Breaktfast in Beijing

Breakfast in Beijing

As I sipped the corn porridge, I thought to myself, “I am finally beginning to make friends with Chinese breakfast.”

For more than thirty years, I have had trouble with this least-famous aspect of Chinese cuisine. Lunch and dinner, which can consist of the same food, are justly renowned for the variety of delicious dishes, but breakfast? Well, it’s just one of those things that you either endure or even avoid altogether.

I was not surprised at another conference last year when a bunch of us foreigners were sitting around the breakfast table, and one of them said, “I don’t know about you, but I still haven’t gotten used to Chinese breakfasts.” One by one, almost everyone expressed the same sentiment. Our combined experience with Chinese cuisine probably added up to several hundred years, but we still did not feel at home at this event.

Some, it is true, find the fried breads tasty, but I am a nutrition freak, and the thought of inflicting that sort of poison on my delicate stomach first thing in the morning seems to cruel. The other offerings are healthier – cooked vegetables, dumplings stuffed with pork, and what appear to be basically last night’s leftovers, supplemented by greasy fried eggs that aren’t any more appetizing because they are cold. Nutritious or not, however, they don’t “belong” on the table in the morning, at least in my ethno-centric view.

I should say that the hot soybean milk stands out as an exception. As soon as I arrive in a Chinese city, I find the nearest stall that sells soybean milk and take home a cup full to my lodgings, where I put it on my cereal and – yes – into my coffee, as a milk substitute. The poor waitresses at this hotel blanched in horror, and tried to stop me,  when they saw me ladle some into my coffee just now. I smiled and said I knew what I was doing.

“Strange, isn’t it?” I said with a smile that they returned with great difficulty. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I also put the soymilk into my cereal.

But I’ve been in this conference center for four mornings now, and believe that one must start the day out right, so I have forced myself to find things that I can handle. Gradually, it has become less of an ordeal, to the point that I was actually almost looking forward to it this morning.

Nor was I disappointed, for they had dumplings filled with greens, perhaps spinach, both corn and sweet potato porridge (I chose the corn), and hot soybean milk. For the first time here, I also saw sweet red bean pastries (the crust is thick but it’s made of wheat flour, so guess you can call it a pastry).

I was congratulating myself for overcoming what for me is one of the final barriers to acculturation (the others including spicy hot food, chicken feet, and the assortment of weird creatures from the deep that they love so much, especially in the South), until I bit into that cold, greasy fried egg. Well, it contains necessary protein, I comforted myself.

Then the noise began to bother me. The place wasn’t crowded, and there were only five other men at my table, but one of them was slurping his porridge. They said hardly a word to each other, so this unpleasant sound resounded across the table. Slurp, slurp, slurp. “Doesn’t he know that slurping is considered bad manners?” I asked myself. Then another man joined in, ruining my reverie about food and even interrupting meditation on the passage I had read earlier.

Then I had to remind myself that Jesus probably slurped his porridge too. After all, he was an ordinary guy from a lower-middle-class family. I doubt whether Mary read Emily Post’s book of etiquette to him every day. Okay, okay, I’ll try to lay aside my narrow perspective. Besides, he probably thinks I am a barbarian because I sometimes use my hands to eat those pastries, rather than picking them up with my chopsticks.

I find it awkward and unsatisfying to sit at a round table with other diners without having at least some contact with them, so I sought an opening to engage them in conversation.

There was one pastry I had passed by, not knowing whether it contained red bean paste. I saw that my neighbor (a non-slurper) had one on his plate, so I asked, “Pardon me” and then pointing to the pastry “Is that sweet or savory?”

“Sweet” he replied.

“Say, he speaks good Chinese,” another man observed, and they began to ask how long I had been in China. I told them I had learned some Chinese in Taiwan long ago, but am still trying to acquire this difficult language.

“You speak better Chinese than we do,” he commented. I don’t, of course, but he was referring to my pronunciation, which is more or less standard, without a provincial accent (except sometimes a trace of Taiwanese mannerisms). Not for the first time, I was thankful for my first teacher, Mrs. Jang, whom I considered to be  mean when she forced me to repeat the fifteen-hour section on pronunciation long ago, but whom I have inwardly thanked countless times since then.

Then silence again, punctuated by slurping. I went to get that other sweet pastry, which turned out to be filled with pineapple. These pineapple cakes are favorites of our daughter, so I contemplated taking one home, but gave up the idea. It’s not polite to stuff your pockets with buffet items.

Two of them began to converse in a dialect I don’t understand. Soon, the other pair was doing the same thing, but it seemed like a different dialect. I saw my opening.

“Pardon me, but what dialect were you using just now?

“Suzhou,” relied my neighbor. “Qingdao,” said one from the other pair.

“I don’t understand what you are saying. Can you understand each other’s dialects?”

“Not at all. Where have you been in China?”

I listed the cities I have visited. Had I been out West? No? Well, there are lots of scenic spots in China. Yes, I do hope I can visit them, too.

The man directly across from me, who had not yet said anything, and who had something wrong with his eyes and very bad teeth, asked, “Have you read any Chinese poetry?”

“Only in English translation. That is something I want to do someday. I have read some of Confucius’ Analects and the Dao De Jing in Chinese, but only with the help of English translation, notes, and commentary.”

‘”He studies the classics, one observed.” At this point I should have told them of the one Classic that I read every day, but I missed my opportunity.

“He really is a Zhongguo tong,” – that is, a foreigner who understands something about Chinese culture - commented my neighbor, and several others agreed. I strongly objected, but they were on a topic, so the questioning continued.

“Do you do our Chinese morning exercises?” I knew what he meant, because I see groups of seniors going through all sorts of intricate movements when I walk in the park after breakfast in any city I visit.

“Well, I did study tai qi [shadow boxing] for a while, but had to stop; I hope I can resume someday.” I greatly admire those who can execute these slow, beautiful, and graceful routines.

“How about our breathing exercises?” He still had some hope, I suppose.

“I know about them, but I haven’t learned them yet.”

He nodded silently, obviously agreeing that my education is incomplete.

We had all finished, so we said goodbye and parted ways. Rather than returning directly to my room, however, I strolled leisurely around the parking lot, which features a small garden with a pool stocked with fish, enjoying the quiet morning and imagining that perhaps someday I could join a group of older folks doing tai qi in a Chinese park. After a breakfast of cereal and hot soymilk.

G. Wright Doyle