Now that it’s almost December, marking 4 months since I arrived, it’s high time to dip into a subject very close to my heart. Wherever I go in China, it’s always there, and I warm a little when I see it. In fact, I will sometimes go out of my way to enjoy it on a walk to campus, even if I’m running a little late (which, let’s be honest, is just about every day.)
I am, of course, referring to baozi (包子).
Baozi are these steamed buns that have some sort of filling in the middle—vegetables, meat, a combination of the two—and are always warm. Sometimes when I look at them, I think they don’t have any filling at all. But then I take a bite and steam wisps out, fogging my glasses, and I slowly eat the hidden treat with the feeling of a smile about to crest on the horizon. Before I made myself go to the market and purchase mittens, I’d buy baozi and cup them in my hands, their heat seeping through the thin plastic bag they’re put into. Whether or not I biked to school hinged on baozi.
But I guess other things hinge on baozi, too.
For one month, I helped to coach students as they prepared for the FLTRP Cup English Speaking Contest, and one of them, Alex, had to answer the question: What Chinese foods would you serve a foreigner? He had some very interesting (and mouth-watering) answers, and wouldn’t you know it? Baozi was one of them.
“It’s probably because they’re tasty. And cheap!” I thought as I scribbled down the food recommendations in the corner of my judging sheet. But then he got more into it.
In his view, baozi are the perfect symbol of the Chinese character: “You see, the filling is on the inside, not showing off like pizza or something like that, because Chinese people are humble.”
I won’t (completely) argue with that. When my students come into class, exactly none of them arrive with a swagger. Maybe some of the boys grin and stride back to their seats, but when asked to speak, they don’t yell things out in a confident voice. It’s usually a shuffle, head down, or an apologetic look when they arrive late.
“I’m sorry, my English is very poor…” most say before telling me what’s on their minds. I’m often tempted to reply “Well, that’s why you’re in this class,” but I know how easily baozi can tear if you’re not careful.
And that’s just it. Sometimes I take it for granted that saying the first thing on your mind over here is not part of the culture. You always have to be calm. I made the mistake once of publicly disagreeing with another teacher when he was offering critique for something, and I could feel the conflicting “Oh, this is awkward” and “She doesn’t know any better, she’s just a foreigner” vibes in the room. I think the school allows me a little idiot-room as I crash into norm violations like a child trying to learn how to stop in a skating rink.
So, it’s not complete propaganda to say the Chinese are humble. When I compliment a student on something, they’ll always say “Oh, I can do better” or “My pronunciation is terrible” rather than “thanks!” Even the language—saying “还不错”(literally: “pretty not bad”) is a really great compliment. Just like the baozi—not wearing the very best qualities on the outside.
But I’ve noticed something about baozi.
Alex was right: the filling is on the inside of the baozi. However, the filling is not completely concealed. There’s a little hole, where the dough converges on the top, and right in that hole, some of the filling just barely peeks through. Baozi are not 100% humble.
And I see it sometimes in class—a brief grin when a student says something well, or an involuntary answer to a question I pose, followed by another if I handle with care. The filling’s always been there, but every so often, it peeks out through the top for all to see.
“Humble” is not a fixed concept. True, many people over here are not eager to show off, but the fact that some have the pride in their culture to declare that they’re humble says to me that the tip of the baozi is open just a crack. There is pride, it’s definitely there, and every so often, you see it curling up to the sky like tendrils of smoke.
But of course, you have to cup the outside of the baozi in your hands first and admire it for what it already is. And let the hint of what lies beneath creep through the crack and entice you to take the first bite.