It was a lazy Sunday afternoon when I came across the store. “Ai’s Cream!” the banner outside screamed in bold red letters. Scrawled underneath was illegible (to me) text 诶艾’娜 西艾伊诶开, also in bold red, that I assumed referred to the English above it. There was no way for me to confirm it. But, I was intrigued all the same.
The name, as well as the store, seemed to be an anomaly in Hikkaduwa, the well-known beach resort along the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka, where I was sojourning for a week.
Perhaps the Chinese have infiltrated Sri Lanka too, I mused.
I had been told by my much better half that there were two reasons for being in Hikkaduwa then: (i) For Relaxation and Rehabilitation (or R and R, to be hip); (ii) Our friends accompanying us (or us them); in fact, they were the ones who had decided the itinerary.
Also, worth mentioning here is that it was a self-imposed vacation away from home, kids and work – an ‘away vacation’ happening a second time in the year, within six months of the first one. That I had succumbed to both vacations could entirely be attributed to the power of persuasion of the aforementioned better half. [The fact that it is only recently that I have transitioned from vacationing in my head to vacationing outside of it, is a story for another day]
Within the first one or two days in Hikkaduwa, I had already walked up and down the main street (there being just one artery running through the town) housing quaint stores, and spas, offering rather routine beach wear or ayurvedic massages, or both. Facing the beach was a long stretch of restaurants. The stores, restaurants and spas had typical names expected of such commercial entities hoping to attract tourists – foreigners, mostly Europeans – who had descended en masse on the beach resort to usher in the New Year in tropical weather in minimal clothes, far away from their frigidly cold hometowns. It seemed like those Caucasian New Year’s holiday revelers had outnumbered the indigenous, dark-skinned Sri Lankans several folds. [Thanks to my complexion, my accent notwithstanding, it was fun to pass myself off as a native, especially to throw the white, out-of-towners into a state of confusion!]
Apparently, this was “the beach resort to seriously celebrate New Year’s Eve”, per the travel guide I had picked up at the airport. Since I hadn’t experienced any other beach town over New Year’s Eve in the past, either in Sri Lanka or elsewhere – Karachi didn’t quite qualify, or even if it did, I had never been invited to a New Year’s Eve beach bash there – I had nothing to compare with.
‘Ai’s Cream’ with its chicken scrawl banner was different, as I mentioned earlier. The small store was a bright pink, appearing even brighter because of the neighboring stores subdued earthy and bland exteriors. A few unfamiliar Chinese cartoons adorned the walls giving the store a rather child-like, festive look. I was still quite curious as to what product or activity it was dealing in. It was certainly not swimwear because I didn’t see any in the display window, which was surprisingly devoid of any product. Was ‘Ai’s cream’ some massage cream perhaps? Although, with its minimalist and nubile, pink décor, the place was not at all reminiscent of a traditional Lankan spa.
And then I caught sight of the wall adjacent to the cash counter. There were pictures of the world-famous brands comprising Ben & Jerry’s, Movenpick and Haagen-Dazs.
Ai’s Cream…. Ice cream…Aah! What a great take on that name!
There was a menu tacked on the wall right behind the counter: the store was offering Chinese ice cream as it’s ‘New Year’s special’. The menu was both in English and Chinese…Mandarin, to be precise, as I found out later.
Yummy! I wouldn’t mind having today’s special, I thought.
Whilst admiring the creativity inherent in the store’s name and getting more interested by the minute in trying Chinese ice cream in Sri Lanka, I rang the bell on the counter.
A young girl appeared through the door that led to the back of the store. She had a striking resemblance to Lucy Liu, the American actress of Ally McBeal and Kill Bill fame (and Elementary on Netflix, most recently). But, that’s where the resemblance ended. Unlike the actress in her dressy evening gowns, the girl behind the counter appeared to be her antithesis. She was wearing blue denim overalls, a few sizes larger than her body’s requirement. Her black rubber boots were what a farmer might wear in a paddy field. Her hair was tied into a single braid, with several errant strands that had escaped and collected haphazardly on her forehead. The tattoo that encircled her upper arm caught my attention (as all tattoos on people’s arms do in my peripatetic life, my craving for a tattoo on my own arm notwithstanding) – it appeared to be a sideways lying Caduceus symbol used in the medical field; a winged needle around which are two intertwined snakes. The celebrity-like face and quasi-professional tattoo were incongruent to her generally rustic habiliments that were more reminiscent of a country hick from Small Town, Texas.
“You aren’t Sri Lankan!” I blurted out. And as soon as I did, I realized how stupid it was of me to do so.
Even if she took offense she didn’t indicate as such.
“Hi. I’m Ai; as in A-I the letters, but pronounced I” said Ai, in her adorable Chinese accent. “What would you like today?”
Had Ai’s English been more American, without the accent, then she could’ve passed off as a younger Lucy Liu, the chaotic demeanor notwithstanding? Or she could have still been Lucy Liu acting out the role of Ai….?
“Ai, I would like your special Ai’s Cream” I chuckled.
“Ha! Ha! So, I see that you appreciate the name of my store, Lankan native”.
“Sorry, I’m not Lankan. Au contraire, I’m from Pakistan, your friendly neighbor. Made friendlier by CPEC”.
