Stories: Fruit Salad

Not many years ago, before the arrival of the ZPMC company, which manufactures a large percentage of the world’s port loading equipment, and the Jiangnan Ship Yard, considered to be one of the largest in the world, ChangXing Island was known for its oranges. Many of my teacher friends grew up on the island and fondly remember childhoods in a more rural setting, one with fewer people and more orange groves. Many homes, and some orange groves were recently razed by the authorities to make room for these sprawling, new high-tech industries. My friend Guoming and his parents are among many who had to leave their homes and have been awaiting completion of new high-rise apartments the government has promised them.

But there are still many acres of orange groves on the island and many people still make a living from them. In addition to the people who pick and package the oranges, many sell them on the streets. Some do business in small, permanent stalls while others haul them around in hand-pulled or bicycle-pulled carts, setting up for business wherever they think is best for the day. In this YouTube video, you can see vendors doing a brisk business right outside the island’s ferry terminal. Sugar cane stalks and assorted live seafood are also sold at that location to the many people commuting between the island and Shanghai. It was often difficult to move around in the ferry boat as large bags of oranges and small bags of live crabs were left in the aisles, near where their owners were seated.

ChangXing Island oranges are very sweet, peel easily like a tangerine and have no seeds, making them a nice treat. During the fall, they are in great abundance and many teachers bring bagfuls to the office for all to share. They were also frequently offered to me by the owner of a small convenience store near the school. This lady became my friend despite our inability to talk much and I think a lot of her customers gave oranges to her. One time, at the ferry terminal, I tried to buy just five oranges for myself. I’m pretty sure the elderly lady who was selling them understood my request (“wu ge jui zi”) but I had shown her a 10 yuan note and it was clear she was pretending she thought I wanted to buy 10 yuan’s worth. She continued to fill a plastic bag long after five oranges were added and ignored my repeated attempts to make it clear I only wanted 5 oranges. She configured her ancient, hand-held scale to level out when the bag reached the weight appropriate for a 10 yuan purchase and there must have been 30 or 40 oranges in the bag at that point. Her obvious delight at having a paying customer in the rain and my knowledge that 10 yuan meant a lot more to her than to me, led me to accept the transaction on her terms. As I walked away, I started peeling and eating the oranges but the bag was pretty heavy for the quarter-mile walk back to the school. So I began looking for others to share them with. I offered oranges to everyone I passed – “Ni yao jui zi ma?” – and, without exception, all vigorously declined my offer with shaking heads and waving hands. Perhaps they thought I was trying to sell them but, more likely, they just didn’t want any more oranges. I imagined them thinking… “Jeeese! Now, even the foreigners are pushing the oranges!”

In October, my grade 4 advisor Karen asked me to develop a lesson to augment the textbook lesson describing the making of a fruit salad. She suggested my lesson could include making a real fruit salad, thinking the kids might enjoy seeing the preparation of a western-style recipe. So I developed a few PowerPoint slides to introduce the lesson and then set off to get the things I would need for a fruit salad. I purchased apples, oranges, bananas, and grapes at a local fruit stand – after asking friends how much I should pay for them. In China, none of these familiar sounding fruits is exactly the same variety we have at home. The Chinese have an amazingly large and diverse array of fruits and vegetables, some of which I couldn’t even categorize in familiar terms (“…is this a pear?”) But I found fruits that resembled those I had in mind and bought enough for preparing the salad three times: one for each of my three 4th grade classes. Karen borrowed a large stainless steel mixing bowl and spoon from the school cafeteria and I bought an inexpensive paring knife and peeler. On the day of the class, I washed all the fruit in my room and took a couple of wet towels with me to the classroom, thinking I might let the kids help prepare some of the fruit and they could wash their hands on the towels first.

After a few PowerPoint slides practicing the English words associated with making a fruit salad, I pulled out the fruit and the other things I needed. There was great excitement in the room at the prospect of making, and eating, a fruit salad and it felt great to see we were off to a good start. Peeling was one of the words that was new them so I made a point to clearly demonstrate the peeling of an apple. I held up the apple in one hand and had them repeat after me – “Apple!” Next, I held up the peeler in the other hand and had them repeat…“Peeler!” Then, holding both high in the air so all could see, I dragged the peeler gently along the apple’s skin, producing a long, thin shaving and leaving the whitish core exposed. “Ooooooooooohhhhhhhhhh” they all cried together. I don’t think they would have been more impressed if I had pulled a rabbit out of a hat. But just as I was savoring the audience’s delight, I felt a wincing pain in my left index finger. I had carelessly nicked it at the end of my stroke. Now I will readily admit that I’m an amateur in the kitchen – but I didn’t want them to know that! Thinking that it was probably going to bleed a little, I quickly grabbed one of the wet towels on my desk, wrapped it around my left hand and held it in front of me, slightly higher than my heart. I could see some red stain in the towel so I knew there was some bleeding but I continued teaching not wanting to alarm the kids. I motioned to the Chinese teacher in the back of the room (Mr. Zhu) to please join me up front, where I quietly asked him if he could take over the peeling and cutting process as I had cut my finger. We accomplished this handoff pretty smoothly and I was feeling pretty clever about concealing the finger that continued to bleed. Only when I saw a little girl in the front row staring at my arm with a look of horror on her face did I realize there was blood streaming down my forearm. So now it was obvious to all what I had done and we finished the class with the one-armed foreign teacher describing what the Chinese teacher was doing. Afterward, I determined the cut was fairly minor – but its location on the fingertip led to the heavy bleeding. I went straight back to my room and applied a band-aid and it was fine.

This incident provided one of my first opportunities to see the power of Chinese word-of-mouth communication (aka gossip.) When I got back from my room, I stopped by the third-floor teachers’ office (my office was on the fourth floor.) As soon as I entered, one of the teachers asked me about my accident. When I asked how she had heard so quickly, she told me that someone at the middle school (a different school) had told her on the phone! Within minutes, the news of the “…American who had cut his finger…” seemed to be all over the island. I found the whole thing pretty embarrassing but no one seemed to want to tease me too much about it so it was fine.

When I returned to that class the following week, I enjoyed the solicitous attention of two or three little girls who wanted to see my finger to be sure it was healing OK. One held my hand in hers, caressed the now-healing wound and held it to her cheek gently. It’s nice being the object of a little girl’s crush 🙂

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