I know what you’re thinking, and this is not a sappy, sad story about buying Christmas shoes for anyone on their deathbed. I don’t even like that song, to be quite honest, and I hesitated to title this post in such a way for that very reason. This is the story of my search for Justin’s kung fu shoes, which will be his Christmas gift this year (shhh…don’t tell!), and what it’s like to shop for Christmas presents in China.
Ever since we went on our trip to Beijing, I’ve known that Justin wants a pair of kung fu shoes. I’m not sure what exactly makes them different from ordinary shoes. Justin has a pair of them (or two!) at home in our storage unit already, but he didn’t bring any with him to China. They look a bit more light and more flexible than sneakers; the bottoms are almost as pliable as ballet shoes. When we were in Beijing, walking down rows and rows of merchants selling cheap Chinese souvenirs, Justin saw a display of Fei Yue kung fu shoes and practically started salivating. “What is it?” I asked. “I’ve always wanted a pair of REAL Fei Yues! Wow! Can you imagine me doing Wushu in those?” he replied, his eyes getting all distant and day-dreamy. “You should buy them!” I said. But he hemmed and hawed and made excuses about his Chinese not being good enough for bargaining with the merchants yet (he always has been a bit of a penny-pincher, even when it comes to buying something he really wants). When we returned to Huzhou, which has such a slight tourist population that there is really no market for the merchants who sell cheap Chinese souvenirs, we never happened to find another display of Fei Yue shoes, so Justin was never able to buy any.
Lately, Justin has been on the search for a shifu (kung fu teacher) who doesn’t charge exorbitant rates, because it would fulfill another bucket list dream of his to learn and practice kung fu while in China. We think that he may have finally found one just this past week, and I realized as I was puzzling and contemplating over what to buy him for Christmas, he will need some Fei Yues to wear to practice!
So, this past Monday I headed off by myself to downtown Huzhou, explaining to Justin that I was going to buy some Christmas presents for our friends. As shopping is a personal nightmare for Justin and the merest mention of it sets his eye twitching, that was all the explanation he needed to hear to steer clear of accompanying me. Armed with my little post-it note which read “Fei Yue, size 45” and wallet full of pink one hundred yuan bills, I took the city bus downtown to begin my search.
On my way, I passed by a shopping mall called Rainbow that I’d always wanted to check out, but could never convince Justin to go inside. I went inside and explored all FIVE floors, plus a glass encased bridge going over the street below (which was a store in itself) which connected side A of the mall to side B. It was huge! I nearly got lost in there, and ended up buying some souvenirs for family back home (which I can’t list here, because I know you all are reading and I want you to be surprised). After leaving the Rainbow mall, I was crossing Aishan Plaza and I saw a Chinese Santa! Justin and I had been wondering if we would ever run into one, and I swore if we did I would go sit on his lap. Unfortunately, this one was walking around instead of sitting, and also trying (unsuccessfully) to guide a Chinese snowman across the plaza, who kept tripping and bumping into every obstacle in his path. It was such a funny scene, especially considering that the Santa was very young (probably in his twenties), not even a little pudgy, and wearing a tie-on beard that would fail to fool even the most naive of children.
And I apparently showed up right when it was time for Santa and snowman to go on their bathroom break, because immediately after taking this picture, two more Santas showed up accompanying another snowman! The children were going wild, more excited to see the funny snowmen since they really have no clue who Santa is. I swear I saw one little boy kick a snowman in the shins and laugh heartily about it. The snowman didn’t seem to notice; he was having trouble just keeping his head aloft. However, when people started noticing that their was a foreigner in their midst, and began taking more pictures of me than of the snowmen, I knew I’d better leave before a crowd started to gather, so I walked in the direction of the bootleg movie store.
For some inexplicable reason, perhaps just because of his ardent hate for shopping, Justin has put me in charge of buying Christmas presents for three of the Chinese boys who we’ve befriended here (you can see all three of them in the post about Thanksgiving). I also got presents for the three girls, but that was no problem; I just have no ideas when it comes to boys. So in an effort to make things easy, I decided that they would all three be getting bootleg movies for Christmas.
If he’s never seen it before, William has a treat in store! Justin laughed later, when I pulled Top Gun out of my shopping bag to show him, but I have a good reason for choosing it! William really reminds me of Tom Cruise’s character in this movie….he is kind of a Chinese Maverick–a hotshot, a flirt, a bit of a charmer. I hope he’ll enjoy watching it (dubbed in Chinese)! I also purchased Eagle Eye with Shia LaBeouf for Mickery, described as a high-octane psychological thriller on the back cover. I bought Final Destination 5 for Prince, as he really seems to enjoy all things macabre, and the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice (yes, the five-and-a-half-hour long version) for Catherine. Admittedly, I originally purchased Pride and Prejudice for myself because my friends have been talking it up to me for years but I’ve never had the time to sit and watch it. However, when I popped it in the DVD player, I found that the audio was not in English Dolby Surround 5.1 like the back cover claimed, but it was all dubbed in Chinese with English subtitles. If you think Lydia Bennett is annoying and melodramatic in English, you’d better believe it’s just as exasperating (if not more!) listening to her whine on and on about boys in Chinese. I got about ten minutes in and decided I wouldn’t be able to sit through it for five hours, and gift-wrapped it for Catherine who told me once that she enjoys the story (let’s hope she REALLY enjoys it).
