When I lived in Beijing in 2005 and 2006, you could find me at my local dumpling shop once per week, if not more frequently. The dumpling shop stood on Wenhuiyuan Lu, which also held the travel agent office, the bank, the local gym, the bakery that doubled as a cigarette shop, a row of tiny shops that all made windows, several seamstresses, a large fruit stand, and a smattering of restaurants. You knew it was one of the main roads in the neighborhood because it had sidewalks. Trees hung over the sidewalk at regular intervals, and in summer people often brought low plastic stools into the shade, where they would fan themselves and gossip with passersby.
My roommate and I had chosen to live on the west side of the city because we liked its residential feel, away from the glitz of embassy row near Dongzhimen. We landed in Xiaoxitian, an unassuming neighborhood just outside the northwestern corner of the Second Ring Road. At the time, estimates placed the city’s population between ten and fifteen million, which was more populous than most states in the US, where we were from. Living in Xiaoxitian was like inhabiting a single cell within an entire organism. And the dumpling shop, situated on one of the major arteries of the neighborhood, was part of the lifeblood of my time in China.
I had come to China immediately following college, ostensibly to conduct a research project but really to explore the land of my grandparents. In my first days, the Beijing I encountered was eight-lane thoroughfares, Tiananmen Square, and imperial palaces from which the entire city radiated. Xiaoxitian, by contrast, brought the city down to the scale of daily life. I was in China to apply in vitro book learning to in vivo situations, shuttling between the official and the personal, the grandiose and the mundane. Somewhere between the two, I hoped to forge a relationship with the nation and its culture.
The dumpling shop consisted of a half-dozen worn wooden tables, and on the rare occasion that the restaurant was crowded, several small groups shared one table. The long, narrow menu contained of a list of dumplings on the front and a list of congees on the back.
Other than a couple appetizers and side dishes tucked away beneath the congees as an afterthought, that was it. Simple, direct, unpretentious. China’s rapid economic growth made for odd bedfellows, and when I first encountered the dumpling shop I figured the menu was just another expression of the nation’s particular brand of pragmatism. I did not realize the understated elegance of dumplings with congee, just as I did not initially realize our luck in choosing this neighborhood.
When ordering from the front of the menu, you had two options. You could order boiled dumplings, which were served up as platters of plump crescents reminiscent of ingots, their translucent skins shaped by small, regular tucks. Or you could place the same order but ask for the dumplings to be fried instead of boiled. The first time we did this, I expected our dumplings to appear kissed with glistening oil, the skins transformed into a delicately crunchy container for the hot filling, much like the potstickers I found in Chinese restaurants back home. Instead, we were served a plate of stiff half-crescents, as brown as the sun that glared down through Beijing’s eternal blanket of smog. They had folded the dumpling skins over like mini tacos and fried them as-is, no sign of careful pinches or gentle tucks. This was, I came to realize, typical of China’s chabuduo, or “close enough,” ethos. The filling no longer ran the risk of escaping into boiling water—why expend extra effort if it made no difference to the flavor? In all fairness, the dumplings were no less tasty for lack of shaping.
They served dumplings filled with pork and leek or pork and Napa cabbage, combinations found in most restaurants that served dumplings. They also had more unusual offerings like fennel and beef, black mushroom and pork, leek and egg, lamb and scallion, curried beef, fish and leek, and carrot and egg. We came back because we had specific hankerings; we came back and developed new hankerings.
To reach the dumpling shop from our apartment, you picked your way through a series of small streets until you reached Wenhuiyuan Lu. From there, you continued north to the dumpling shop, and if you were to continue on past the shop, you eventually arrived at Beijing Normal University, which hosted a sizable foreign student population each semester. The foreign students also liked to patronize the dumpling shop. For this reason, the proprietress and her customers rarely blinked when my friends and I filled the restaurant with our uneven English syllables, our bumpy cadences bubbling up against the smooth, melodic flow of Mandarin.
This was a rare gift in Beijing, especially when my roommate and I were out together. We were both Chinese-American, and although we were reasonably inconspicuous on our own—Elsa had studied abroad in Beijing during college, and I went full-on native in terms of clothing and haircut—the minute we started speaking to each other, heads turned.
Once, while riding the subway, we were deep into conversation when a man sidled up next to us.
“Where did you learn English?” he asked.
“We’re Americans,” Elsa said.
I shrugged. “Born and raised.”
By this point, we knew better than to enter this particular unwinnable argument. The conversation faded. For years, I blamed Hollywood for this type of exchange, with its white casts that tokenized ethnic minorities, if we appeared at all. For years, I wondered how a nation that had seen so many people emigrate over the centuries—due to famine, lack of opportunity, or more recently, political upheaval—that it coined the phrase zanmenshiyijiaren (we are all one family) to reference to the ties the Chinese diaspora was assumed to hold to the motherland, how this nation could both coin this phrase and simultaneously express unanimous incredulity that the seeds of the diaspora reached American soil.
