I was recently, for banal reasons, forced to spend a few days in Uzice
, a small city in central Serbia
and the Zlatibor
mountain. Uzice is a city which lives off of a strange sort of nostalgia
: not for a glorious past, for a past that the inhabitants once thought was glorious and allowed time to prove it was not. It is therefore doubly sad: there is a feeling both of a great lost empire and the shattering of illusions. There is one main street, a square; beyond it, the roads run up to the mountains, to an old Turkish
citadel in the south part of the town, and down to the plains at the north end: here one finds the garish residue of capitalism so common in Eastern Europe
gas stations, building parts warehouses and a nice new hotel that hides a brothel.
Normally, when I travel on business, I allow myself to be entertained by whatever contacts I am dealing with; my affairs in Uzice had more of the character of a lawsuit, and I therefore knew nobody to spend free hours with; I was lonely, and I wandered around the town.
In the middle of the town, the main square, there is a small museum with photos of pig-farmers in the window; Uzice was once a big pig market, and its main claim was drawing the pig farmers from miles around. The Serbians were pig farmers as a nation; one of their great rebellions against the Austro-Hungarians is known to this day as the Pig-War; and therefore there must have been some local pleasure in looking at these wide grainy photographs of happy-looking peasants driving pigs through the city many years ago. I couldn’t get myself excited about the pig fair photographs, though frankly, I might have if someone else around me had been excited too; instead I had to look around for something else to do.
I found, very soon, in the other end of down, in a small, twisting street lined with dusty old shops unchanged from Tito’s day, a small little boutique – though this may be the wrong word for it – selling exclusively Chinese goods. It was called Cinski Butik and proclaimed this on a sign both pink and somber in wide yellow letters, Cyrillic and Chinese. I walked inside. The shelves were lined with the cheapest goods imaginable of almost every type: little plastic chess sets, nylon socks, baby-carriages held together with cheap welding and a prayer, bathroom scales which seemed made out of tin, and hundreds of other simple commodities needed by the working middle classes, all piled up together, cheap and Chinese. The manager came out to great me with a great big store-owners smile.
Let me dwell first on the smile, and then I will talk about the man himself.
There is a certain type of smile, not to be seen, I think, in the US anymore, which is delivered by a shopkeeper who owns his own small shore. It seems that the more piled up his store is with exotic wonders, the more the smile becomes authentically this type of smile. The smile is definitely ingratiating, and contained within it is the desire to sell – this repels the self-aware American – but there is something in it that’s different than the smile of the Account Executive of an IT company or the copier salesman – in those two smiles there’s a form of desperation, an acknowledgement that the salesman is merely protecting some income or some turf – when they smile at you like Willy Loman you feel the need to turn away. Here despite the salesmanship and the need there is an authenticity of greeting contained with in it - “This is MY store,”, says the shopkeeper, “ and its as if it were my house; though you are here to buy something, that makes you no less welcome; I’ve arranged these products in any old way, but I’ve brought them here for you.” It’s the difference between the labor of a sharecropper and an old English gentleman working his own garden. The Chinaman was too poor, and his merchandise too meager, to look like the charmed spice shops or dry goods stores of our own grandparent’s youth; and yet though it didn’t live up to such heightened expectations it was a seed of all such places made up of its dusty shelves. Had Tesco and Walmart and Carrefour not existed, it might have become that kind of store one day.
Suffice it to say, I felt welcome. The smile reminded me of the smile of my father, when he owned a shop in Long Island, 20 years ago.
The man himself fell into an age category that we Americans don’t seem to have either: it’s a specific age category shared by a significant number of Chinese. It’s somewhere between middle aged and elderly – it certainly isn’t young – but active, very active – as if the Chinese have turned the middle age into the prime of life. He was wearing a blue jacket – a certain pale blue worn by many Chinese who travel and trade abroad – and old rubber slippers, and though his hands were wrinkled he was rubbing them together like a store. He had a kind face – almost all thin Chinese people I know have kind faces, even the bad ones – and spent a few minutes following me around the store in the way poor shopkeepers have of not knowing where to put themselves when a client comes around.
I spoke to him in Chinese; I speak Chinese, for reasons of my own.
“Where are you from in China?” I asked him, the simplest question I know.
His smile grew wider. “Wenzhou, Wenzhou, I am from Wenzhou in Zheijiang; do you know Whenzhou? You speak Chinese! Have you been to China?”
”I have, I know Wenzhou. May people there are in the shoe business.”
”Yes we make shoes for all of China! What are you doing here? Are you Serbian?”
”I am American, Nihao.”
