Melody’s Olympics: The lard birthday cake and other tales from Beijing

Minnesota Public Radio’s Melody Ng is in China on vacation, providing News Cut readers with a street-level view of life in Beijing during the Olympics.

8-20-08 The Shuangjing Neighborhood (where we’re living). We’re off for baked goods this morning. My husband doesn’t think our daughter has been eating enough. So we’re forgoing our usual breakfast of steamed pork buns and sweet tofu pudding or rice porridge with thousand-year-old eggs, and heading to a Chinese bakery around the corner.

Bakeries of the sort with which we’re familiar are new to China. Breads here are steamed, deep fried, or grilled on a flat, hot iron plate. Back when I lived in Xi’an, we also had these small, flat breads that were made by throwing round discs of dough up against the inside wall of what looked like a metal oil drum heated by coal, sitting out in the street. They’d stick to the wall until the bread was thoroughly cooked. So they were baked, but not in a conventional oven. I’ve never seen an oven in a Chinese apartment before, and I think even now in more modern China, they’re very rare in homes.

This bakery has what I think of as Taiwanese style breads and pastries – light, airy pre-sliced breads wrapped in cellophane, and western-like pastries, but of more Asian flavors: almond, coconut, peach, green tea, and lots of red bean. A guy follows us around the small shop carrying a tray and tongs, and when we select an item, he picks it up and places it onto the tray.

I feel silly having this attentive service when I’m buying just two pastries, but it’s obviously the way things are done here. The shop is empty of customers as it appears almost every time I pass by, but there are three other women in uniform standing around, on hand to wait on other customers should they materialize. Our puff pastry filled with cream is pretty good. My daughter digs happily into her sticky rice and red bean flat cake.

China’s westernesque baking has come a long way since 15 years ago when my teaching partner Amy and I (incredibly stupidly – please don’t try this at home!) stuffed a 10″ birthday cake down her toilet because we couldn’t eat it (it tasted like it was made of lard), and we didn’t want our school staff to know we didn’t eat it (because they had bought what was probably a very costly gift to celebrate Amy’s birthday in the way they figured she was used to).

We, of course, plugged up the toilet and flooded the bathroom floor. I ended up having to take a broom handle to try to break the cake up, which was really difficult because it was so solid. And Amy’s apartment smelled rancid for days.

8-20-08 An Olympic requirement. Hard to believe, but I think every cab driver in Beijing has now gone through six months of English lessons. At least, that’s what our driver said on the way to the beach volleyball competition the other evening. Mr. Li has been driving taxis for about 30 years now. He’s 51, and is looking forward to his forced retirement in four years when he turns 55. He says he speaks no English, that he’s “too old” to learn, and that he hasn’t needed it for work thus far. But for the past six months, after each of his 10-hour shifts, he’s had to sit through two hours of English lessons in preparation for the Olympics and us foreign visitors. To him, that was the only onerous part of hosting the Games in his hometown, but now it’s over. Classes ended with the opening ceremonies on 8-8-08 – a very auspicious day for Beijing cab drivers.

Can you imagine Twin Cities cabbies all having to take classes on civics and U.S. government (or the history of the Republican Party) to prepare for the RNC?

  • Can you imagine Twin Cities cabbies all having to take classes on civics and U.S. government (or the history of the Republican Party) to prepare for the RNC?

    The mind reels at the thought. And to be snarky…the cabbies would be more educated than the general MN populace as a result.

  • Bob Collins

    Hop in a cab driven by a Somali driver sometime. The odds are VERY high he’ll be listening to the news and information service of MPR.

    They’re pretty smart, though it’s unclear whether they’re smart because they listen to MPR, or they listen to MPR because they’re smart.

  • Dorianne

    Dang it, now I’m hungry for a coconut bun!

  • Alanna

    I have to say, I love these tales from China. They’re informative, interesting, and witty. I may never get to Beijing or China in my lifetime, but now I know a little more of the culture. Thank you so much!