“Well then welcome to Hikkaduwa, friendly neighbor! What is CPEC? It sounds ominous”. Ai was likely not from Western China nor that area of it immediately bordering northern Pakistan, since she was clueless about CPEC.
“CPEC stands for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, a collection of infrastructural projects that are meant to assist Pakistan’s development. Heavily funded by your government, it’s supposed to bring lots of Chinese investment to Pakistan, and in return, Western China secures a passage to the deep-sea ports within the Arabian Sea, and from there further westwards”. I probably sounded like an automaton’s rendition of Wikipedia’s entry on CPEC.
“How fascinating!” said Ai. “I had no idea so much was happening there. I’m surprised I haven’t heard about this CPEC project; maybe because I have traveled so much over the last two decades”.
Ai did not look that old to me.
“I know what you are thinking. I just look young. I am in my fourth decade now.” She had read my mind.
“I graduated from medical school in China and practiced there for a few years as a pediatrician.” That former bit explained the tattoo on her arm. The doodles that she had commissioned for her store’s walls and her clothes would’ve been a Patch Adams like approach towards child-centricity.
“I got bored with living in China practicing medicine among the natives, year in year out. In my medical practice it wasn’t the kids that I had a problem with, but their parents. Dealing with those parents was just tedious to boot.” She concluded for the moment.
Either Ai was naturally really chatty or her verbosity could be attributed to the lack of additional customers then.
Since she had paused for a bit while telling her story, I managed to get a word in.
“Yours is an amazing story, Ai!” I was sincerely impressed. In all those years of my own pediatric practice, I hadn’t even managed to make so much as a dent in my clinical routine, let alone become entrepreneurial vis-à-vis opening a store, ice-cream parlor or otherwise.
“How did you come to settle in this beach resort?” I enquired.
“I first came here in my late thirties and fell in love with it instantly. The first trip was with a few friends who persisted that I accompany them on vacation. I’m glad I did. I kept coming back – for one or two weeks of holiday, that would extend to three or four weeks – long after my friends had returned to the homeland. I kept my medical practice in China, but cut down on the extent of it. Over the past five years, I saved enough to buy a bit of real estate here and as soon as the local government lifted its ban on foreigners buying property in Sri Lanka, I pounced on the opportunity. The model that keeps me sane now is clinical practice in tandem with meaningful entrepreneurship. Every year I spend around two months, spanning Christmas and New Year’s, running my ice cream enterprise in Hikkaduwa”. The emphasis on that last bit said with a twinkle in her eyes, was not lost on me.
At that moment, two small children, Europeans most likely, walked into the store, closely followed by their equally European parents.
Ai’s eyes lit up on seeing her customers. She quickly walked around the counter and up to the children and did a little jig in her ridiculously oversized overalls and rubber boots.
“Welcome to Ai’s Cream for ice cream made from the freshest milk of the best moomoos in town…moo! Moo!” She sang while she pranced. That performance did wonders. The kids squealed in delight. Ai was a natural with young children. I was further impressed by her attention to child-centric customer service, something that I knew I sorely lacked in my pediatric practice.
Subsequently, Ai got so involved with her kiddie customers that my sidling out of the store went unnoticed. I had to join my travel companions for early supper and after that we had planned to watch the sunset at the beach. Hence, I forgot to relate to them my intriguing encounter with Ai that afternoon.
The next day, our final one in Hikkaduwa, was chaotic with last-minute packing to ensure we were ready to leave for the airport in ample time. Still, I managed to get some time to drop by Ai’s Cream, hoping to say goodbye to her. I was disappointed when I saw the shutters were down.
Had I known that my first meeting with Ai was going to be my last, then perhaps I would’ve prolonged that maiden encounter, or taken her contact information prior to walking out of her store, or her life, or something else along those lines.
After getting back to Karachi, I sought out Ai through Ai’s Cream on Google and Facebook, but that didn’t reveal any hits. I did learn though that Ai was Chinese (or Mandarin) for love. Was her name symbolic? Had I fallen for her, hence pensiveness pervaded my life? I don’t think so. What was more likely that I had fallen in love with what she personified – emancipation from the drudgery of (professional) life, for a doctor, or otherwise.
It’s been some time since I met Ai. Our connection, albeit brief, was insightful. With so many parallels in our respective journeys, Ai appeared to be a kindred spirit. Interacting with her was organic and tolerable, even for an inherently laconic person like myself.
Perhaps that aspect of Ai I found most captivating, the one I think most about, is coexistence of the thoroughly professional (medical career, for instance) alongside the seemingly mundane (like managing an ice cream store). I can’t wait to acquire a similar capability, that is, to manage both kinds of work simultaneously, and to excel that way. Ai, without even realizing it, had taught me a valuable lesson.
All said and done, the one regret that shall remain though: I never got to taste Ai’s New Year’s Special – the Chinese ice cream!
Although an ER physician, researcher, and innovator-intrapreneur at the Aga Khan University, Asad’s proclivity for writing is his means of creative exploration and expression. His articles on healthcare, education, innovation, children, humor, and popular culture have appeared in newspapers in the US and in Pakistan. Other than the fictional Biloongra series of bilingual books for children, he has authored 'An Itinerant Observer' a book of brief narratives first published in the US in 2014 which was reprinted by Bookgroup in Pakistan in 2020. His first non-fiction popular science book on low-cost creative innovation and entrepreneurship will hit virtual bookstands this summer.