Today I went out to do some printing for the youth group. The weather was good, which always makes errands more pleasant – the top temperature today was 7 degrees (45 Fahrenheit) and the air quality has been in the healthy range all day.
After I left the print shop I saw a few street food carts – tricycles with a big perspex box on the back that serves as kitchen and sales window. I was good and chose not to get some toffee strawberries (my favourite of the toffeed fruits, but also high on the long list of bad-for-Tanya fruits). I did, however, buy a jian bing (煎饼).
Many American guys in my student days called these “road pizza”. A scoop of crepe-like batter is spread on a hot, round cooking surface. An egg is cracked on top and spread across the cooking crepe. Some flavouring is sprinkled on top (usually a mix of chopped coriander and shallots, perhaps some black sesame seeds, maybe even some pickled vegetables). The whole pancake is flipped and the cooked side spread with sauces (a savoury sauce and a chili sauce, sometimes a strong black bean sauce). Then a sheet of crispy deep fried dough not quite as big as a piece of A4 paper is put in the centre and the rest is folded around in, then folded over on itself, and put in a take away bag. The inflated Beijing price is 4 RMB (about $0.60); they only cost 1.5 RMB when I bought them for breakfast outside the office in Langfang ($0.25). (The photos below come from two blog posts I found about jianbing – check them out here and here).
The toffee fruit vendor chatted to the jian bing vendor while I waited for her to cook my snack. She began with surprise at my Chinese. It always surprises me how few words it takes for a person to be amazed. Does it count as being impressed if I haven’t really said enough to impress? She chattered away, saying, “Wow! She said she wants a jian bing, she can speak pu tong hua [standard Mandarin Chinese]. Like my grandson. He can’t speak our dialect, or even local Beijing dialect, only pu tong hua. We try to speak to him in our dialect at home sometimes, but he doesn’t pick up much.” When I paid with a 20 and apologetically said I didn’t have any change, she marvelled again, repeating my words as though the jian bing lady hadn’t heard me. Come to think of it, she repeated everything I said.
I could have walked around the corner to my next errand but instead I walked through the housing complex behind the street food vendors. I like walking in these urban communities. Without all the street traffic it’s both quieter and safer, plus it’s sometimes actually faster than walking around the block, if you know the way through. I saw they had the same banner that’s been hanging on the fence outside our building all through Chinese new year: 社区是我家，防火靠大家. It means: “the compound is my home; fire prevention depends on everyone”. Important words during the fireworks season! It’s much catchier in Chinese, in which it is two rhyming 5 syllable phrases. These sort of community spirit slogans are common around China. Usually (as in this case) they are long rolls of red fabric with the characters in large white or yellow print.
In a taxi going home, the driver asked me what country I was from, and when I answered Australia, he said “Australia… in Europe, right?” I said no, in Australia (this time I used the word ao zhou, the word for the continent, as opposed to ao da li ya, the word for Australia the country). He clarified again that I didn’t mean Europe (the two words sound similar – ou zhou and ao zhou). Then he muttered “Australia, Australia, Australia” to himself, as if trying to work out where he’d heard that name before. It was rather odd.
Just an average afternoon in Beijing, really.