The Best Bun In the Solar System

I’ve lived in Beijing twice, once for four weeks and once for ten. Once was in high school, when I was sixteen, and once when I was in college, when I was nineteen. The first time I lived with a Chinese family, and the second I lived in dorms with my college friends. My homestay family woke me up at 7:00 AM some mornings to play badminton and my college roommate woke me up at 8:00 AM every morning with an alarm clock that played a cello rendition of Beethoven’s Fur Elise. I like badminton and Beethoven a lot less now.

On my first trip, on the first day of classes a Chinese man walked up to me and asked me for directions on the subway. On my second trip I sat shotgun in a cab and the driver who talked politics and kept offering me drags on his cigarettes. On both trips I climbed the same mountain, and sipped Baijiu. On both trips I pretended, poorly, to like it.[1]  I went to a bun shop nearly every day on the first trip. It was closed when I returned on my second trip.

June 2011

It’s been ten minutes on the tarmac and, due to events unexplained to passengers, the flight staff disclosed that there would be no movie services or entertainment available for the following seven hundred and eighty-five minutes and everyone groans.[2] Sitting in the tarmac at JFK bought up a hovering feeling of anxiety. I have, though admittedly totally self-diagnosed and mostly benign, aerophobia. When the plane shudders, and it will a lot in Hour 8, my high school friend to my left will incessantly parrot “This is nothing, stop freaking out” which I will respond to by gripping the armrests enough to make the veins in my hands pop up. One very late night a few weeks prior, I stumbled upon flight crash data that some people on the Internet are very serious about maintaining. A few days before my flight my high school Chinese teacher made the joke that Air China used to crash all the time. I didn’t find that funny. [3]

But now, from my seat between two high school friends, I’m spotting what appear to me to be pretty serious warning signs that we might not make it the full 6,829 miles. The armrests have remotes embedded in the side, and reaching down for mine I feel it give a little too much, only to realize that the remote’s cord has been totally severed. Looking around, a lot of these remotes are missing to begin with.[4]  I’m getting the overwhelming sense that this plane was plucked up and kindly dusted off after a long stay in some scrapyard. The scarcity of the remotes, combined with my chair’s inability to recline (and the chair in front of me has the ability to recline very generously), and the horrific 80s-coach-bus, fuzzy polyester, zigzag blue upholstery of the chairs, and the way the right wing shakes like paper in rough patches of air mean I sweat more than usual.

During Hour 3 I fall asleep briefly. During Hour 6 my high school friend on my right is doubled over, rocking slightly back and forth and points out that, “Jesus, we’re only half way done,” which is technically inaccurate. He is also making it quite clear that “He doesn’t fly often,” though for the prior 360 minutes or so he’d been handling it more stoically than I.

From about Hour 1 to Hour 12 my high school friend sitting in the aisle across from us is passed out cold, like someone took his batteries out which spurs a running competition for the remainder of the trip to figure out if this guy is a robot or human.[5] From the minute he sits down in his seat, he covers his body up to his chin with the blanket, puts on his oversized Bose headphones, and remains totally still for twelve hours straight. If I listen closely I think I can hear in his soft, deep-sleep breathing the same whirring sound as the internal fan of my laptop.

In the meantime the plane passes over Northern Canada. It passes over the Arctic Circle and the North Pole and then it gets cold in the cabin. It passes over Siberia soon after and it’s still cold. Robot wakes up for Hour 13, somewhere above Manchuria and then we land soon after.

 _______

The first time you breath in outside of Beijing Capital International Airport, you come up gasping. The air is thick, sweet, smoky, and awful, and it tastes just about the same on your tongue. [6] We arrive at night, and the thick fog and dust particles take on the color of the yellow incandescent headlights and streetlamps. So we’re standing outside on the sidewalk and the cityscape is colored black and white, but also with generous helpings of that spectral yellow, and we’re all a little stunned and out of breath. A small, beige bus shaped like a loaf of bread rolls up and we hop in.[7]          

Our bus driver isn’t wearing a shirt and even though that seems weird the muggy humidity of the night also seems to justify it. But on the drive towards the city, we pull up next to another cab in gridlock traffic, and I notice that the cab driver, as well as some man sitting in the passenger side who is idly chain smoking, are both shirtless as well and I realize that I’m picking up on some sort of radically foreign cultural trend and I’m right: the number of beer bellies I see over the next few weeks will grow exponentially with each day. [8]

We get dropped off at the building that houses our school to meet our homestay family and I stumble through the Chinese introductions I know. To treat my culture shock, they take me to McDonalds and it holds me over until we get to their apartment.

I stayed on the second floor in one of a series of near-identical towers that form a community, across the street from a theater.[9] The façade of the theater was blindingly lit up with yellow Chinese characters in massive LEDs, with a background that alternated between blue and white with epileptic frequency, while it indirectly cast light rhythmically past my bedroom blinds.  I don’t sleep much the first night, [10] and working through the jetlag I fire off several emails to family members and friends saying I made it through the flight, and one email that turned into an economic treatise on China as a third world country that I later discover, only after glancing at my original message in my teacher’s reply, is mortifyingly incoherent.

