[Note: I was going to just delete the first attempt at uploading this entry and pretend that it never happened, but then I thought it wouldn’t be fair. Who am I to pretend that I’m savvy? If you’ve been reading this blog, then you know that I more or less bumble my way around anyway. So how about another go?]
Brooms in China are weirdly fascinating. They’re a single shaft of bamboo, usually cut down to a little stub, with a collection of dried willow branches or leaves clumped together for bristles. They scritch-scratch along the streets, and despite looking like the most inefficient tool invented, clean the streets pretty effectively. In a country as fast-developing as China, willow switches have resisted an upgrade. Which, frankly, I’m glad about, because sometimes, if I don’t look close enough, it’s like the workers in their orange jumpsuits are flailing tree-branches around.
I wasn’t looking very closely as I walked down a random street today, instead paying attention to the contradiction of yellow gingko leaves and shocking blue sky that served as a canopy. Had I been paying attention, I would have noticed it right away.
There was a street worker who I will call Shu Shu (shoo shoo), the polite way to address older men which means “uncle.” Shu Shu was in his orange vest sweeping the side of the road outside of a park. But rather than swish over the concrete with the aforementioned willow, he was scraping it over and over with the butt of the bamboo handle.
I was already several steps past him when I turned around to make sure I really saw what I thought I’d seen. He scraped over and over, leaving bamboo skid marks in his wake, like he was trying to draw boundary lines between his feet.
“That’s not how you use a broom,” I thought, standing at a respectable distance to watch his progress. I was prepared to just chalk it up to the TRC (Totally Random China, work with me) but this time I decided to backtrack and see what was up. Because, why not?
“Shu Shu,” I said, “What does this mean?” I gestured to his broom and tried to look charmingly confused, which may have ended up looking slightly demented, now that I think about it.
He held up his broom for me to see and said something along the lines of “The handle hurts my hands, so I need to make it smoother.” In fact, when I looked closely, I could see that the butt of the handle was roughly hewn from the bamboo, riddled with splinters and general discomfort. So he had been trying to sand down the broom handle by scraping it on a rough surface this whole time. Go home, Scooby. Mystery solved.
Except that I have a tendency to stick around slightly longer than the answer requires me to. So mystery solved or no, I did not go home right away.
“Are you hurt?” I said. He nodded, as if pleased that I understood the Chinese.
“Oh, I have a thing!” I said, and promptly went into a pocket of my purse to pull out a Band-Aid to give him. He looked at it for a second or two, so I said “You want it?”
Then he started to laugh. “No no, thank you, I won’t have it.” And then he showed me his hands, which may have been a little scraped, but in absolutely no need of a Band-Aid. Still, my mother always taught me to be ready in case of an emergency, and a guy with a broom is an emergency enough for me.
“Are you sure?” I said. He said he was and thanked me again. I got the hint that it was time to keep walking. So I waved goodbye and couldn’t help but wonder what, if anything, he would say to others about the demented foreigners walking around Xiasha. Maybe he would say that all foreigners carry around Band-Aids, or that all foreigners were hopelessly nosy or that all foreigners liked to talk to street workers. Maybe he thought I was funny, maybe he thought I was strange. But I’ll bet he thought me at least a little demented, just as I sometimes think of my beloved TRC.
But then, maybe none of us are demented after all. Because really, if I’d kept walking, I’d still be convinced that there were people in China (street cleaners, no less!) who didn’t know how brooms worked.