A Canadian in Beijing: Lost in the Market and Laughing

With a rickety gate marking one of the main entrances, the market spills out on both sides. There are stalls of all shapes and sizes featuring all kinds of items whose colours cascade down tiered bins and flowing displays. All of the visual action splashes into my senses. The different smells from each stall curl into each other in comfort as we pass through and into the heart of the market.

I am taking it all in.

We are caught in the current of the Sunday shopping crowd and we move slowly through the stalls examining the wide variety of items for sale. I have a moment of feeling like we blend in well (despite the fact that I’m obviously a “waiguoren” or foreigner.) Well, perhaps we don’t exactly blend in considering I look so different and we’re speaking English together, but shopping with David, my Chinese-Canadian friend, makes it a little easier than shopping with a bunch of other non-Chinese folks. People are curious about us but kind and open. Before long, we are having lots of conversations about where we’re from and why we’re here. I don’t see any other foreigners in this market except for us.


Maybe it’s because the market is tucked away in a western Haidian area where tourists rarely go. This is the kind of market that I love the most. It’s slightly dirty with rinds and pits and lychee skins all over the sidewalks from snacking shoppers. There are stalls that look like hovels and/or temporary residences. Kids with dirty faces, bare bottoms and round open eyes are playing with dried nuts from a dried food stand. Vendors are taking naps everywhere in the thirty-two degree heat. (In fact, is there something about garlic that makes people sleepy?!)

Strung everywhere are tarps for shade. Because they are strung up by the individual stalls, they are all different colours as though we’re at a summer campsite where space is extremely limited forcing all the tents to intertwine. Some of these tarps hang a bit low and graze the tops of our heads as we pass. Sometimes we even need to duck.

David complained about the dangling ropes from the tarps reminding him of dangling spiders and I stopped to consider such an image before photographing the offending twine. These ties sometimes catch your head as you pass and if you haven’t noticed them, then it is a slightly creepy feeling, I agreed. Although I’m not arachnophobic, I probably wouldn’t appreciate a bunch of spiders in my hair! We steered around them after that, laughing each time.

Dave and I first discovered this market on the way to The Summer Palace a few weeks ago. At that time, we glanced in at the entrance but couldn’t tell what kind of market it was but agreed to return and investigate. Besides, we were headed for history. Today, we were on a market mission.

Mission successful. This is my favourite marketplace so far.

In this market (whose name I still don’t know), there are fruits and vegetables, breads, steamed buns, oils and nut butters, meat, fish, household supplies, clothing, tea, dried foods of all kinds, antiques, you name it. In fact, I couldn’t quite identify this market as anything but a “general market” if I tried. I could buy lingerie, hoses, brooms, tea, jewelry, fruit and fresh bread while also stocking up on my plumbing supplies if I so desired! It’s amazing.

Row after row of stalls kept making our bags heavier as we purchased dried foods to send home, mangosteens, lychees, and this nut butter that is sort of a combination between peanut butter and tahini. The one cloth shopping bag I brought wasn’t enough for our spontaneous purchases that were now spilling out of additional plastic bags.

Then, we found ourselves at a teashop.

I have been into tea this week, as you know, and I had already bought some chrysanthemum flowers for tea at a different stall – a flavour I truly love here and haven’t seen back home in its raw state. But, the woman at this tea stall was extremely warm and gracious. She spoke Chinese clearly and slowly and we soon found ourselves seated on stools inside the shop and accepting her offer to let us sample various kinds of teas.

She started with a type of tea that looks like a ball. When put into the water, it opened up into the flower that it is and is extremely beautiful. She said that one cup of this tea in a local downtown restaurant or tea house (like the one I went to this week) is about 160 kuai (very expensive by Chinese standards) and Dave confirmed her story. She made one cup of this tea for us and it was a beautiful flavour to top off the beautiful presentation. I watched it opening like a little kid staring into an aquarium. After tasting it too, I knew I had to have a few of these incredible bulbs to bring home for a special (tea) occasion! 40 kuai got me about 8 of them… and that’s pricey but sure beats the cost of tea in the tourist districts.

Of course, that was not all. She began to make us another pot of tea and each time heated the water perfectly, warmed the cups, measured the tea with precision and handled all of the tea tools like the pro that she was. A cup of “pu-er” tea was next on the list and we sipped and exclaimed as she described the properties and why this tea was good for you and when to drink it, etc.

An hour later, we were still in this little tea stall and we had sampled about ten different flavours of tea and had become quite chummy with the shopkeeper and several other customers. She would have kept pouring, too, had I not felt suddenly that we should buy our many items and get heading back home. In fact, I’m not sure the tea would have stopped flowing had we not stood up to leave, protesting yet another flavour she was pulling from the shelf. I laughed out loud at the feeling like I was going to float away!

We all laughed.

Dave bought a lot. In fact, he is the perfect guy to shop with because he is easily convinced to buy more when it’s cheaper to do so and vendors love him! He came away with several different flavours of tea as well as some “feng mi” or honey. (The honey here has a different flavour – it’s sweeter!) I also bought two metal travel mugs for a mere twenty-five kuai each (around $3 Canadian) that come with a built-in infuser. Those will be a welcome addition to our travelling supplies.

We left the stall in great spirits and with bellies sloshing, filled with tea of all kinds. I wondered if all of those medicinal properties combined together would cancel each other out, but if our moods were any indication of tea’s effects then I’d say that it’s all positive!

Losing oneself in a tea stall nestled deep in an authentic Chinese market in an outer district of Beijing feels like a luxurious weekend pastime. I smiled at my life. “Look at me!” I thought, “I’ve tucked myself into this corner of Beijing and it is just my size.”

Then, I popped a lychee into my mouth and let the sweetness roll around in my smile.