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I won’t take money for my socks!

“I won’t take money from you for my socks!” the sock lady cries, “Take them! They’re yours for free”.

“No ways, you’re crazy,” I mutter in Chinese. She is shaking her hand at me, palm raised in the classic Han Chinese gesture for NO. (This was like waving a red flag at a bull in my early days in China. I found it bloody offensive. But I was a lot more important five years ago.)

People stop and watch us, amused by the exchange between a stocky, bald foreigner and an almost spindly, excited middle-aged vendor of socks. Why is she being unreasonably generous? I think of the fruit left on my office desk every day by my Chinese colleagues. I do not like the school canteen food but the two ladies in my office area always leave fruit on my desk, including the most wonderful, plump navel oranges sometimes.

Today in Che Feng, Suzhou, the streets are the colour of tears, both of sadness and of mirth. The green on the plane trees have started to brown and yellow, but the leaves are still long ears out for new secrets, the latest gossip. I get that image because of the way the people are here: unbelievably friendly, gossipy, curious as squirrels, and love talking about me while I buy fruit or window shop. Their eyes are as sharp as the glint on buttons or teeth as they stare at me, smiling, cajoling me to buy their produce off carts or even the bonnets of their cars. One man is selling wallets which are strewn all over his black Buick, on the bonnet and the roof. He grins at me, pointing at the wallets (as if I can’t see them, I always think), nattering to his wife about me, wondering if I am an American (as always) and about my oh so strange blue eyes.

They just don’t get it. And it is hilarious at times: they somehow know I can speak Mandarin but are unable to process it. I love buying naartjies (mandarins, more or less) from a local fruit shop. The owners, typically lean Han Chinese, always grin and chuckle, loving having their only “foreign” customer. A woman stops and begins to buy fruit while nattering to the owners about me. “Is he an American? What is the foreigner doing here?” “Miss,” I reply with a chuckle, “I can speak Mandarin and you can ask me directly. I am not American; I am a South African. I teach English at Che Feng Primary school”. I gesture down the grubby street at the school, its buildings proudly pristine by contrast with this potholed road strewn with vendors, some just selling pumpkin. Under tarpaulins are billiard tables out in the open and there is the click of billiard cues as mostly twenty-something Chinese men in black leather jackets play and bicker around their clenched cigarettes.

“So he is a South African?” the woman asks of the shop owners. “How long has he taught at the school?” She understood me. She just can’t make the adjustment that she can speak to me. I have been in this triangular conversation several times in China, laugh, and bite into my delicious mandarin, sensing the hint of a pun on Mandarin and mandarin, me biting on my tongue, resisting scolding and teasing her in Chinese for not speaking directly to me about me.

Then I try to buy socks from this woman selling only socks on her cart. Socks for men, fake Nike socks, stockings for women, baby socks. But only socks. It is twelve RMB for six pairs of decent socks (about the same in rands), embarrassingly cheap. She refuses to accept the money. Incredulously, I start arguing, and then I recognise her. Nearly two months ago the school gave me a huge box of Chinese (duh) moon cakes and what looked like perfectly inedible overgrown chestnuts, prior to the traditional Chinese Autumn Festival. It was far too much for Marion and I to eat and I know Marion’s school would have lavishly given her similar gifts. So I had walked past the sock lady and gave the boxes to her. Her mouth gaped at the treasures and she had accepted them gratefully. I said, “The school gave them to me for free; it is too much and I did not want to be rude and refuse to take them.” My Mandarin is not that great but she got the message, eyes wide as a toddler picking up a Christmas present.

So now the penny drops. She feels she needs to give back in kind. I look at her; her smiley face webbed with a lifetime of being out in all weather doing heaven knows what kinds of menial work, like selling socks. Eventually I just leave a ten RMB note on her cart and walk away while she loudly protests. (Another day she even offers to share her breakfast with me as I amble past.)

Marion and I came back to China with just two suitcases and our tails between our legs about eight months ago. Our attempts to get New Zealand residency and all the family politics just about cleaned us out financially and emotionally.

Today I smile, shoving the socks into my pocket, feeling rich on these rain-washed streets that are the colour in tears on deeply tanned faces. And I am pretty sure when I get back to my office there will be my free lunchtime fruit glinting on my desk.

I am right.