Asian Girl Problem #31: Master Foragers

Ever see those perfectly put together, otherwise normal Asian garbage collectors in the street? It might just be a thing in cities with Chinatowns–for they are usually Chinese, of retirement age, and never had to assimilate into American culture. Tan, yet scrubbed clean and tidy, they usually have a foldable cart or burlap rucksack filled with the bottles and cans they’ve collected. Unlike the junkies and bums, these men and women tackle the parks and public trash cans with the determined focus of Olympic athletes. They don’t ask you for spare change or stink up the bus–they slip deftly by the hippies and college kids and picnickers without anyone noticing. They don’t run to a liquor store at the end of they day–they probably go home and watch TV.

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I could be projecting too much, but these guys don’t seem homeless to me. Sometimes I’ll go outside and see a woman about my mother’s age rooting through my garbage can. Her clothes look so clean and cute, her face so sane and slightly bashful, I have no reason to believe she lives on the street. I imagine them to be early immigrants from Canton who live in Chinatown. One day, they start recycling their bottles for petty cash. Then, as they’re taking an evening walk, they start seeing these bottles popping up all over the city, glinting in the sun. Do you just ignore that free money staring back at you? It would be stupid, disrespectful, to let them slip by.

They’re by no means well off, perhaps receiving food stamps and living in cramped quarters, but still at a higher level of stability that we’d expect from a bottle collector. No American person in their situation would resort to such measures, but I know many Chinese people see nothing strange about it. The ones who really can relate are of a certain age, having been through the lean years of the Cultural Revolution, worked backbreaking labor in the countrysides, but still young enough to want to do something productive with their waking hours. So they start a new hobby.

Except it’s not an weekend hobby, no. It’s compelled by an engrained passion for foraging (aka getting free stuff) and they tackle it with an equal fierceness. I see the same fierceness in my mother, who’s arguably a few steps away from a full-time forager.

But I didn’t think I’d ever see her dancing on top of a stool in the parking lot of a thrift store, at dusk, like she was last night. So pleased she was with the bounty of oranges she’d picked off the trees–it was something she’d looked forward to all day. She’d filled half a bag already, but it wasn’t enough. She yelled at my father and I to help her, while we slunk inside the car and tried to cajole her down before she got hurt. To prove us wrong, she started hopping on the stool, and nearly tipped it over. At last, that sobered her up and she agreed to go home. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

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So my tiny mother, in her nice pearls, climbed into our Mercedes with a big leather bag of dusty oranges, which all taste like lemons and will probably sit on our counter until they rot.

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And here are some slightly more palatable apples from another outing. This has actually been quite the summer of foraging–we’ve seen peaches, blackberries and figs, to name a few. Oh yeah, did I mention I might have caught the bug as well?

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