I was out shopping with three girlfriends on Saturday. We had three missions: finding this bartering shop (like a pawn shop) that I read about, going to a Holiday Market at a hotel and going out for dinner. Along the way, Martha thought tea would be a good holiday gift for her mother-in-law from Scotland. Thus, two teashops later, we were all seating around an ornate Chinese table and sipping different brews.
This tasting table is part of the Chinese tradition of tea. Tea leaves are placed in small pots and hot water is added, letting the tea seep. After several minutes, the tea is poured into one small cup, and then poured back into the pot. Then the tea is ready. The tea is then poured into small cups and delivered to each of us. As we finish, it is refilled. If you don’t want more, it is best to leave your cup partly full.
The first tea was an oolong. It was a green tea; very light and a bit of any earthy fragrance. Our second tea was a different version of oolong, one famous for this region. Because Martha’s mother-in-law was a black tea drinker, we asked about this. In China, black tea is called red (hong is how it would be pronounced in Mandarin). We tried one type that had a bit of a coffee taste. At the first teashop, a woman had shown us a big disk of tea. We asked about this and were show two amazing disks of compact tea that were imprinted with a horse picture and some Chinese characters. It was pretty impressive. You take a pinch off the disk when you decide to use it to make the tea. We tried both – one that was more “natural” and was suppose to help us lose weight – and one that was more similar to the black tea. They also brought us small tea snacks to eat with our tea; tiny granola bars with pumpkin seeds and tea in them.
We made for an interesting crew. Chin Ching, who speaks some Chinese, is a Malaysian woman married to the Scottish art teacher at my school. Martha is a Mexican woman who is married to the Scottish IT teacher at my school. Leanne is a British woman who teaches Humanities. The Chinese tea lady looked puzzled as Chin Ching described our nationalities to her. No matter, though, we were good tea customers and all walked out with some interesting and tasty purchases. In addition, I know more about tea buying.
The weekend before I was in Shanghai with three other girlfriends: Shannon from Australia, Alexis from Chicago and Judy from Texas. I used to teach with these ladies in Beijing and we met to celebrate Alexis’ birthday. We were wandering through an antique market street, when we came upon a large building that looked like another kid of market. Alexis, who has lived in China the longest, said I think it is a pet market and they might have crickets.
I have been pining to see a Cricket Market since last Fall when Alexis visited one in Beijing. Through her, I learned about the lives of fighting crickets and singing crickets. I wanted to see this for myself. As it turns out, I was in luck! Shanghai is located in the most famous province (Shandong) in China for crickets! For the next hour, I was entranced with all the market had to offer.
The market was heaping full of customers and crickets! You could hear the singing as we entered the market. You could smell the cigarette smoke as serious buyers were contemplating their purchases. Alexis says this is the Chinese culture of miniatures – bonsais, small birds and small insects. There were rows and rows, booth after booth of crickets for sale. The large green ones – ones I would call grasshoppers – were the singers. The small brown/black ones were the fighters. There were small cages/homes for the crickets that ranged from 300 RMB ($50) to the thousands. There were special training devices - long small sticks with a flexible end – called ticklers. There were cricket food bowls, furniture and even little cricket coffins for when the beloved cricket dies. It was an amazing journey into a very old and traditional Chinese subculture.
People often ask me about living so far from my roots, my home in the USA. There are certainly many things that are challenging. But most of the time, there are these opportunities to learn more about the world. And for that, I am very grateful.