By Jillian Smith
I called her the scary potato lady. All 4 feet and 9 inches of her seemed coiled and ready to snap at any customer who took too long to order from her impossibly large menu. From her perch atop the cashier’s stand of the noisy, crowded café, she barked orders to the kitchen like a battle-hardened general. Simultaneously, she would rain righteous indignation down at any soul who could not procure the Mandarin syllables necessary to express their dietary wishes.
I was that soul. My first day experiencing the chaos of her shop made me nearly call home, sobbing. I was overwhelmed. Frying pans banged. Hot oil sizzled. Masses of impatient crowds nearly bowled me over, and the scary potato lady shouted. The idea of a line is fairly tenuous here in China, but particularly so at her shop, and if the person at the front of the line is a quivering mess who can’t speak a word of the language, scary potato lady quickly acknowledges the next person instead.
Communicating through awkward sign language, I finally did get my potatoes. I planned on never going back. The embarrassment and confusion and awkwardness that I felt made me certain that I did not know what I had gotten into when I came to China, and that I was not nearly as ready to dive into such a foreign culture as I had liked to believe.
The problem was that the potatoes were really, really good. Each batch is first sliced, like scalloped potatoes, but then sautéed in a blend of green onions, chili peppers, capers and salt, and served over steaming white rice. The perfectly seared and seasoned culinary art of scary potato lady’s creation was a mouthwatering lure that forced me to endure her staccato frustrations again and again.
It was evident that I was an economic dead-weight loss for this woman. Her tiny shop, flooded with masses of hungry patrons, lost money every minute longer I attempted to communicate with her with flailing arms and horrifically pronounced phrases. When I first tried to ask for no meat, it was like I had told her that I was a criminal militant, from the way that she yelled at me and pointed at me and narrowed her eyes at me angrily. After the day I attempted to ask for my potatoes to-go, she visibly sighed whenever I came in. I was difficult.
Still, her potatoes were the cheapest and best option by far, and so the anxiety-filled first afternoon I spent in pursuit of these potatoes quickly turned into weeks’ worth of afternoons, and then months. But over the course of these months, something was happening. I was learning Chinese, and I was getting better at navigating Chinese culture.
A few days ago, I headed into scary potato lady’s shop. Swiftly and unhesitatingly, I approached the register. In Mandarin that was massively, exquisitely improved from my first encounter, I told SPL that I wanted potatoes to-go, and with no meat. In a moment that I can only describe as tunnel-vision-like bliss, I felt the frenetic activity of the lunch counter slow nearly to a halt. She looked up from her cash register, locking eyes with me. She regarded me for a moment. Then, her mouth broke into a wide smile as she nodded her head and said, “Dui!” which means, “Correct!” She proceeded to ring in my order.
When they were ready, rather than her usual gruff and unceremonious pass-off of my food, scary potato lady called to me, smiling. She handed me my meal with the care one would expect of a dear friend. “Zai jian!” she told me, still grinning. I thanked her and paid and smiled back. I walked out of the shop feeling like something meaningful had just happened. As I shut the door behind me I looked back, and potato lady was still waving and grinning after me, even as hungry crowds spilled in and finally blocked me from her view.