look more like Afghans than Han Chinese. I always felt a kinship with the Uighurs. They had their tall noses and rounder eyes, just like me. YiLi taught me how to say hello, thank you, yangrouchuanr, and how to count to ten in his Turkish dialect. I still remember most of what he taught me. His lamb kabobs were cooked over charcoal. Four pieces of lamb and one piece of fat, sprinkled with middle eastern spices constituted each kabob. Everything was served medium-rare. YiLi was fucking Beethoven with that grill. Aaron Franklin has nothing on YiLi when it comes to grilling.
Deeper into the market were the jiaozi makers. Their pork dumplings were a favorite among the locals and the huge steamers never stopped churning out trays of dumplings that were scooped into plastic bags and handed to customers for a quick dinner.
On the way out of the market and back home, there always seemed to be enough justification for a cold KeKoKeLe with its universally recognizable red/white logo and bottle shape. Sometimes I didn’t have enough free fingers to hold it, though.
I found out a couple of years after I moved back to America that the Street Market had been bulldozed. The street had been expanded from two lanes to four. Economic Progress and the Beijing Olympics had begun removing the quaint parts of Tianjin. They only live on in my heart.