I found myself today in the midst of a heatwave, in the middle of nowhere, picking peaches with my landlord. These things seem to happen quite often here, and I have decided it is best to just assume a zen attitude when faced with questions like ‘Do we really have to go and pick peaches with Mr Zhang?’ and ‘Will there be anything to do?’ from daughters one and two.
Here’s the thing – if by some odd coincidence you should be invited to pick peaches, you know, somewhere other than China, you would have some fair idea of how it works – for example, you go to the farm gate, you pay the farmer, he gives you a basket. But I don’t know how anything works here, and I never know when I agree to these outings whether it will involve
a) a large sum of my money
b) an opportunity for some unknown person to practice their English
or c) an unanticipated overnight stay
I’ve learnt from bitter experience to expect all of the above.
So to give you an idea, this involved no actual picking of peaches, an opportunity for some unknown person to practice their English, and the slaughter of thirteen chickens.
It all began badly. Mr Zhang, his wife and his son arrived a customary thirty minutes early. She was wearing a red t-shirt dress with black rhinestone-encrusted letters that read ‘Punk Ass Motherf***er’ next to an Anarchy symbol. Along with heels and designer sunglasses. We chatted, as we drove, about schools, and our recent holiday but I couldn’t take my eyes off that t-shirt. It seemed an odd thing for a middle-aged Shanghai landlady to wear to go peach picking.
The peach farm was over an hour past the outskirts of Shanghai, and promisingly, it turned out to be organic, or the closest approximation of ‘organic’ that it’s possible to get on the outskirts of a densely populated megalopolis. The farm grew peaches, nashi pears, vegetables and chickens, who got to eat all the bruised peaches in exchange for the use of their manure as fertiliser.
The peaches looked very healthy, and were wrapped individually on the tree in paper bags to keep pests away. We weren’t allowed to actually pick any of the peaches ourselves – they had all been pre-picked and packaged in pink boxes with a heart-shaped cellophane window, ready for purchase. They were big, fat and juicy white peaches, with a delicious perfume and no, I didn’t feel so bad about not picking them when I realised we would all get sunburn and heat stroke in two seconds flat.
It became clear that part of the peach expedition would involve lunch at the farm, in the big open bamboo shed they used for sorting, boxing and weighing the peaches. The farmhouse kitchen was heaving with food, and not long afterwards another seven cars rolled up, all full of city folk looking for a day in the country. They walked around the shed in high heels and smoked a lot while they waited for the food to appear.
The lunch was amazing, but I’m saving that for tomorrow. Over lunch we made friends with the farmer’s father, who served in the merchant navy for years and had circumnavigated Australia. It had been a long time since he’d needed to speak English, but he used the opportunity to practice his pronunciation. It was a damn sight better than my Chinese. After lunch, as a gesture of hospitality we were offered freshly slaughtered chickens to take home. No fewer than thirteen birds were quickly dispatched in another shed, plucked, gutted, bagged and trimmed for our pleasure.
So that makes it the first time I’ve gone peach picking and come home with a rhinestone anarchist and a freshly dead chook.