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A stitch in time


On every block, in every city, there’s at least one.  They often work in threesomes so that two can service waiting customers while the other stands out front and urges passers-by to come in and take advantage of their talented hands.

Seamstresses. They’re everywhere in China, but the small city that I live in seems to have more than its share. Often their shops are no more than decrepit manual sewing machines set up on discarded overturned boxes, but sometimes they have more elaborate shops with ironing boards (and coal-heated irons), threads and needles, and even tailor’s dummies made out of woven bamboo and plastic. I pass by them every day on my way to my day job as Conversational English Teacher / Tuition Enhancer at Xiangfan Number One Middle School, but I never availed myself of their services.

The woman who operates our local shop has been there for as long as anyone can remember (and, given the Chinese penchant for history, that’s a heck of a long time). Her face is creased and scored with 30 years of roadside open air work and her hands are gnarled from innumerable hem shortenings and zipper replacements, but her watery turquoise eyes are startlingly bright and full of humour.

Though I cannot read Chinese, the first time I saw it I knew immediately that the shop could only be that of a seamstress: there were clothes hanging everywhere, a large treadle-powered sewing machine had point of pride at the front of the shop, and, most tellingly, a sign out front had a picture of a needle and thread on it.

About two weeks ago, my trick knee (which has bothered me for years) locked up and forced me to assume unflattering positions in order to complete my daily tasks. Even with two working knees I am, alas, no Peking Acrobat; my attempts were clumsy at best. In one spectacularly  Keatonesque routine, I banged the shelf in the refrigerator, knocked a bottle of chillies in oil to the floor, hit my head as I tried to grab it, and ripped the crotch out of my pants. The net result was an oily, spicy floor, a vibrant conversation-starter welt on the head and a useless pair of pants. I only brought six pairs with me, so a 16% loss is significant.

I briefly considered a repair job, but let’s be honest; I’d be more likely to sew my fingers to my calf than actually repair a rip. I understand fabric the way a fish understands calculus.

Zhou An Qi, head of the English department at my school and my reluctant guide to the city, came to my apartment just as I wiped up the last of the fallen chilies. After a quick round of “State the Obvious” (“Did you break your pants?” “No, Zhou, this is a Canadian fashion.”), Zhou agreed to accompany me to the seamstress. He told me to leave the pants at home, though, because he wanted to make sure that the seamstress could actually fix them before we took them to her. Don’t all seamstresses fix pants?

Despite the clothes, sewing machine and sign, Zhou was not fully convinced of the legitimacy of our potential pant-fixer. He conversed with her, pausing every few phrases to translate for me, and finally ascertained that she was, in fact, a seamstress.

Once we knew for sure that she was a seamstress, Zhou asked her if she could fix pants.

I can’t understand much Chinese, but I certainly understood her tone well enough. Zhou is a well respected teacher and has been at the school for a long time, but even he flinched at the coolness of her response.

I went back the next day with my pants stuffed in a plastic bag. Normally I would have begged assistance from a teacher, but I was feeling adventurous and thought I’d give it a shot. Armed with my trusty Mandarin Phrasebook, I thought, how could I fail?

She was not alone when I arrived. Most shops do double duty in China, and at the back of hers there were a bunch of shoes on a wall-mounted peg board. These are what I now consider Standard Chinese Man Shoes – black leather wing tips, three hole, and leather sole, and everyone wears them (even construction workers, at least when they’re not wearing plastic flip-flops). Anyway, her son or employee (or husband for all I know) is the cobbler/shoe shiner, and he was there. A small bundle of mended clothes, tossed haphazardly in the corner next to the coal heater, suddenly sprouted a white-haired head which gave me a toothless smile. Even a cat came out to see the laowai.

The male took charge instantly. He grabbed my pants out of the bag and, after giving me a cheerful ‘Hello,’ fired off a stream of Mach 2 Chinese at me. I responded with the typical laowai smile and head-bob. The seamstress eased into our ‘conversation’ and took the pants out of her son’s (?) hands.

“Blah blah blah blah blah?” she said, pointing at the rip.
“Yes, please fix the rip,” I said.
“Blah blah blah blah blah,” she said, then laughed and turned to her machine.

“Blahblahblahblahblahblahblah liang ge jun ma,” the guy said with a definitive air.

Except for a few poorly-heard words at the tail end of his sentence, I didn’t catch any of it but, for some reason – pride, stupidity, or probably a mix of both – I repeated the last bit of his sentence, except with a questioning tone. I’m sort of getting used to the numbers in Chinese so I decided to try tossing in a number just to see if I was in the right ballpark.

“Yi ge ge jun ma?” I said. (“One ge jun ma?” is what I’m asking… whatever a ge jun ma is. I’m thinking at this stage that he told me “two je jun ma” and I just want to show him that I’m not a stupid language-deficient foreign devil who has no clue about what he just said. Sadly, though, that’s exactly what I am. )

”Uhn, dyair ge jun ma!” he said, and waved his arms in a vaguely charade-esque fashion. We’re communicating, he thinks.

“Ah, dyair ge jun ma, xie xie,” I said. That last bit I know… xie xie is ‘thanks’.

The seamstress went back to her work, the guy went back to polishing shoes, and the cat fell asleep on the grandmother. I did the only thing I could think of: I walked away. 

So here’s the situation. He thinks that I knew exactly what he said, but I had no idea what he’s talking about. He could have said, “It’ll be ready next week,” or “..next year,” for all I know, but by the gods he’s certain that I understood.

I waited until I was out of sight of the shop before I pulled out my phrasebook. For about ten minutes, while the words were fresh in my head, I tried to find out what he said. I looked up the words for “day”, “hour”, “minute”, “week”, “month”, but to no avail.

I had to go to the supermarket anyway, so I headed there next. I spent as long as possible buying laundry detergent and oatmeal and then casually walked back past the seamstress. The guy was outside working on a shoe and he glanced at me, nodded, and then went back to his work.

I assumed that if the pants were ready he’d say something, so I just went home.

The following day I walked home after school as per usual. The seamstress was on the way and I walked a bit slower than usual and made sure to catch the eye of the lady. She stood as soon as she saw me, so I casually veered towards the shop—enough so she could easily hail me, but not so much that I couldn’t pretend to just be ‘passing through’ if my pants weren’t ready. I glanced into the shop and sure enough the work was done.

It was a large rip, right near the seam, and though it looked like it had been repaired, they were at least once again wearable. The cost for all of this? One Yuan – about $0.15. I wasn’t sure of the cost (Zhou told me it would be either one or two), so I just handed over a five. She gave me my four Yuan in change and her blue eyes sparkled when I gave it back to her as a tip.

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