• James Tam

My Bun Seller Teacher

Updated: Aug 24

It was in the late 1980s. Beijing was a very different world from my first visit ten years ago. Silently dynamic, it was changing at breathtaking speed while trying to appear eternally unperturbed on the surface. The country was reaching out in all directions to find its own path — one which turned out to be so exceptional and experimental that it had to be first test-driven in faraway Guangdong. Many restaurants were now open late at night. They used to close by about seven, when good people went home to read and sleep without first getting mind-numbed by the television.

This time, we stayed in the Wangfujing area where most tourists were, carrying crispy Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) in the wallet. In Guangdong, FEC had become a welcome medium, as they could be exchanged into foreign currencies. In Beijing, some small vendors were still not sure whether they were legitimate, and preferred normal Renminbi (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 Fen — 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 anyway, hot air’s good for digestion, and normally costs more than that. I handed him one Yuan in FEC. He examined it briefly, put it into his tin-can till, and gave me two steamy buns inside an ultra-thin plastic bag. ‘Xie Xie’ — thank you.

We went around the block, eating the buns as we walked. It’s the best meat and veggie bun I’ve ever eaten! We stopped walking to focus on enjoying them. Naturally, we discovered room for at least one to two more each. We finished walking the block, and I went up to buy more. It was then that I discovered that local residents were paying only twenty Fens each. We were overcharged 150%! To someone with a pathological sensitivity to percentage, that’s outrageous. Hurt by indignation, 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. Stern northern integrity set by time, culture, climate, and revolutionary ideals was caving in. Proud Beijing folks had capitulated; they evidently wanted to emulate southerners — less principled, less honest, less uptight, more money.

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 judgemental reaction.

It wasn’t the money, obviously. The thirty Fen difference would have resulted in small change notes, most of them damp, worn, and tacky like spent tissues back then, semi-decomposing after an interminable and placid tour of duty in planned economy. Had I been given them as change, I might have actually tossed them out when back at the hotel. Why then did I get upset over something which had absolutely no value to me, but was additional ‘profit’ to the vender? And because of that, annoyingly, I forewent the chance of eating a few more of the best buns on earth.

I knew my bourgeois justifications well enough: It’s a matter of principle, of course! Folks who say this often believe themselves to be staunch defenders of integrity, honesty and fairness, especially when it suits them, and when the ‘principles’ are not dangerous to defend. I was no exception. However, as I grudgingly digested a lone bun in my stomach, it dawned on me that trivial ‘matters of principle’, even if consistently and equably applied, could be just petty-mindedness in disguise. But where should one draw the line of pettiness? I asked myself. Simple: where common sense and generosity intersect. Not having either would be a personal tragedy which nobody can help.

Thinking down the ‘principle’ line, I started to realise my glaringly dubious standards.

I was a design-and-build contractor of sewage treatment plants. Had someone asked me for a cost estimate of a certain size plant, I would have given him a conservative ball-park figure. If the enquirer said Hey, that sounds great, well within my budget, go ahead! I’d have doubted his sanity, taken the office out to celebrate, and bought my wife flowers.

Under barbaric competition, I might have built the same plant for less — say, by a couple of million? Could anyone accuse me for having cheated my client, therefore? Definitely not — not legally, not ethically. Don’t even think about it. But how was that hypothetical scenario different from the bun transaction that morning? None that I could think of, except that the vendor was much poorer, and the amount involved was negligible. Somehow, I expected poorer folks to be voluntarily more ‘honest’. Plutocrats cut legal corners all the time to make mega bucks. They are being ‘clever’. The bun sellers took advantage of market conditions and made a few pennies more. He was ‘cheating’.

My reaction to the morning’s ‘overcharging’ incident was pure nonsense, utter bullshit. Unexpectedly, the trivial incident changed my perspective on many things. I have since relayed this little story to friends when triggered by a relevant situation, or irritated by snobbish comments about poor folks having lousy principles. It’s time that I write it down.

Meanwhile, Beijing has changed even more drastically. Hope and anxiety have not lessened. The future has arrived in a hurry, colliding with the ancient past. Old Beijing-ren moan that street-side buns are not as good as they once were, but ridiculously more expensive. They’ve been saying that since the days of Emperor Qinlong though. Those who remember the FEC have mostly retired. These days, all customers, wherever they’re from, pay the same price. Just scan the QR code and press pay.

James Tam 2021.3.10


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