A 小卖部 (xiao mai bu) is a small store selling a limited range of everyday products. Most housing complexes I’ve lived in in Beijing have had a few xiao mai bu around the place. Most are family businesses, and may also be the family’s residence – which allows them to keep very long hours. They’re perfect for when you realise you’re out of sugar, or washing powder, or something small like that. They’re a handy place to pick up a cold drink on the way home, or to get eggs without having to transport them home on your bike/scooter/bus. Many can also arrange delivery of the 20L water bottles we all use.
Right inside the gate to my complex, on the ground floor of my building, is an apartment converted into a xiao mai bu. The first floor of the apartment is crowded full of shelves and fridges and freezers stocked with all sorts of products – drinks, staple foods, condiments, snacks, paper goods… all the basics. The second floor of the apartment is a residence for the family who run the store. Sometimes only one person is minding the shop, other times a whole bunch gather together to chat while being available to customers. The woman I think of as the manager (as she seems to be more in charge of things than anyone else) is probably about 40. There’s also her husband, her younger brother, her parents, and a young girl and younger boy – I think her daugher and nephew. Some of the family certainly live upstairs but I’m not sure who exactly. The others must live close by considering how often they are all there.
When I first moved in I was very happy to have a convenient xiao mai bu to go to. I connected with the “manager” over the cross stich she was working on – we talked about different cross stitch designs we’d each worked on. Chinese women are always surprised and impressed that I do cross stitch. They call it “Chinese cross stitch” and think of it as a Chinese art form – hence their surprise that a foreigner does it too!
A few months later while I was buying eggs she gave me a mobile phone number, telling me that next time I need something I could just call and have them bring it up to me. I must admit I’ve done so a few times. As lazy as it feels to call a store in my very own building it’s very convenient to be able call and get eggs or milk if I find I’m short of what I need to complete a certain recipe.
This week I’ve had a few lovely interactions with the manager and her family, and it makes me miss them before I’ve even left. One day the young girl (about 10?) was sitting by the counter when I came in. As I prepared to make my purchase the manager came over but stood just to the side as the young girl proudly stood behind the counter worked out the prices and gave me the total *all by herself*. She even proudly announced the total in quite decent English.
Another time I ordered a new big water bottle, and the manager brought it up herself on a little hard cart. The chaos of packing was obvious even from the doorway so I explained that I’m moving soon, and we chatted a little about my reasons, and about how it will be nice to be near my grandparents. She asked a question that presumed I am married (very common) and when I explained I’m not married she asked my age. I told her I am 32 and then, to my surprise, she said “Eh, you’re still young, there’s no rush.” I’m hearing this sort of attitude more often in recent years, and given that it is pretty much the opposite of what I heard a few years ago, it seems to show a significant shift happening.
These sort of interactions are one of the things I’ve loved most about living in this country – and the things I will miss when I leave. It makes me love speaking Chinese, and the way it helps me (forces me?) to think from another culture’s viewpoint. It makes me want to learn more languages, and live in more places.
And it also makes me wonder – what will the equivalent experiences be when I return to my passport country half a foreigner myself?
Update: As I moved the final few things out of my apartment, I was outside the xiaomaibu waiting for Mr Shi to drive up to the gate so we could take them to the place I was staying for my last two weeks. I stopped to chat with the manager, who was outside the store. She wished me well once more, and also went looking for some old boxes I could put my things in (it was a scattered bunch of piles – I had no boxes or big bags left for the last odds and ends!) Even in our last interaction she was sweet and thoughtful and went out of her way to help. So lovely :)