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Diane Finch, 18 Sep '12

There were quite a few traders along Xing Shu Lu selling tomatoes. She had bought from a few, using toneless and rudimentary Mandarin. She found the experience quiet stressful for a long time before realising how frustrating it must be for the sellers too. Sometimes people were friendly but charged inflated prices because she was foreign, sometimes non-committal or grunting, sometimes aggressive and hostile; it varied. Gradually Sarah’s understanding of Chinese improved and she began laughing and joking about prices and eventually managed to raise the odd smile. Things began to thaw on the market street outside the school and she got better at bargaining.
One smile she raised was so broad and full, that she returned time and again to buy tomatoes and whatever else he was selling, just to feel the warmth. She took to raising a hand in the street when she saw him, even if she wasn’t shopping. This was always returned with a sparkling smile.
Once, in an attempt to record her life there, she took her camera out on her shopping trip. She took photos of the piles of vegetables, the tricycle carts, the ducks in cages, the ugly fish squirming in buckets, and of course the people. The pancake people were busy and a bit sweaty-looking. The lunchtime noodle eaters hung over their bowls and slurped. The lady at the noodle stall stuck out her chest and put her hands on her hips, proud. Tomato Man wore a great beaming smile and a look of relaxed charm, and to her delight the resulting photo was a stunner. So good in fact that she returned to the market the day she got the photos back from the printers and presented him with the copy. Sarah wanted him to have it because she felt he owned it, like she owned the very significant joy his good humour had inspired. He showed the photo to the nodding onion trader next to him. Tomato man thanked her profusely and she trotted away happily.
She never saw him again, and when she asked the other vendors some weeks later, they said they didn’t know him and didn’t know what she was talking about. Even the onion seller said he had no idea who it was. This was 1997 and things were changing fast.
Bereft, she squirrelled away the negative; it took 20 years before she felt could make another copy of the photo.