Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Clicking Of The Walnuts

Walk by a middle-aged or elderly man here in China, and chances are you will hear a faint, strange (to your waiguoren ears) kind of scraping noise as you stroll past. This is especially likely to be the case in parks and other areas where a sense of leisure fills the air.

There are visual clues as well, but these are equally as subtle as the sounds. Look closely at the man's hands, which he may be holding behind his back as he meanders along. If you get a good glimpse, what you will see is a pair of walnuts. Yes, walnuts. Watch and be soothed as the man uses his fingers to rotate the walnuts in his hand or to otherwise move them back and forth in his palm.

Now fast forward to the cacophony of Panjiayuan, one of Beijing's biggest and loudest markets for antiques, porcelain, and just about any kind of junk you can imagine ever wanting to own. For me, a trip to Panjiayuan is primarily about two things...

1. Practicing my Chinese as I go from stall to stall bargaining with the assembled merchants, usually on Desi's behalf. Memorably, it was at Panjiayuan where I purchased a lovely piece of crystal for fifty kuai, down from the original asking price of five hundred. (Yes, you really need to push hard out there on the mean streets of Beijing!) As time goes by, however, the need for my Chinese is getting less and less. Z, in particular, has taken over more and more of the negotiations as his oral comprehension has skyrocketed in recent months.

2. Looking for a product that I myself would be interested in buying. This is an especially hard problem for me to figure out. You see, I simply don't like most "stuff." So how do I occupy myself while Desi, Julie, and Z excitedly troll Panjiayuan for stuff they will always cherish?

On our last jaunt, I decided to focus on walnuts. What is the cheapest price I could bargain for on a pair of walnuts that would be my "meet in Beijing" walk around companions?

This turned out to be a lot more complicated than I anticipated at the start of the day. It turns out, you see, that all walnuts are not created equal. Apparently, there is a lot to consider. The two walnuts you select have to be reasonably close in size to one another, or else they do not make for comfortable spinning partners in your palm. And then there is texture, color, and other dimensions along which walnuts naturally vary.

Still, I figured, how difficult could it be to find a suitable pair, especially for a newbie like me who doesn't appreciate most of this nuance, at least not at this early point in my walnut consciousness?

I'll tell you how difficult...

When I started asking around about price, I got a litany of answers that together boggled my mind, even after all of this time spent living in China.

Thirty kuai...Fifty kuai...Five hundred kuai...One thousand kuai...

No, those last two prices are not typos. My ears, though, originally took them as such. When a merchant replied to my question with yi qian kuai, I stood there kind of befuddled. Truth be told, even though my ears understood the sounds, my mind couldn't process the answer. A thousand kuai!? Nah...I just must have heard wrong...

The seller pressed me a little. "I can go cheaper. What is your price? These are really pretty walnuts!" All I could do was mutter something incoherent under my breath and move helplessly along.

Fully aware that there was no chance I would be able to make sense of all of this variation in walnut quality and price, at least not today, I shifted gears pretty quickly. I instructed Z to see if he could get this one particularly cheap pair for ten kuai, which, predictably, he pulled off in a matter of seconds.

Now, though, as I meander along, making that crunching noise that drives Desi absolutely batty, I can't help but wonder if my fellow walnut-toting Beijingren are snickering about the poor quality accouterments that crazy waiguoren is carrying around like an amateur.

Along these lines, one guy out near the Temple of Heaven came up and asked me how much I paid for my walnuts. When I told him, he replied, hen pianyi. "Really cheap." Before I could feel good about this score, he blurted out, jia de. "Those are fake." I nodded in agreement, throwing in a kending jia de ("definitely fake") for good measure.

The sad, embarrassing part about that exchange? I have no idea what was really going on there. Are they fake walnuts? Are they walnuts of some type that no self-respecting Chinese man would be caught using?

For now, though, I prefer to spin away in blissful ignorance...

~Steve

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