Another cigarette burns in his hand. Even though he sits down all day, it is tiring. Tiring because not much happens. Only at certain times is he busy, the rest of the time he just sits there smoking and watching the small black and white television. Willing each person that passes to come in to the shop. Even for a few minutes, just to have some company. His favourite time is when the foreigners finish class, he can laugh and joke with them, ask them about their country. They will sit and smoke with him, sometimes have a beer.
Outside the shop is a building site. They are building a new subway. He remembers the times when there were no subways, people rode their bikes, caught the bus if they were lucky. The new pavements and roads covering up the city he remembers from his childhood. The long days giving him time to reminisce. The days that were more difficult but they were more innocent. Money wasn’t the only thing driving people. Now he makes money but has no time to spend it. No time to eat with his friends, closing the shop has become unthinkable.
A small child comes into the shop with her mother. A red scarf wrapped around her neck. Red, the colour that became such a large part of his life. Not just his everybody’s. This child here in front of him buying sweets will skip off happily to school, unaware of how it was just a short time ago. Thinking back to the time when he was young and there was no school, only political education. School was for the bourgeoisie, the reactionaries. A time when school children and students packed their bags and headed to Beijing to join rallies and denounce people. A time that shouldn’t be looked back with fondness but he does.
One of the foreigners from the university walks in. His Chinese is broken but understandable. The shopkeeper says ‘hello’ getting a smile from the tall black haired European. He buys a packet of cigarettes and hurries off, the shopkeeper wondering why they always seem so rushed. It wasn’t so long ago that he had never seen a foreigner before, now he sees them all the time. Maybe when he did have class he should have learned better English. Still, what use would it be to him now?
A young lady comes in, not long after the foreigner has left. She wants to know if there is somewhere nearby that she can fix her phone. He points her across the road, watching as walks off without a thank you. He shakes his head, they should take the phones away from young people. It’s all they seem to do. He laughs to himself as he reaches back behind his counter, grabbing his cigarettes and the phone that he bought last year. At least he knows how to say thank you.
He gets up and stands outside his shop. Passing the time. Waiting for the next person to come in so he can try and strike up a conversation, hoping they will stay just a bit longer. The streets are quiet, the midday sun keep people inside. He sits back down and turns on his small black and white television. Another drama about the war. A single man killing forty Japanese soldiers. Bringing up a new contradiction for him. The small timid Japanese girl that visits the shop each evening, always polite, always asking how he is. The television telling him he’s supposed to hate her, but he can’t bring himself to do it.
Three more foreigners come in. They call him ‘the boss’. These are his favourites. They ask him questions about himself. They offer him cigarettes, standing outside the shop smoking and laughing together. They tell him stories from their own countries, why they’ve come here. He still can’t understand why they would come here. Leaving countries that are developed, have lots of money. They come here to learn Chinese, but they never say why. It’s always the same answer, they’re not sure, they just want some adventure. He can’t understand why anyone would want adventure.
The migrant workers outside are sitting down having finished their work for the day. Drinking rice wine and smoking cigarettes. Far away from their families and home that they only visit once a year. They come into the shop to join him. Some company at last. The workers are symbols of modernity. They build the new subways and new roads, the new shopping centres. They are the same age as him, as they drink and smoke he wonders if they have the same contradictions as him. Do they look back at a time that was more harsh, less free with such nostalgia? Do they struggle to understand this new world too?
When I was at university in China studying Chinese there was a small shop just outside the gates. When I had time I would sit with the owner and talk with him. He would often talk about how much simpler life used to be, even if it was of a worse standard. He took great curiosity in us foreigners too, always asking questions. He inspired me to write this, having lived in China for six years I often wondered how people of a certain generation who lived through poverty and the Cultural Revolution view and cope with the sudden changes they’ve been through. 老板儿 (laoban’r) is Sichuan dialect for ‘boss’ or ‘owner’ which is what most people called him.