 The next day we start classes, and we discover a bun shop next to subway station I get off at to go to school.[11] It was more of a shack than a shop. It had a rectangular window cut out of its wooden frame facing the street, and was painted red (though the paint peeled in most places) and had a black shingle roof. It had a shop to its left of that, bewilderingly, sold mostly buddha statutes, prayer beads, and ice cream. 

The woman who ran the shop, and presumably made the buns, would wear a trucker hat with a cartoonish, blocky cat on the front, a pink polo short sleeve under a brown apron, and khaki cargo shorts. There was never anything to suggest that this was a  mandatory uniform but she wore it every day I went, and I went everyday.

So each morning I walked out of my building, past the other towers and onto the street. I’d wait for traffic to stop, which in Beijing is less about a red light and more about making probabilistic guesses if the next ten seconds presented a good chance to sprint across the street without getting mowed down by some shirtless cabbie who drives like he has a death wish, and walk past the theater to the bus. I’d board, learning soon that the only way to get on the seriously, seriously overcrowded buses required treating it like a contact sport, and then got off to take only slightly less crowded subway.

The Beijingers who lined up every morning enjoyed the sight of the three white guys lining up with the commuters for breakfast. The woman in the shack seemed, at best, pleasantly bewildered that we kept showing up, but we were addicted. Even my Robot high school friend,  maybe by some glitch, consistently showed up with the rest of us.  

I did that for four weeks.[12] We visited before we left to say goodbye. 

June 2013

I’m sitting between two college friends on the tarmac at JFK waiting to fly to Beijing again and the similarity to my first trip isn’t totally lost on me.[13] Though the plane looks newer, and safer (the armrests don’t even have remotes) and I’ve now crossed the ocean twice successfully with Air China so I let myself believe in a little gambler’s fallacy that I’m on some sort of hot streak.

I’ve come prepared with four movies, though it turns out inflight movies are available. My two friends are passed out cold for almost the entire trip, though my college friend to my right manages to wake up during an extremely graphic sex scene on my screen and mumble half asleep something to the effect of, “What the hell are you watching?” I just shrug and she passes back out.

The plane still shudders and I still grip the armrests and my forearms still flex from the pounds of applied pressure, but I’m keeping myself occupied watching movie after movie. I’ve learned to look around at everyone else around me, and try to moderate my reaction with the herd’s. By the end of the flight I’ve watch seven movies, and I have that special kind of delirium brought on by watching a screen for that long with no sleep. [14] The flight passes mostly uneventfully, my perspiration level is normal, and I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that my heart rate didn’t spike more than once or twice. I think maybe this is what it feels to be mature.

My knees don’t buckle like they did for my first gasp of Beijing air, but the bread-shaped bus is back and everyone, maybe a little lightheaded from all that time spent at ten thousand feet, is chattering about the past fourteen hours and the next thirteen weeks. In the dark, the passing buildings look just about the same sketched in mostly black and white and with those splotches of yellow, but there seem also to be more brightly lit billboards with smiling women holding bottled tea, and even ads for some luxury car brands.

Though I can’t see it in the dark, I’m looking out into a different country. The GDP per capita has gone up by a thousand bucks. There are a few hundred thousand more cars on the road in Beijing and a few million more living in within its boundaries. The air has gotten worse.

To treat the culture shock, we get pizza and it isn’t great, but it’s close to the dorm and no one is willing to commit to wandering around in the dark. The streets look about the same, though. There’s that same yellow, bumpy concrete strip running down the middle of the sidewalk that I learned on my first trip was meant to help the blind keep from drifting into the street. There still are those sky bridges that run over the street traffic to walk over and guarantee that no cab, barring those capable of launching themselves ten feet in the air, will hit you.

But the people are different. We’ve only known each other for a year at most, instead of the three years I knew my high school friends before going to the other side of the planet with them. As our trip is between our freshman and sophomore year we’re in a limbo between being clueless and clueless know-it-alls, but, since I’ve been to Beijing before, I think I end up fitting more into the second category as I drop casually the origin of that yellow concrete sidewalk strip and brag about my bun stand.

Still, one of my Chinese teachers from my first trip is off in another province getting married.[15] Another two that were dating at the time of my first trip have since broken up and I only end up seeing one before I leave.

My dorm is definitely different from my homestay apartment. [16] It’s a repurposed Chinese hotel, and it looks like it. There are two small beds separated by a box-like nightstand with desks and a TV we can’t figure out how to work. It’s all white walls, floors, and sheets with dull gold curtains and it feels sterile, though that feeling is soon overcome as the room makes the transition from hotel to a messier-than-average dorm room. The shower is just a nozzle attached above the floor, and any prolonged showers meant risking flooding the room. The toilet had possibly the lowest water pressure of any I’ve ever seen.[17] I’ll just say that became very stressful.