”Nihao, Nihao! Will you drink some tea with me? Drink tea, drink tea!” He looked at me for a second. “I am very lonely”
Suffice it to say, we drank. My new friend Liu, was the second cousin of a Wenzhou factory magnate who had put his cousins up in business in impoverished cities all over the world; they wandered out like fans, each of them working for a bit in someone elses store before moving deeper into the territory to open up their own. Soon competition from other Chinese came in, and while they earned less money, they still felt better – there were other Chinese to talk to, drink tea with, and play chess. He began pouring cup after cup of weak tea, relieved to have someone who spoke Chinese to talk to, relieved to have any human company at all, telling me all about his trip from China to Belgrade to Uzice after working for months in Cacak in the North; soon he found a Chinese attorney to handle the simple documents his shop would need and who did his accounting as well. He lived, of course, in the back of his shop and cooked for himself, and stored up his money; like many good men, he sent all of it home. I don’t know what he did for female company; perhaps he visited the brothel now and then. Soon I was telling him about my own family, and the corruption he was unaware of in the country he was living in; his job was a simple one, he looked through catalogues one a month from a chinaman who came to Uzice, picked the goods he thought would move and worked to sell it; he lived in mutual unacknowledgment of the people of the town.
Later in the evening tea turned into Chinese wine; I was even in less of a hurry to leave than he was to see me go; and it promised to be a pleasant evening, drinking wine with friends and talking; when the store closed down at 9:00 PM we went out to the square with our little cups of wine and sat talking and drinking under the stars. A little bit of wine and I was feeling somewhat garrulous; I decided to tell him about Jews.
Liu, of course, knew nothing about Jews. He knew that the people he lived among were Christians and that they worshiped a man who was supposed to be god; he knew about the Crucifixion but not the Christ was Jewish or that Jews were ever blamed for it; to Liu the Jews were people in a legend with big black beards and curly hair (for this is the stereotype in the Hong Kong comedies, that Liu had once seen.) It fell to me to tell him.
Liu, I said, there were once people like you in these very countries that came from Asia to buy and to sell. Some of them had been here for hundreds of years but most of them came from Russia, three hundred years ago. My ancestors were among them and they were forced to flee. You left mainly because of poverty and a little bit for freedom – they were rich, but left because the Russians hunted them down in the street like dogs. Sometimes the locals accepted them; many times they hated them. Just like you, the Jews looked different. They stank like onions and had long curly locks, or wild red hair. Like you, the Jews were lonely when they came here; not only did they eat and drink and live their joys alone, but a Jew needs ten other Jews to pray, and so they were so lonely that they couldn’t speak to God. Whatever they thought the people here needed, that’s what they bought and sold; there were rich Jews too, with offices in Belgrade, but they didn’t think about the poorer Jews except two or three times a year sending charity out on some holiday. And the people hated them. They were wealthier and different – just like you, Liu, make more money then the factory laborers in this town, whatever you make out of the shop – and just like you know they tell themselves, why in our small town, should we have to buy goods from a Chinaman – well, that’s what the Europeans felt about the Jews. Wherever they went, many doors were closed to them; and so they spread out far and wide to take advantage of the few doors that were open;”
Here Liu almost began to cry. We didn’t talk for a little bit, and then we remembered Li Po’s poem about them moon. He is lonely, and he toasts it, and hopes that all three of us – the moon, his shadow and him – will meet again one day to drink a glass of wine, somewhere beyond the milky way. We sang the poem – Liu knew some way of thinking it, that I had never heard – and Liu then asked me what had happened to the Jews who lived here, where had they all gone? Had they all gone to Israel? He knew something of the Holocaust – or rather he knew that the Germans had come through Europe and killed all the Jews.
I confirmed this to him; I told him that the people that had given the Jews no right but to be merchants had then become jealous of the merchants success; we spoke about the Holocaust, execution vans and trains; then we talked about something without clear right and wrong: I told him a little about the Palestinians and Israel, the Jews fleeing their pursuers into someone else’s land that the Jews themselves had been evicted from by yet a third nation two thousand years ago; of the bitter fights unknown to the Chinese who have always had their own land even when subjugated in it. He told me about his childhood in the Cultural Revolution, the same kind of madness in a very different form. We asked each other questions, and cried each others tears, and cursed the history that kept us from our families, and brought us, sad and lonely, to this indifferent place.
At this point we were drunk. Like all drunk people, we were silly drinking to a great lifetime of friendship between the Jews and the Chinese and meeting each other again in Jerusalem or Shanghai; he promised to come and visit me when he next came to Belgrade, and I promised to see him if I came to Uzice again; we sat around drunk and laughing on the grass. Some locals passed by shocked to see us in their local park, some of them offended, others of them laughed. We waved our glasses of wine and were friendly to every one and none of them could have guessed we were talking about the massacres in their land that once had been and speaking with fear of the massacres to come. Then we fell asleep, two drunk people on the grass.
The next morning I awoke alone and Liu was in his shop. I had work to do, and so did he, so we said a quick goodbye. There were a lot of promises, and a lot of smiling. I stayed for a few minutes to watch him sell, the New Jew of Uzice to replace my own old tribespeople who once lived in this city with the same type of store, and whose names vanished with their bodies in a chimney filled with smoke.