Well, at that point, I was thinking I’d had a pretty productive outing and started heading back toward the bus stop. Wait! I forgot the whole point of this trip! The Christmas Fei Yue shoes! My problem was, I hadn’t the slightest clue where to find them. China really has very few one-stop shopping centers, as I’ve mentioned in past posts. Most everywhere you’ll find tiny little shoebox-sized stores selling just a handful of goods, and if they don’t have what you want, you move on to the next shoebox store. I suppose that’s the way America used to be, before all of the corporations and conglomerates began taking over. So in a way, shopping in these little independent stores should be a very nostalgic, rewarding experience, knowing that the proceeds from my purchase are benefiting the little Chinese family who owns the shop and lives right upstairs (rather than benefiting some corporate man wearing a suit in a fifteenth-floor office somewhere). However, when I’ve waited until six days before Christmas and I’m really in a hurry so that I can get home in time to go to dinner with Justin, I found it to be rather inconvenient.
I visited five or six different shoe stores, some shoebox sized and some a bit larger, and repeated a scene somewhat along these lines: I approach the sales associate and say, “Fei Yue?” in a tone that I hope indicates that it’s a question. The sales associate giggles at me and says, “Shen ma?” (meaning “What?”). I get the little folded up post-it note out of my pocket and show them the words “Fei Yue, size 45.” The sales associate looks at me and slowly says, “Fei Yue?” like they’ve never heard the name before in their life. In desperation, because I’ve forgotten the words “shoe,” “brand/type,” and my book of Chinese phrases, I start picking up sneakers at random and pointing to the brand names on the heels, crying, “Fei Yue! Fei Yue! It’s a shoe for kung fu!” The sales associate looks at me like I’ve just escaped the nut house, and then calls over a few friends so they can also
help laugh at me. When the sales associate is finished laughing, they finally say, “Meiyou” (meaning “don’t have”).
I was beginning to think that maybe I should have gone on Amazon or something, but I knew it was too late for that now. As as last-ditch effort, I walked about a mile down the street toward the Lotus Garden Justin and I have visited many times before. I vaguely remembered passing a shoebox-sized sporting equipment store on our walk there, and I dimly hoped that they might carry sports shoes as well. When I finally reached it, I was happy to see some shoes in a display case, and a little old lady holding a baby came out to assist me. I repeated my routine again, and she also didn’t seem to have any idea what I was talking about. She said a bunch of things to me in Chinese, to which I would only woefully reply, “Wo bu mingbai” (meaning “I don’t understand”) and “Wo de zhongwen bu hao” (meaning “my Chinese is no good”). She started miming to me, and I thought I understood her to mean that she wanted me to stay in the store, to wait for “ta” (meaning either “him” or “her”). I stuck around for a few more minutes, and sure enough, a young woman pulled up to the store on a motor scooter and reached out to take her baby from grandma, who had immediately started crying for his mama as soon as he saw her. Lo and behold….”Fei Yue” struck a bell with this woman, and she reached into a wooden cupboard and pulled out a little brown paper bag containing a pair of brand new, white Fei Yue shoes in size forty-five!
I asked, “Duo Shao?” (meaning “How much?”), though at this point I was willing to pay almost anything. She replied, “San shi wu,” which I thought at first was 350 yuan. Yikes! I didn’t have that much left in my wallet! Then she typed it on a calculator for me to see, and it was only thirty-five yuan (about four dollars). A pretty cheap price for a pair of shoes, I think. Maybe my pair of Fei Yue is a knockoff of the real thing, but that at that point, I was just ready to call it a day.
I now know the satisfaction that comes with searching high and low and all over town for a gift the old-fashioned way–it’s a much deeper sense of accomplishment than simply purchasing something online. I walked back to the bus stop with a spring in my step, past the electronics store that constantly plays the song “All I Want For Christmas is My Two Front Teeth” on loop, and past the locals gawking at me and taking pictures of me with their cell phones. I rode back to campus on the bus, thinking about how it’s really time for me to start soaking up some more Chinese (or remembering to bring my phrase book with me when I go out). But I wasn’t feeling too down on myself. I had managed to accomplish a lot with my very limited Chinese vocabulary, and somehow, I understood enough Chinese words to know that the two girls seated behind me on the bus were debating whether I was American or British.
I hope Justin likes his present, or at least appreciates the effort I went though to find it for him. It’s five days until Christmas….do you have all of your shopping done?