One of my Shanghai sisters-in-law called and invited me for lunch.
“What time?” I asked.
“Lunch” she repeated, perhaps thinking I'd misunderstood.
I need to stop thinking like an American, a slave to the clock. Time is more fluid here -- things happen when they happen.
Midmorning I hop a bus in the general direction, but when I get off I still have a good 20-minute walk ahead of me. Along the way, I stop in a mom-and-pop store to buy a box of cookies for her granddaughter, and later I turned into a side-street market to find a gift for the hostess.
I could have done my shopping at the supermarket next to the university, but I prefer the open markets, where I can talk with the vendors and practice my Chinese.
I'm looking for something sweet -- a dessert or snack after lunch.
I stop at a stall selling rice cakes -- sticky rice decorated with dried fruit. The cakes are pretty, but the cleanliness of the stall is questionable, so I move on.
An old woman selling roasted chestnuts calls out to me, and I make a mental note to come back if I find nothing else. In the end, I find a fruit stand where I buy a pound of strawberries and a pound of mangoes.
Just as I'm buzzing my sister-in-law's door, her son arrives, his 2-year-old in his arms, and we ride the elevator together.
My sister-in-law seats me in the living room and brings me a cup of tea. Her husband is doting over his granddaughter, and he helps her bring out peanuts and watermelon seeds and tangerines. The little girl hands me a watermelon seed, and I crack it open with my teeth, but the tasty morsel inside is for her.
My brother-in-law looks much happier now than the last time I saw him five years ago. He loves to talk -- I understand maybe one word in six.
“Two years ago I was very busy,” he tells me. “But now, because of the poor economy, I have much more time to spend at home.” He's smiling.
I chat with their son in a mixture of Chinese and English. Five years ago, he was a Web-page designer. In the meantime, he got married, had a kid, and got promoted to manager.
“Our company runs the biggest TV shopping channel in China,” he tells me. “The government has given us many awards, and they want us to double our business. They want China to be the biggest TV shopping market in Asia.”
There's absolutely no sense of irony that the Chinese Communist Party is promoting one of the crassest forms of capitalism.
At the start of lunch, there are half a dozen dishes on the table -- braised fish, eel with green peppers, a mushroom stew, bamboo shoots with tofu and peanuts, a roasted duck, a leafy green.
“Nothing special,” my sister-in-law says. But during the meal, she and her husband take turns in the kitchen preparing more dishes.
“Eat everything,” she tells me. “We're cooking all new dishes for dinner.”
After lunch, we sit in the living room and watch a movie -- in English with Chinese subtitles. We sip tea and munch on peanuts and tangerines. Midafternoon, my sister-in-law brings out the strawberries.
Later, I watch TV with the granddaughter. It's her favorite show, Clever Tiger, and she sings the theme song to me: Qiao hu, qiao hu ... Finally, a TV show I can understand.
Their daughter-in-law joins us for dinner. She works for an on-line gaming company. (World of Warcraft is one of their clients.) Despite the recession -- or perhaps on account of it -- her business is flourishing, and she'll be working overtime on Sunday as well.
Around nine it's time to go, and my sister-in-law walks me to the bus stop -- one much closer to her home than where I'd gotten off.
“Come again any time,” she tells me. “Just stop by if you have nothing to do.”
My bus arrives. I thank her again and tell her I had a great time. And I did have a great time --nothing special, just Saturday at home with the family.