I wonder now if this disbelief stemmed from the vast distance they perceived between our two nations, and their shock at meeting someone who could lay claim to both.
We stood in silence for a couple moments, swaying to the rhythm of the subway, before Elsa made a remark about the friends we were about to see, and the two of us slowly resumed our chatter, the man hovering faintly at the periphery of our awareness.
“So fast,” he muttered. His eyes bounced back and forth between Elsa’s jaw and mine, pupils contracted in concentration. “So fast.”
Thus the dumpling shop, and its quiet ease with which we could dine among the patrons, was a welcome fixture in our lives. Furthermore, the congee offerings were more extensive than any other restaurant I encountered, which created the impression I’d stumbled upon a rare, authentic Chinese treasure, one I could never find back in America. I had grown up with pidan shourou zhou, a congee standby filled with black smears of thousand-year egg and salty brown slivers of lean pork. Here, I discovered sweetened congees like haw and lychee. There was zimi zhou, made from black rice, dark hulls swirled among a sea of purple, into which you could drop as many crystals of rock candy as desired. They also had an extensive array of savory congees, like white rice and millet or white rice and mung bean, a sea of white dotted with yellow specks or half-broken green beans.
Sometimes, I came by myself for a quick meal. That was another great thing about the shop: meals in China are generally meant to be shared, as meats and vegetables and grains often come in separate dishes, and thus you need at least two people to order a balanced meal. The dumpling shop’s menu was priced and portioned such that solo eating never felt awkward.
Once, I wandered in mid-afternoon to find an empty restaurant. This wasn’t surprising, as most Chinese liked to stick to regular meal times, even on weekends; though restaurants would agree to serve you at three, you could count on receiving odd looks all around. Two waitresses, both wearing aprons, sat in the far corner, halfheartedly peeling a crate of garlic. A third slumped over the table with her head cradled in her arms, dozing before the evening rush. The proprietress waved me to a table near the door. As I sat, the two waitresses looked up from their garlic, then resumed their languid pace. The third raised her head briefly, yawned, and dropped it once more.
I guess keeping up appearances just isn’t part of customer service here, I thought, noting how the wait-staff spent more time staring at the garlic than peeling it. Then I chided myself for imposing my American assumptions about customer service. Things I once considered standard, like thank you or eye contact or smiling, I now knew to be culturally derived.
For awhile after my year in China, I returned every three years, twice in 2009 and once in 2012. Each time, I dropped by Xiaoxitian to check up on the old neighborhood. In China’s sprint to modernity people joked the crane became the national bird of China, and at one point Beijing alone was rumored to hold half the world’s cranes, such was the intensity of the construction. Every time I returned, I felt apprehensive. Would Xiaoxitian remain, and in what form? And would the dumpling shop still be there?
For the dumpling shop sold one of my favorite dishes, one I had only seen in two restaurants in China and none in America. There, hidden away on the back page, was zha ou he, or fried lotus root—fried ou, we called it, dragging the “ohhhhhhhhh” through an exaggerated slide and climb of the third tone. The dish consisted of thinly sliced lotus root, sandwiched around seasoned ground pork, the whole disc deep fried and then served with salt and pepper, for dipping. It was crunchy yet savory, the flavors melting together with each bite, a dish best ordered with friends.
The dumpling shop was there, and then it wasn’t. Each trip, I found a Xiaoxitian upgraded at the edges, the changes subtle yet striking. Vendors who once sold grilled kabobs by the side of the street now encased themselves in rectangular metal boxes the size of phone booths. Hole-in-the-wall eateries shut down, their premises merged and renovated into airy restaurants fronted by large glass windows. Sanitation improved with each change, I suspected, and though I personally mourned the loss of the freewheeling, bustling atmosphere that characterized the neighborhood as I knew it, I also knew I could not reasonably ask its residents to remain in cramped hazardous squalor just to appease my sense of what comprised an “authentic” Beijing neighborhood.
Following this line of reasoning, it seemed impossible to mourn the loss of the dumpling shop. It would have been wishful thinking to fix the shop in time while the rest of the neighborhood, the city, the nation marched inexorably forward. Still, if I had known, I would have ordered zha ou he on what turned out to be my final trip to the shop, even if it would have been too much food for one person.
Jessica Yen is a writer based in Portland, OR. Her personal essays have appeared in Oregon Humanities and Drum Literary Magazine. She is currently working on a collection of essays and exploring a fictional world that may or may not become a longer work. She can be found online at www.jessicayen.com.