First and foremost, I’m having an incredible time. I think I just had the best food week of my life, and I already feel more confident in my language abilities. I think locals are starting to warm up to my lanky, foreign frame as I become more comfortable speaking. But I am definitely a lifetime or two away from cracking the shell that is Beijing, and have one solid explanation as to why.
The first time my classmates and I walked into the Baozi shop was before our first 8am classes, and our new Steamed Bun Playboy, rocking a slick Bathing Ape tee, couldn’t hold back an ear to ear smile as we all took turns stumbling through our orders. Everything we got was delicious. We went back every morning last week, filling up on steamed pork buns, vegetable buns, sausage pancakes and simple jelly French toast sandwiches. And then on Friday morning, right before our first weekly exam, the store was completely gutted. No kitchen, no dumplings and no hot soy milk to get us through the school day ahead. We just got yelled at by some sweaty construction workers who were busy razing our daily breakfast dreams. We were devastated.
And then on Sunday I walked by and, somehow, they were back up and running. In less than 40 hours she had been reborn in a mirror image of her former self. The entrance stood where the kitchen had been, the service counter replaced the refrigerator, and vice versa. Had it been my first time inside I would’ve assumed the interior predated the Cultural Revolution. The same old lady was at the helm of the griddle, where she was preparing the same Jianbing’s as before – crepe, egg, scallions, hoisin sauce, cabbage and pork skins, in that order – folded up and served hot. Although the American in me wanted an explanation, I knew I wouldn’t find one. The only change might’ve been that our Baozi Playboy fashioned an extra smug smile that day. I think he saw the confusion in our eyes and empty bellies. But the steamed buns, not unlike last week’s, spoke for themselves before class the next morning, and life in this city went on.
Construction and change at a blindingly fast pace is just one of many things that will always befuddle me about this place. Other things are more instantly gratifying though, like how cute all the small dogs manage to be no matter how scraggly their owners, and the sheer number of ludicrous, English language t-shirts that seamlessly fit into everyday life here. Those probably deserve their own ‘best of’ compilation later down the road.
Another abrupt introduction to this country has come in the form of the local students’ freshman orientation. Chinese nationals are required to serve, and in the first few weeks of their freshman year – in addition to signing up for classes – students learn how to march in their battalions, do all kinds of military tai chi exercises and salute their respective sergeants. It’s been really hard getting used to hoards of giggling young women walking to class wearing military boots, camouflage uniforms and bright red lipstick. You can hear their drills and music from nearly everywhere on campus, but luckily for my in-class attention span they will be done next week.
Food has been my go to platform for cultural exploration as I try to get situated to classes and my new timezone. Since Minzu University fills a quota for every Chinese ethnic minority, the food on and off campus is incredibly diverse. Though it’s only been about a week, my favorite dishes have hailed from Xinjiang province, which borders Mongolia, Russia, a bunch of the ‘Stans and India. The combination of Middle Eastern, Muslim, Indian and Chinese flavors is incredible, and I don’t anticipate the novelty of it letting me down anytime soon. Other than that, I’ve definitely halved my tastebud count with some Sichuan Food, and have explored the ins and outs of street food – Beijing’s famous Jianbing in particular. A classmate introduced it to me, and he’s quite the connoisseur; hit the link below to his writing on them.
The Bruins are playing the Flames here tomorrow. Yeah, those Bruins. Should be funny.
Word of the Day: Baozi – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baozi