The Rubbish Lady

Talking garbage – by Sam Duncan


Yesterday I was walking home when the old lady who collects garbage in my apartment complex in Daqing spotted me from afar – she has eerily good eyesight – and yelled something at me. Usually she calls out one of two things: “Have you finished work?” or “Do you understand me?” But this time she said something different. I thought maybe she was talking about a butterfly. As I got closer she repeated herself, and I thought she was asking me something about my father. One of her favourite topics of interrogation was my family and why I don’t live with them.

Between my inadequate Chinese and her old-lady accent, I have trouble understanding everything she says at the best of times, and on this occasion the more she talked the less I understood. Butterflies? Someone’s father isn’t something? Something is really big? I was in a hurry to get home and eat lunch, so I gave up and said goodbye. She walked off hunched-over, purple scarf around her head, tears streaming down her cheeks from the cold, carrying her bags of bottles and a door-sized piece of Styrofoam.

A little later my neighbour, my landlord’s mother whom I call Ayi, came knocking to force me to eat a pear and check that everything inside my living room was as it should be. I asked her about the old lady.

Ayi pointed in the direction of the rubbish bins. “The garbage collector who loves abusing people? Be careful, she’ll swear at you!” she said, shaking her head. I knew then that we were talking about the same person, because the first time I stopped to have a chat with the old lady, while she was sifting through the bins and I was on my way to the supermarket, the conversation went like this:

Her: (Calling out to me loudly) Hey foreigner, do you understand me?

Me: Yes, I understand you.

Her: (Beckoning me over) How old are you?

Me:  I’m 32.

Her: (In a low voice) Your mother’s a cunt! 

Me: (Thinking I’ve misheard) Um, can you repeat that please?

Her: Your mother’s a cunt!

I laughed, excused myself and walked off. It made my day actually, and after that whenever I saw people either grinning, looking worried, or giving her dirty looks when I was having a chat to her, I figured she must be well-known for being foul-mouthed.

Ayi told me not to talk to her, that she’s a little crazy. I said, “Yeah, just now she was saying something I couldn’t understand, maybe about butterflies or someone’s dad.” Ayi laughed and told me that she was talking about Hu Jintao. Last week, Ayi said, the old lady was telling everyone in the neighbourhood that Hu Jintao beat his father to death – 胡锦涛把他爹打死了 – but this week she was saying that it didn’t happen. That’s what she was telling me earlier – 胡爹没打死了, Hu’s father wasn’t beaten to death. “Hu’s father” and “butterfly” are both pronounced hudie.

We had a good laugh over that, and I asked Ayi some more about the old lady. Apparently she is well over 80, collects garbage year-round, and has a son and daughter who both make good incomes. They have given her an apartment and plenty of money, but she insists on going out to scavenge anyway. Because of that, all of the other old people who go through the garbage for a living hate her. She yells insults at them and anyone who gives bottles to anyone else, and abuses random passersby for fun.

“Don’t worry,” chuckled Ayi, “If you give her an empty water bottle every now and then she’ll like you and won’t swear at you anymore. I gave her one once and now she leaves me alone. She tells me things, but I don’t stop and talk to her, I just wave and keep going. She’s not right in the head.”

Sam teaches English at a middle school in Daqing, Heilongjiang, and writes a blog, Things I Notice While Studying Chinese