One particular morning, I was feeling energized and not my usual lazy self. It coincided with the day my grandmother had to buy some ingredients for that day’s timely feasts.
So at 9am in the morning, we walked out with my grandmother’s purple shopping bag and my wallet, and headed toward the market place.
In typical Chinese countryside fashion, the market place wasn’t so much as a place as it was all up and down the main streets, yes, plural, streetS of the town. If you have lived your entire life having never landed in the backwaters of China’s rural towns, then you have missed out on some of life’s most spectacular busy, bustling, guts-and-gore grocery runs.
Even I, who’ve been exposed to these grocery trips in my childhood, was shocked and quite frankly, disgusted. Compared to the pristine, gleaming shelves of Safeway, Monoprix, and Marunaka, where meat is laid out neatly cut and packaged, the dirty, smelly, crowded market streets of rural China is a real jolt to the system.
Ducks are quacking as they are being tied up, sold and picked up by their wings and carried off to be slaughtered on someone’s front steps (yes, it’s a community here in the countryside, we share our every slaughter and feather-plucking session with our neighbours).
Fish are pulled out of the make-shift fish tank in the back of a three-wheeled bicycle cart, heads chopped off right there and then, skinned, gutted, cut into pieces and sold off at the customer’s request. The man doing all of this is standing in a stream of water-and-blood.
Exposed, naked chunks of relatively expensive beef would be hanging from other makeshift tricycles, swinging beckoningly as the seller rides it down to his usual sales spot among the chaos while their wives swat away at the hungry flies.
Chickens peck their way out of the yellow or white rice bags that is their prison, only to be pulled out a few moments later and put into a buyer’s basket.
Old ladies squat behind their baskets of vegetables, or weigh a bunch of their produce in the old weight on a scale inaccurate measuring tool, waving the green around in their hands as they argue about the price with a particular hardcore customer.
Bargaining tones are ringing out far and wide, meeting in midair with other bargaining conversations to make for a fine climax to the musical.
This is no place to act privileged and spoiled by Western cleanliness and manners. Where do you think meat comes from? I’d humbled myself by asking rhetorically as I make a disgusted face at great, raw ribs lying on the chopping board or at seeing the river of blood running through the entire street.
The food might differ from province to province or sometimes even from town to town, and thus the marketplace might sell different assortment of produce according to its native tongue, but it will always be the busiest, most chaotic crossroads between food and people, farmers and buyers, friends and strangers, townspeople and their micro-cultures. If you are observant enough, tough-skinned (especially when it comes to smell because the smells of this place aren’t its most pleasant attractions) enough, you could sit all day and take it in, one ingredient, one person, or one conversation at a time.
This is the place to find everything a Chinese table need when it comes to feasting time. This is the place where various strands raw, naked Chinese culture converge. There are no niceties, no formalities, no order. It’s just a continuous rise and fall and rise again of human interaction, with each other and with food.