In Search of Prunes

I love Carrefour. Besides enjoying every visit in whatever country, I love the Carrefour logo.

When my wife, Meryl, and I arrive in a foreign city, the first thing we do is to head to a local supermarket.  On a trip to the Chinese province of Yunnan a few years ago, we had a memorable adventure which proves that this kind of excursion is a way to orient ourselves into the local culture. 

We had spent two weeks exploring Yunnan, the large province in the southwestern China sharing borders with Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.   We had concentrated on the high-altitude area stretching to the north into Tibet. Since we had jumped around from one hotel to the next, we decided to end our trip with a leisurely four-day stay in Kunming, the capital of the province.   

Yunnan, the province IN RED

Kunming is known as the “Garden City” and “The Eternal Spring City.”   We were staying in the centrally-located Sofitel Hotel.   In researching where to stay, I noticed we were within a 15-minute walk of the Carrefour supermarket, one of our favorite chains which has locations all around the world.  It is an expat’s dream since it features many international products as well as the full range of local items of the host country.    

For security reasons in most Chinese supermarkets, there are lockers located near the entrance to store your personal items.   However, since the instructions were only in Chinese, we must have had a confused look on our faces since we didn’t know where we could leave our backpacks.  A very friendly Chinese woman recognized our problem and motioned for us to follow her to a desk inside the store where we could also leave them.  With very limited English, she asked us what we were looking for.  Normally, visiting Carrefour was just a sightseeing excursion, but in this case, we were searching specifically for two items:  buckwheat tea and prunes. 

Some weird items

Luckily I had used Google Translate beforehand to search for both of these items so I was able to use the store’s Wi-Fi to retrieve the Chinese terms on my phone.  Buckwheat tea is a type of tea we discovered while traveling around Yunnan. But with so many varieties of tea in China, you can understand why it turned out to be pretty confusing to locate this less popular type.   With the assistance of a store clerk, we were taken to the exact shelf with about six different brands of buckwheat tea, but all with labels entirely in Chinese. Then out of the blue, the same helpful Chinese woman reappeared and asked us if we had found what we were looking for.  She even recommended which brand she preferred. 

Prunes, however, turned out to be a little more challenging.  The translation app didn’t provide an exact match and when we showed the Chinese characters to a few store employees, they were perplexed.  A few just shook their heads implying that they didn’t have prunes. One person finally led us to the produce area where there were aisles full of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as many types of dried flowers, leaves, seaweeds and mushrooms.

Regular-looking chickens and black chickens
The Chinese love their junk food. And in some strange flavors too!

The variety of dried items was overwhelming but we couldn’t find our beloved prunes.  If, we had been searching for chili peppers, we could have chosen from over 20 different varieties. Apparently we weren’t in the right department for dried fruits.

Then, as if our guardian angel had heard our prayers, or at least had observed our dismay, she reappeared and again tried to help us.  When I typed in “dried plums,” she finally understood what we meant. 

I’m sure it was very obvious that we didn’t understand a word of what she was saying in Chinese, but she was eager to help us!  She took us by the arm and brought us to another section of the store where we found packages and containers of dried items, again mostly with labels only in Chinese.  We saw all the common dried products including many we couldn’t identify.

Finally, our mystery helper found the dried fruits.  There were dried mangoes, papayas, mangosteens, tangerines, lemons, figs, and dates.  Eventually we came across the dried plums and she was ecstatic that she had succeeded. 

What surprised us the most was that this perfect stranger was so persistent!  It reminded us of when we were in Japan and appeared to be lost on a street and several people approached us and took us out of their way to find what we were looking for. 

But what was so remarkable here was that this woman kept on reappearing!   With our translation app, we found out that she was an ultrasound technician specializing in fetal imaging.  She was excited to find out that I was a pediatrician. 

Our Carrefour Guardian Angel

Throughout our trip to some very remote areas of China, we had experienced countless examples of such unusual friendliness.  Some of the looks that we received made us feel as if we were the first non-Chinese people with whom these people had ever interacted.  Just by saying a few words in Chinese, we had been invited into people’s homes and entertained and fed tea and cakes.

Despite the political differences our countries may have, the people whom we met on the street were so warm and accommodating especially in the more mountainous and rural areas.  We couldn’t imagine that people in the U.S. would ever extend Chinese tourists the same courtesy we received, but we’re sure going to try when we see an unfamiliar face back home.  I know I always go out of my way to help a group of strangers, but I’m not sure that I would have ever been as persistent as our Carrefour friend.  

We love Carrefour almost as much as Costco!

The Chinese Fan

This kind of story often seems to happen to me.

On one of our last days in Valencia, Spain where my wife, Meryl, and I had spent the summer, we were returning from last-minute shopping at the famous Central Market, one of our favorite spots in the city. 

Valencia, Spain

At 11 am, since it was already 88 degrees (31° C), we decided to take the bus back to our apartment.  We were lucky to get seats because the #32 bus is the one which travels from the downtown historic area through our neighborhood and then on toward the Mediterranean beaches.   

Sitting immediately in front of us was an older Asian man who was fanning himself with a strangely interesting fan, but not like the usual abanicos that are used by Spanish women on hot days.  It had unusual rose paintings on the front and Chinese lettering on the back.   

As the bus filled up, an older lady boarded the bus and the Asian man moved his packages to allow her to sit next to him.

“It’s so beautiful!”

She admired his fan, first determining that he understood Spanish.  After acknowledging that he spoke Spanish, he immediately offered her the fan.  At first, she refused politely, but he insisted.  You could tell by her reaction that she was going to treasure this gift from a perfect stranger.

Admiring her gift
Getting off the #32 bus

A few minutes later, the Asian man signaled to the driver that he was getting off at the next stop which happened to be our stop.  Since he was carrying some very heavy bags of groceries from a Chinese market, I offered to help him. 

As we were getting off the bus, he proceeded to tell me his whole life story!

Telling me his life story

He was 72 years old, originally from Saigon, Viet Nam but had escaped by boat during the Viet Nam war to Hong Kong.  He had emigrated to Spain 24 years ago because of some Chinese friends.     While there are many Chinese people in Spain, he explained to us that there were very few Vietnamese people in Spain because most of them wound up choosing France as they left Asia.  This is partly because of the historical connection of France and Vietnam.

Our friend told us that he has several daughters, one of whom works with his wife in their nail salon which was directly across the street from our apartment.

After we helped him bring his packages to his apartment which was about five blocks in the opposite direction from us, he invited us upstairs.  I was surprised that Meryl went along with me so willingly since she is usually much more cautious than I am with strangers.  He offered us water, tea and cookies and then he walked over to a cabinet on the other side of the room and took out some things to show us. 

“One fan for each of you.”   He continued by giving us each a beautiful silk Chinese shirt and pants.

Packing up our gifts

“My gift to you,” he explained in very heavily accented Spanish, “for helping me so nicely.”  We sat and talked and he gave us details about how he had fled Saigon in the late 70s during the boat crisis and how he had lived in Hong Kong for several years before coming to Spain.

As we left his apartment, he walked with us back to our neighborhood because he wanted us to meet his wife and daughter at their nail shop.  While there, he again thanked us effusively for helping him.  We in turn told him how much we enjoyed the experience of meeting him and how much we appreciated our unexpected gifts.   

I wish that this experience wouldn’t have happened on one of our last days in Valencia.  I would have liked to have gotten to know our new friend better.  

My new best friend