Friday, January 12, 2007

All in a day's work

She sat on a small stool behind a glass-enclosed counter cluttered with shoe laces, small bags and the detritus of her store. Above her, hanging from the ceiling, a collection of backbacks, each with a name, none that were recognizable. The branding world is prominent in China, and throughout Asia, but not all brands are knockoffs or even the real thing. Many brands are
one- time inventions, never heard of before and never to be heard of afterwards.

I flipped my empty backpack off my shoulders and stuck a hand through a large hole where the seam had come undone. The woman was repairing one of those cheap fold-up umbrellas, expertly using a pair of pliers to clamp two struts back together. "Good as new" was the satisfied look on her face as she folded her handiwork, and beckoned me to hand her my bag. She nodded with satisfaction and spoke a brief Mandarin phrase that, like all Mandarin phrases, was impenetrable to me. Four years in China and I am still not beyond "thank you" (though I am told my pronunciation of this iconic phrase is perfect). But that's another story.

My look of confusion threw us into the international sign language: she pointed at a stool. I sat to watch and wait. And I got to thinking about 1.3 billion people, the world's fastest growing economy for ten years running, a modern telecommunications infrastructure with 440 million mobile phone users, 110 million internet users, both numbers increasing by millions per month, expressways between all the major cities, traffic jams in mega cities that make LA traffic seem fluid; and a woman on a stool fixing a folding umbrella that most of the world throws away when its spindly spines break.

Welcome to China.

The woman fixed my bag in under three minutes using a hand cranked sewing machine designed for heavy duty cloth and leather; vintage perhaps 50-75 years ago or more. The newly sewn seam was much stronger than the original. She smiled as I thanked her with perfect pronunciation. I reached for my wallet with the universally recognized look on my face: "How much?" She raised a single finger. I RMB. 12.5 US cents That's about what I have come to expect of the daily wonder of life in what will be the world's largest country and the world's largest economy, and ultimately the world's biggest power.

All manner of experiences from China (and beyond) will turn up here. This is just a small beginning.