“Let’s ask her the price, then wait til she finishes her beer and ask again,” my friend Josie said.
“Yeah, I remember last time. First she said they were 25 kuai, then she went down to 20 and we didn’t even bargain,” I said.
I press the button in the elevator to go down to the basement of the office building where my favorite orchid vendor has set up shop. The flower vendors used to be across the street in the Lai Tai Flower Market, not far from the U.S. Embassy. For some reason last spring the Beijing government decided to close the place down, and now the vendors are scattered across the city.
Orchids are my guilty pleasure. I don’t smoke, I’m not hooked on chips or donuts and I prefer strong coffee to strong liquor.
But lead me to a display of orchids? I can’t help myself. I’m like an addict.
Buttery yellow, deep lusty purple, pale pink, warm tangerine – I just go weak in the knees when I see all of the choices.
In the U.S. I kept my orchid habit in check because they were kinda pricey. But at $3-5 a pop in China, I can afford to treat myself once a week if I want to. It’s cheaper than Starbucks, and they last longer than a latte and have fewer calories.
We step out of the elevator and head down the hall, following the tropical smell.
We breeze pass the cut flowers and head to main attraction, the orchids. They’re right next to the frog, turtle and fish vendor (the kind for aquariums, not the dinner table).
For some reason, in Beijing it’s common for aquatic pet purveyors and flower vendors to share space. I guess both living creatures bring color and happiness to their owners, and require the same finicky degree of care.
“Eh, Ni hao,” says the orchid seller, turning to say hello as we approach.
Her easygoing greeting can either be interpreted as friendly recognition (I come here often), or a result of her morning beverage: the tall can of beer that’s sitting on her desk between a watermelon and a bag of peanuts.
She has a tea kettle, but I think it’s mostly for decoration. Every time I visit – sometimes as early as 9 a.m. – she has a can or bottle of suds open. It’s 11 a.m. and there are more than a few empties beneath the counter.
“Women keyi kan kan ma?” I ask. I want to look at all of my choices before deciding on which ones to take home. I’ve bought orchids from other places, but these just seem to thrive. Maybe she feeds them the same liquid diet she enjoys.
“Keyi, kan ba.” She nods her approval and takes a long swig of Harbin, China’s oldest beer. She goes back to snacking on peanuts between sips while we admire her flowers.
“What do you think of this one?” Josie asks me, picking up a deep burgundy orchid accented with white and yellow in the center. It’s darker than all the others, almost inky.
“I like it. It looks like it has a little face in the middle.”
“Zhe ge shi hei mao,” the orchid lady tells us.
Josie and I process what she’s telling us for a second, then we both smile.
“Hei Mao. It’s called Black cat,” Josie says.
“Dui, hei mao,” the orchid lady confirms, prancing around softly like a cat, as her jet black braids swing back and forth.
“Hei mao. Hei mao,” she laughs as she dances, garnering a few smirks from the neighboring vendors.
I notice that she has a stem of orchids clipped to her blouse.
“Ni chuan zhe hua. Piaoliang,” I say, trying out some newly acquired Chinese vocabulary.
I think I told her she was wearing beautiful flowers, but I might have called her a lamb skewer by mistake. That’s the problem with Chinese, so many words sound the same.
I guess I said it right, because she took the flowers off and pinned them on me. What an unexpected gift.
Thankfully, we really do speak the same language: a love of orchids.
With their intricate patterns, heart-shaped faces and lush colors, orchids transport me to another world. They make me feel like I’m on a tropical vacation even when I’m living on the 15th floor looking out my window at a concrete jungle. I don’t actually talk to them, but I jokingly refer to them as my “Friends.”
After about 30 minutes of basking in the sea of orchids, I choose three lovely flowers to take home.
“Yigong 75 kuai, dui?” I check the price with the Orchid Lady, doing the quick math in my head. That’s just over 10 bucks for all three.
She takes a sip of beer, pulls out her calculator, and takes a quick look around, as if we’re making a black market transaction.
She punches the numbers in the display and shows us the total: 70 Kuai. We lingered long enough to receive the “I’m on beer number two and feeling happy” discount.
We settle the bill with our unasked for discount and leave with our new friends, touched by the Orchid Lady’s kindness.
“If you are in the company of good people, it’s like entering a room full of orchids. After awhile, you become soaked in the fragrance and you don’t even notice.” —Confucius