‘Nostalgia’: Grocery shopping with my grandma (II)

This is a column about nostalgic thoughts of moments.

Finally, it was our turn. Amid all the jarring sounds, my grandma shouted to the owner, “Spare ribs please, not too much.” The butcher raised the knife, its silvery point hanging in the air for a second too long as it dropped to chop the pork in half. Pong! Startled, I squeezed my grandma’s hand tight. My grandma held my wrist tight in response and patted me on my shoulder. “Don’t be scared,” she consoled me, as she gently stopped me from using my hands to cover up my ears. Instead, she pushed me closer to the butcher to get a better view of how to chop the pork.

She wanted me to be brave, and apparently, being able to withstand the shrieking sound of pork cutting is her preferred badge of courage. I am not sure how that turned out, as I remain timid to this day, but it did perhaps help me enjoy the canon section in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture a bit more. Thanks, grandma.

Pong, pong. Another half … until the pork was sliced … into broken pieces. I watched, trembling with fear, and anxiously waited for him to finish chopping. 

The butcher placed the sliced section onto the scale and asked “Enough?”

“A little more, more, too much, good,” my grandma commanded as the butcher took down another section of the pork and added the amount accordingly. Finally done. I took the plastic bag of pork immediately and dragged my grandma out of the booth. We only made it a few steps before she took over the bag and looked inside to check the pork once more. Satisfied, she lifted the bag in one hand, held my hand in the other, and, unhurriedly, we walked out. 

Then, we arrived at the vegetable section. Eggplants, towel gourds, bitter gourds, cucumbers, carrots, white radish, lettuces, spinach, flowering cabbages, cabbage mustard and more dazzle my eyes. In the first booth, the owner is a newcomer, as the old vendor moved to another town. My grandma doubly eyed the vegetables. “How much is the lettuce?” my grandma inquired. “5 yuan 0.5 kilograms.”

 “Scam,” my grandma grumbled to me. “Never trust the newcomers,” she added as she furiously pulled me to another vegetable booth. 

“How much is the lettuce?”

“5.5 yuan 0.5 kg.” 

Insane. And so we walked further, this time to the third booth. 

Hearing the owner of this booth speaking the hometown dialect to her husband my grandma also speaks, my grandma immediately placed more trust in this booth. My grandma communicated in the hometown dialect to the owner, “How much is the lettuce?”

“3.5 yuan 0.5 kg.” Cheaper, as expected.

There was a saying that zijiren, which means people from the same place, would not lie to zijiren. I always find it interesting how people define the “same place.” Where do our obsessions with imaginary boundaries of different places and of “us” versus “outsiders” originate? I never knew if those more expensive vegetables were of better nutrition and taste or if they were actually a scam. Nodding in approval, my grandma took out her worm-eaten purse and handed her the cash. 

Taking the bag of lettuce, my grandma continued chatting to the owner in the dialect, asking her where she was from, how long she has lived in Shenzhen, if she has children, how old were her children, were her children in Shenzhen or their hometown … The conversation droned on for a while, and I was impatiently standing there looking at the far end of the market, shaking my grandma’s hand indicating that I wished to leave. After ages, my grandma finally bade goodbye to the owner, not forgetting to add on “I wish for your business to flourish this year” as I ruthlessly dragged her to leave. 

Our last stop is my favorite stop, and the only place that I like in the wet market: the beancurd booth that sells the smoothest beancurd jelly. I deserved a treat for enduring an hour in this humid wet market. The tender beancurd jelly booth always has a long line. We joined the line, and my grandma asked me to stay in line while she went over to the adjacent booth to buy soybean milk with a youtiao (deep-fried dough stick) — my grandma’s treat for herself I guess. 

I didn’t particularly like youtiao, and my grandma was allergic to soybeans. Thus, we worked well as a team, as I would drink the soybean milk while my grandma ate the youtiao.

My grandma came back with one wrapped in newspaper and a cup of soybean milk. “Take a bite at this,” my grandma nudged me. I reluctantly obeyed and took a small bite. Greasily sweet.

My grandma would go on explaining for the hundredth time how she would buy a youtiao every day after work as a child and share it with her siblings, which was the happiest time in her childhood. No wonder the dough stick is so sweet, and I am glad it is — a simple source of happiness.

Yet, I didn’t care as much about the dough stick as I cared about the wrapping of it. I would wait for my grandma to finish and flip the newspaper to start reading on the side that has not been tainted by the grease. Most of the time, the news covers events that are open to residents in Shenzhen, with long paragraphs of explanation that I couldn’t comprehend and never bothered to try to; instead, I would simply look towards the bottom of the page to decipher the photo instead. The photos were mostly random, from city views from the top of the local mountain to street views of people holding umbrellas on a rainy day.

Occasionally, I would find a graph on the bottom left column of the page with numbers that I could read. Those were my lucky days, when I would tell my grandma to buy a lottery ticket for me by choosing the number I read off the graphs. My grandma always believed that the lottery was a scam, but she would buy it for me after I wore her out every time.

I still haven’t ever won a lottery. 

As we got closer to the front of the beancurd jelly line, I closely watched the owner carefully scooping two spoons of jelly from the big bucket to every bowl, adding half a spoon of white granulated sugar to it and placing a yellow plastic spoon in each. I kept staring at each bowl that was taken by the customer in front of us. My grandma teased me, “How many bowls of jelly do you want? What about we buy back the entire bucket for you to have enough?” I laughed and answered “sure.”

When it was my turn, I asked for no sugar. Unlike most kids, I never liked the taste of sugar, for I feel like the sweetness only spoils my taste buds and makes other tastes bitter. I’d rather taste things in their most natural form, the unpolished and unfiltered originality that holds itself high for its utmost respect toward truth.

Yet, I would always use my timid body language — staring at the soup — to hint at the owner to add more soup to my bowl; I was ashamed of speaking in my nonstandard hometown dialect. Although proud of being able to speak the hometown dialect, my grandma never insisted I learn it. Maybe she wanted me to be more Shenzhenese, and I don’t regret her decision. Sometimes what is lost has to be lost, and holding onto it in memory is enough. 

Gingerly holding the bowl of hot jelly, I scooped a spoon with great care and savored it. The smooth, soft, gentle feeling down my stomach canceled out all the noises at the market. With the bowl of jelly in one hand, I contentedly held on to my grandma’s rough hand. Heads held high, we finally walked out of the wet market.

I was reluctant to accompany my grandma to the wet market. Now, I am grateful. When I visited the wet market in the San Francisco Chinatown the other day, flashbacks of these treasured moments of my usual summer days delightfully emerged. And so my grandma and I walked through the wet market once again together.