China Series

A version of this story was published as part of monthly series that ran in the Warrensburg, MO The Daily Star Journal from Oct. 2000 through May 2001.

In The Quest For a Shoe String

Sara wants me to tell this "shoe string" story. I'm not sure I understand it enough, but she insists.

My shoe string broke, but I didn't see it as a major problem. We'd seen laces for sell here in Beijing. I re-strung the longer of the broken pieces and wore the shoes when Sara and I went to shop at a major department store about four blocks from the college.

The Tower, the store's shortened name, had become our "regular" place to buy food. Once a week, we'd go there, have lunch and shop.

The food court is very much like the one at Bannister Mall. Certainly the food is different, representing the various ethnic tastes of China, but the atmosphere is similar, and the colors, tables and space is comparable.

There you buy "tickets" in any amount and spend them as you make your selections. We would start with $2.50 worth and usually cash in a little after having full meals.

To return to the story: We know the store fairly well; the uncertainty is how much they knew us.

The Tower is a huge place. Escalators are on both sides of an open entry way, under one, five-story ceiling. On the third floor is men's wear, hardware, and shoes, and shoes and shoes. There are also helpers in every aisle and behind each counter, often three deep. We stopped at the shoe counter closest to where we got off the escalator. I asked in my best Chinese if they had shoe strings. As typical when I used my best Chinese, the clerk looked at me as if I were speaking Greek; so, I removed the broken lace and showed it to him. He told me they do not sell shoe strings at that store. I did not believe him -- The Tower sells everything!

So, we went around the corner. There, they were selling shoe polish and one man wanted to demonstrate on my shoes. I asked him about the laces. He pointed across the room.

I thought, "Now we are getting somewhere!" and headed in that direction. I saw nothing but shoes. So, I asked someone else. Another clerk, 20 foot away, pointed further in that direction.

Twenty foot away was another counter. So, we went to one of the four individuals behind it. He looked a little interested. We showed him the string. He understood and spoke to another clerk. She went into the back room and returned with a foot-long box full of boot straps. We all shook our heads; those would not do.

Then, the man lead us back up the counter and started taking strings out of the display shoes. I asked him if they didn't sell shoe laces in (I'm sure) excellent Chinese.

He said "Mayo," they did not.

So, we went back to the escalator to go on up. There, with the polish salesman, stood a rather heavy man in plain clothes (as opposed to the typical store uniform) and a walkie-talkie. He smiled at us and asked (in Chinese) if we found the laces. I told him no (in English); I was not smiling, but it was no big thing. We could buy them elsewhere.

We went to the next floor and were in the process of buying paper when the heavy man appeared with two strings, exactly as needed for my shoes. I asked how much. Unfortunately, I did not understand his reply.

I took my calculator so that he could punch in the amount. Another clerk, from the eight standing close to us, said, in English, "No money."

We said to her, "Thank you," and turned but the heavy-set man was gone.

Sara said, "We are good customers here; they know us."

She is probably entirely, and solely correct. I just wonder if our picture in the paper might have been a factor.

The story of the shoe string: Just one of the many unresolved mysteries of China.