After we settle in for a few days, I get two of my college friends to come with me to the bun shop since I’ve been jonesing and I think they’re also looking to see how full of shit I am since at every opportunity I’ve claimed to know the “BEST” bun place in this solar system.

We get to the neighborhood it’s in and I’m starting to understand the kind of haziness two years of absence brings to memory. We try one side of the street next to the subway station. Then we try the other. Then I think I spot a red shack that has the new addition one of those digital signs you see stock quotes drift from right to left on, but this one just said “BUNS” in Chinese over and over. We walk over but this isn’t it.

Then I spot the Buddha, beads and ice cream shop so we cross the street again. Only to its right is a juice shop, and now I realize what’s happened. It’s a popular Beijing chain, and there are actually now two on this street. It has a silver and grey façade, and under the cutout, rectangular window the cashier takes orders through is a lit up display of different juices. The counter is chrome and the cashier is wearing an actual uniform of a grey visor and apron, both with the chain’s logo that’s a red swirl. There’s no line here, and she doesn’t know what I’m talking about when I ask about the bun stand.

We step back, and I’m still looking at the shack-turned-shop, like if I keep looking it’ll change back. I feel like less of a know-it-all.  I turn around to face the street, and look our over the steady flow of traffic, the pedestrians, before I give up on looking for something familiar. We find somewhere else to eat, and return to the dorm. Class started the next day.

 

[1] Baijiu is a highly alcoholic, clear liquor that the Chinese traditionally drink despite the fact that it’s flavor and odor is often compared to diesel fuel. It’s actually the most popular spirit in the world in large part due to China’s size, and I think they get a seriously twisted-schadenfreude kick out of watching foreigners try a drop to be polite.

[2] Having only been on a handful of 2-3 hour flights prior, I groan too without really getting it, a lot like laughing without getting the joke. At Hour 7 of 13.41, I get the joke.

[3] Air China is, and was at the time of my flight, actually a member of the Star Alliance and my Internet research at the time gave me the impression there were some kind of safety standards in place for members.  At the very least being in an “Alliance” suggested to me it probably had its act together. The fact that my stomach would still do small somersaults at even the slight vibrations of the cabin makes me think, though, that there’s some phobia at play here; that despite that I’m aware that the statistical safety of each flight is actually pretty high, the fact that I’m still nervous as hell points to something more irrational and basic in control in the back of my mind.

[4] This may have been the reason there were no movies.

[5] Waiting at our gate he demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much everything, and turned out to have a perfect GPA, which makes sense since, though I don’t know it then, he’ll end up attending a very good school on the West Coast with a sunny campus next to Silicon Valley.

[6] As a point of pride, we refuse to wear those paper face masks only surgeons in America wear, but that become popular in Beijing dependent on how poor the day’s air quality. By Week 3 we have coughs.

[7] The simile to a loaf of bread isn’t mine. Microvans in China are called 面包, or literally “bread vehicle.” The bread vans that rent themselves out, like this one, are unilaterally beige, sport curtains, and would be totally out of place on an American motorway due to how absurd they look and their apparent inability to clock anything above 40 miles per hour.

[8]  Chinese men either forego shirts all together (my high school friend on my right’s homestay father shed his button down at an upscale restaurant before getting down to eat) or lazily roll up their shirts to the bottom of their ribcage. We try to emulate this, but somehow can’t make it stay up like they do. Further research on this is required.

[9] To underscore just how identical these apartment buildings are, halfway through Week 2 I walked into, what turned out to be, the building next door, which only became apparent after I walked into an apartment populated by an entirely different family. Everyone stopped talking to look at me before I apologized, and quickly walked out.

[10] Two hours.

[11] Buns have been lost to the American incarnation of Chinese food, from the best I can tell. They have thick skins and can be filed with pretty much anything. The vegetarian buns and the beef buns were good, but the pork buns were really fucking good.

[12] Except for one notable exception where I tried to get tea from a mall next to my school and ended up getting locked in the stairwells, since the mall was actually not even open yet, and having to convince the security guard (who may have slept there) that I was not a thief, but that’s a different story. I didn’t try to get tea again.

[13] In a way though, the seating arrangement doesn’t resonate too strongly. As an extremely skinny kid growing up, my gift/curse had been the ability to make three people sit comfortably by squeezing in the space between them. Typically I volunteer to pretend I have some choice here.

[14] Silver Linings Playbook and Lincoln were not meant to be watched in one sitting.

[15] As a woman who always wore the same skirt and cartoon cat T-shirt, and spent most of class time giggling and talking about things that were “cute,” I find this totally unimaginable.

[16] The family didn’t reply to my email I sent before the trip. It’s possible they didn’t see it, or I wrote down the email address wrong, but I end up failing to see them for the entire time I’m back in Beijing.

[17] It had a label that touted its being “environmentally friendly” which felt like a slap in the face to cut it out every time its weak swirl got frustrating.