The Water Lady

Trip Start Aug 02, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of China  ,
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Directly outside the gates of our hotel, Hunan Binwang (or Funan Binwang in the local dialect: Changshahua) there exists a long sloping road that bisects the length of the city. Located immediately along the right hand side of this road is a string of 'massage parlors', and I use this term in the loosest most sarcastic way possible. These store fronts stay closed during the day, their corrugated steel doors pulled down and padlocked to the sidewalk. Come nightfall, the shutters go up and the lights turn on. Roughly half a dozen very young looking girls are on 'employed' by each of the stores, they sit on futons or stools and sleepily watch tv; putting themselves on display for anyone who happens to be walking down the street. I can't even comfortably guess the ages of the girls, whose normal outfit consists of nothing more than a nightgown or undergarments. Returning home from a late night on the town, one can see the street lined with taxis waiting to pick up or drop off patrons of the massage parlors. This is the only street I have seen like this since I have been in China. It is also the only street I have been on that shares an address with a large government military complex.

So, crammed in between a few of these businesses is a common general store, similar to a store you could find anywhere in China. They sell the same drinks, fruit, snacks and cigarettes as a million other street side vendors. What makes this one special is the woman who owns and runs it, a person who is also prone to wearing a nightgown on a daily basis and who we affectionately began to refer to as 'The Water Lady'. She received this title by quickly becoming the entire group's preferred vendor of water. She stocked the big one liter bottles of water (with handles for easy transport), saving the extra cold, semi-frozen bottles just for us. When you're living in a country where sweating has become your number one activity of the day, you'll understand just how amazing this is. Every time one of the forty of us passed her shop (which was quite often) she would smile, wave and excitedly talk a mile a minute in a thick changshahua accent.

Eventually she'd stop us on our way back from school and bring us into her shop so she could practice her English. "banana, watermelon, water, lighter, good evening" everyday she'd have new English words to use. The more experienced Chinese speakers in our group like Ada and Natalie could end up spending great deals of time in her store. Talking to her, helping her with vocabulary and just generally explaining to her what it was that forty foreigners were doing in Hunan.

The water lady became a real landmark to us. something familiar and friendly in a foreign country. She became a reason to go thirsty for half the day, just so you could wait until you passed her shop on the way back to the hotel.

Towards the end of our stay she became even more forward, eventually inviting us to visit her in her apartment. We were hesitant at first, sure she was nice, but she was still a stranger. Also, taking in more than forty people could be quite overwhelming, so we politely refused. One night as I returned to the hotel from a round of nightsnacks she beckoned me into her store and practiced some of her new vocabulary. After a few minutes I bid her goodbye, yet she would not let me leave . . . . without making me take two big watermelons back to the hotel to share with the other volunteers. That night 20 of us stood on the front stoop of The Hunan Hotel Building Number Two, swapping our own stories of the water lady and spitting seeds into the darkness.

Orientation was almost over and our departure was becoming more 'sooner' and less 'later'. A few of the volunteers began giving Lucy (her English name), photographs, gifts of thanks and tokens to remember us by. In the end it was unanimously decided to invite her to dine with us at our final banquet meal. She had practically become a part of WorldTeach. After extending the invitation, Lucy insisted on having us over to her home. So late one night several of us made the short walk to her apartment building, where her niece let us in. Her apartment was beautiful. Clean, bright, spacious and well furnished. Her sister and niece offered us fruits and drinks and chips from the store as we became better acquainted. The night was lovely and it was obvious she was very sad we were all leaving (and not only because we probably paid for half of the new merchandise in her apartment).

People returning to Changsha for business or pleasure still visit the Water Lady and talk with her. I hear she even accompanied several of them when they went shopping, helping to bargain down prices. I will never forget walking down that street of 'massage parlors' and seeing Lucy ride past on her motorized scooter; waving happily with a case of beer under foot and her nightgown billowing in the wind.
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