• James Tam

My Bun Seller Teacher

It was the late 1980s. Beijing was silently dynamic, changing underneath at breathtaking speed, trying to look everlastingly the same on the surface. The country was reaching out in all directions to feel for the right one to pursue, one which was so exceptional, so unsure, that it had to be tried out first in the opportunistic South. Compared with ten years ago when I first visited, many restaurants were now open late at night. They used to close by about seven, when good people went home to bed.

This time we stayed in Wangfujing area, where most tourists were, carrying crispy Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) in the wallet. In Guangdong down south, FEC were a welcome medium, as they could be exchanged into foreign currencies. In Beijing, some small vendors still found them questionable, and preferred normal RMB.

On the first morning, we went down to the alley opposite the hotel to sample local street-breakfast for a minuscules fraction of what the hotel was charging. We readily spotted a bun seller across the street, face obscured by an appetising cloud of steam coming off his mobile cart. A small queue of customers had formed in front of it, hands in pockets, trying to hide from the early autumn wind. We joined the line, looking conspicuously “foreign” back then, accepting curious sideways glances.

When it was our turn, I ordered two buns. ‘Yi kuai’, said the seller without looking up. One Yuan for two? Fifty Fens — equivalent to an American nickel — each? Last week’s buns were selling for more than that in Hong Kong. Perhaps it’s empty, filled with nothing but hot air, my suspicious side cautioned, managing expectation. Well, get two anyways, hot air is good for digestion. I handed him one Yuan in FEC. He examined it briefly, put it into his tin-can till, and gave me two steamy buns in an ultra-thin plastic bag. ‘Xie Xie’.

We walked around the block, eating the buns. ‘Holy shit! This is the best meat and veggie bun I’ve ever had!’ We stopped walking to focus on enjoying them. Naturally, we had room for one or two more each. We finished walking the block, and I went up to buy more. It was then that I noticed local residents were paying only twenty Fens each. We were overcharged 150%! That’s outrageous! Indignant, I decided we had had enough breakfast.

I felt disappointed. A decade before, one could leave a bag of money on the streets of Beijing, and it’d still be there the next day, waiting for the rightful owner. Some hotel rooms had no locks. There was now a contrived effort to loosen up stern northern integrity set over the centuries by time and the climate. Without admitting it, proud Beijing folks had capitulated; they wanted to emulate southerners — less principled, less honest, less uptight, more prosperous.

The trivial episode somehow refused to go away, and flashed through my mind periodically for the rest of the day. Something wasn’t quite right about my reaction.

It wasn’t the money, obviously. The thirty-Fen difference would have resulted in small change notes, most of them damp and worn like spent tissues, semi-decomposed. Had I been given change, I might have to toss them out eventually for sanitary reasons. I was therefore upset over something which had absolutely no value to me, but meant additional ‘profit’ to the hardworking vender. It made no sense. Worst of all, I forewent the chance of eating one or two more of the best buns on earth.

I knew my bourgeois justification well enough, of course — But it’s a matter of principle! Folks who say this often believe themselves to be staunch defenders of integrity, honesty and fairness, especially when it suits them, and playing hero poses no conceivable danger. However, minute matters of principle, even if consistently and equably applied, can in fact be frivolous and petty-minded. Not knowing where to draw the reasonable line is a personal tragedy.

Thinking down the ‘principle’ line, I realised how blind I had been to my glaringly dubious standards. I was a contractor in wastewater treatment facilities. Had someone asked me for an estimate of a certain size plant, and I had given him my professional guesstimate of, say, ten million, it would sensibly be on the ‘conservative’ side at that early stage. If the enquirer said Hey, that sounds great, well within my budget, go ahead! I’d have taken the office out to celebrate, and bought my wife flowers. If the plant eventually turned out successful, and the client was happy, I would have done a great job.

However, under barbaric competition, I might have grabbed the same contract for eight million, then figured out how to cut corners, or go bankrupt. Could anyone accuse me for having cheated my client two million then? Definitely not — not legally, not ethically. How would that hypothetical scenario differ from the bun transaction that morning, except that the vendor was much poorer, and he ‘overcharged’ thirty Fens rather than two million?

Somehow, we righteously expect poor folks to be more voluntarily ‘honest’ in making a living, and admire ‘clever’ plutocrats ‘legally’ circumventing contractual and social obligations. My reaction to the morning’s ‘overcharging’ incident was pure nonsense, utter bullshit, a consequence of having lived under the spell of a money-directed narrative all my life.

The ‘trivial’ incident fundamentally shifted my perspective on many things. Over the decades, I have relayed this little story to friends when triggered by a relevant situation, or snobbish comments about poor folks having lousy principles. It’s time that I write it down.

Meanwhile, Beijing has reinvented itself, becoming a fusion of history, traditions, revolution, and a futuristic vision — still hopeful, still anxious. Old Beijing-ren nostalgically lament that street buns are not as good as they used to be, but much more expensive, they’ve been saying that since the days of Emperor Qinlong. Those who remember the FEC are mostly retired. All customers pay the same price now, wherever they’re from. Just scan the QR code and press pay.

James Tam 2021.3.10


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