Nostalgia: Grocery shopping with my grandma (I)

This is a column about nostalgic thoughts of moments.

“Take the key, let’s go.” My grandma nudged me.

Yearning, I followed her out of the house bleary-eyed. It was 7 a.m. The diligent sun had competitively sled to a high position, penetrating every crack of all. Yet, pearls of tears were leaking from the sky. It was drizzling again, the typical weather of the coastal city of Shenzhen, China. Gently, the daylight nourished me and slowly dragged me back into the living world.

It was summer again. Another day following the routine. I lived with my grandma, who took care of me when both of my parents went to work. I liked the freedom of not being watched by my parents, even if it meant having to go grocery shopping with my grandma every early morning. I never quite understood why my grandma had to go grocery shopping so early. She always told me “the early bird catches the worm,” but I have yet to see groceries ever being sold out. Perhaps it is just her faith in time, in being ready to ride the earliest momentum of the day. According to her, the early morning is always the most natural state of the time that unfolds all the possibilities in life, if you are ready for it.

I lingered behind her a bit, holding on to the back of her floral shirt as we walked down the street. We turned a corner, went straight to the end of the narrow alley, turned left, passed a few blocks until we reached the crossroad, turned right and followed the boisterous sounds of talking, shouting and bargaining. Here we were, at the wet market. I never enjoyed staying in the wet market. The floor is always sticky, crowded with people shouting. The men by the entrance of the market are always twisting, bending and tossing the dough, throwing off flying white particles onto my face. The meat grinder and the blender are always operating at maximum volume, dominating and occupying every possible imagination of my ear. The air is stuffed with the pungent scent of all kinds of fish in curious shapes and forms — fishiness is the exact adjective that summarizes the wet market — together with brutal animal blood. I shuddered whenever I got close to the animal blood to walk past it (as the market is unfortunately usually one-way because it is too crowded) — a sense of insecurity diffused from my conscience. How pretentious we are as human beings that we openly take all other species for granted. The customer and the owner at each booth are always bargaining over the price and arguing over whether the weight is fair. As I was small, my white shoes would always be stepped on by some large aunts who left marks of blood, tears and plastic, and I would be constantly jumping and stretching my legs to kick off dust and mud.

My grandma led me to the seafood booth first, because fresh seafood was usually the most popular. The seafood booth’s owner warmly waved at my grandma and greeted her. “Long time haven’t seen. How are you? This…your granddaughter?” He signaled me by nodding and looked at my grandma.

“Yes, this is my granddaughter from my second son. She grew up here, in Shenzhen,” my grandma proudly pronounced as she patted my shoulder. I didn’t quite understand her pride in emphasizing that I was from Shenzhen until I learned about the great efforts my father put in to relocate the family’s hukou from a village in my hometown, Chaoshan, to Shenzhen so we could permanently live in better conditions. Yet, my grandma always prefers Chaoshan by constantly looking forward to going back to visit and claiming how much cheaper and better quality things are there. She lived in her memory, and I do too.

“Any good fish today? What’s the price?” My grandma continued as she suspiciously eyed the pack of fish laid out.

“I just got a batch of fresh small wild sea fishes here. There are also some fresh scallops. All arrived this morning. Very fresh.” The seafood booth’s owner pointed toward the batch on the left in his sticky salty gloves. 

My grandma scrutinized the mandarin fish on the edge closely, flipped the fish to examine its other side and finally nodded at the owner to weigh the fish. The owner swiftly picked up the fish from the water pound, laid it on the iron plate on the balance and weighed it. One kilogram — about two pounds. Indeed a fat, juicy fish. My grandma took out some crumpled notes from her purse and handed them to the owner, in exchange for a red bag containing the still hopping fish.

Next, we headed to the meat booth section. We waited in line. Fore hock, spareribs, loin and shoulders were hung haphazardly on hooks. The butcher was rapidly taking down the section of the pork that the customer wanted, violently chopping the meat as though producing the dissonant sounds would disrupt the repetitiveness of the monotonous work, and scooping the meat into a black plastic bag. The aunts in front of us blocked my view of the pork. I anxiously stretched my neck to see which sections of the pork are still left.

It was then that my grandma asked me, “What other dish do you want to eat tonight? We have this steamed fish. What about taro braised spareribs? Or sour sweet ribs?”

“Taro spareribs, taro spareribs!” I excitedly shrieked. My grandma is a very decent cook, and one of her best dishes is taro spareribs. Oh, how I missed those moments of delight when I smelled the scent of the freshly-cooked taro spareribs and watched the hot smoke deliciously escaping into the air… (to be continued)