The things you see when you look up from where you’re walking. I had a new business contact in Shanghai and so I got on the subway a bit early to make sure I could find the place before my appointment time. It was a snap, just a short stroll from a subway stop and I had about 45 minutes to kill. Sit in the lobby?
I decided to wander in search of a snack. Right outside the parking area of the high-rise is a small green space. A low wooden walkway makes an s-curve across to the street. As I crossed I noticed two women crouching in the grass, intent on something. They moved slowly, occasionally waving a hand through the green. I looked down at it from the walkway: clover. I wondered briefly, do people eat clover? My mother ate dandelion greens growing up. (They were poor, farming types; now you can find them in chic, green, eat-local restaurants for organic prices.) But these ladies didn’t seem to be picking much, just a very few. Clover. Four-leaf clover? Do people in China have a thing for four-leaf clovers as we do in the West?
I waved to one of them and gestured for a photo. She smiled and obliged, even held up the plants in her hand. “What is it?” I asked, hoping she knew some English. She seemed to understand either my words or the inquisitive look. She held up four fingers and pointed at the leaves. So there was my answer. I took the photo and she said, Kamsahamnida, thank you in Korean. I said it right back to her and she got excited and repeated it to her companion. They both waved, and I wandered off. I passed a big cathedral, not something I expected to find in Shanghai so much. Just beyond was a convenience store and I bought a bottle of milk tea. Hanging there nearby were packages of underwear. At a convenience store. Were the Chinese in the habit of being caught without a clean pair? Prone to accidents? Forgetful? Halfway to work, rushing along the sidewalk thinking, Why on earth are my pants so scratchy today??
A friend in Beijing tells me these convenience store briefs are for businessmen (and women) having affairs during the business day. There are also leather belts there too. “In case he forgets them in the hotel.” This of course gives a whole new meaning to a Quickie Mart. This explanation doesn’t quite add up for me, so I am open to more interpretation, dear readers. Unless it is a pre-quickie-purchase. There were a lot of tight varieties with flashy patterns that one might think of as sexy. Surely wearing these home as a replacement for lost drawers is going to be suspicious. “I don’t remember you having any leopard spotted underwear!” But having had a conversation with another American working in China who complains about his Chinese co-workers’ frequent and um, frightening restroom visits, I am more inclined to believe my accident theory.
Back in the street I watched a couple carefully unscrew the hardware from a pile of old cabinets. They were loading the splintered wood onto a bicycle cart to be sold or used again for some other purpose. Living off the scraps from the tables — or cabinetry — of the more fortunate.
The church gate was closed but I made eye contact with the guard in the window and he gave me the nod. Wasn’t sure if I’d have to whip out my Catholic club card or if he’d notice is long since expired. It’s a brilliant church, large stone pillars, plenty of stained glass, and of course, quiet from the hustle outside. I paused to take a couple photos which are forbidden by signage. Better to ask forgiveness than permission. See? I still remember the rules. A silly prohibition anyway. It was beautiful. Of what harm is a flashless photo? The sunlight was at the perfect afternoon angle and hit the stained glass which leaned toward blues and purples.
I headed back to my appointment and once again passed the two Korean women. This time the older one came to me with a gift. “Giffff” she said to me. The younger one, her daughter as it turns out, pieced together some English. She’s been working in Shanghai for three years, a good job, and she brought her mother to live with her. Her mother believed the clovers were good luck, and they placed them in books at home. “So not to eat?” No, no. My mother says you are kind. She wants you to have these. It was the best part of my week. I put them in a book in my luggage.
Days later in Xi’an, I sat down to lunch and my companions ordered a salad. I picked at it with my chopsticks to try to figure out what was in it. It was clover, of course, but only three leaves.