The places I’ve been in China each have a definite sequence of daily activities. There is a time for rice porridge. After 10am, it’s no longer rice porridge time. There is a time for stir-fry. If it's before 5pm or after 8pm, forget about it. Kids go to school, walking hand in hand with parents or grandparents, from 8 to 9am, and they walk home from 3-5pm. Chinese tourist areas pick up around 11am and calm down around 5 or 6pm. Starbucks gets jamming around 2pm. Eggs are for the first half of the day. Hotpot is for the second half. The only 24/7 activity - noodle eating.
Morning scenes are, far and away, my favorite. I’ve been going for adventure walk/runs most mornings. I’ll run for a bit, walk when something catches my eye, walk if it’s crowded, run when the road is more open, go up stairs, down stairs, through alleys, into markets. The ‘little activities’ of the morning are endlessly fascinating. It’s usually routine stuff. The things people do every day – produce deliveries, shop openings, street sweeping, tea drinking, stretching, tai chi, standing in the noodle or dumpling or steam bun line, walking to school, biking to work. “Normal to you. Ordinary to you. Fascinating to me. Extraordinary to me.” Here are some assorted excerpts from my journal, on morning scenes:
I saw the fish delivery this morning. The Fish Man drove the whiteish smallish van that is so typical of this area. He wore rubber boots, chaps and apron, and he wielded a net with a 4ft shaft and a 2ft x 2ft net. It held approximately 10 x 4lb carp, which he was netting out of a tank that occupied the entirety of the van’s cargo area. He would reach through the side door, net the load of carp, water splashing off his rubberized attire, swing the load over a blue 55 gallon plastic drum and flip the net over, plopping in another 40lb netful of carp. After 3 or 4 scoops, he stashed the net in the back of the van, grabbed the plastic drum’s rope handles and began to heave and drag the delivery along the pavement, up onto the sidewalk and into the restaurant front door.
A carp missed the barrel on one of the net loads. It flopped about on the pavement. The Fish Man casually walked over, picked it up with one hand and added it to the barrel.
At the Culture Park’s Xinji Tea “house”. House seems to refer to an area, or an institution that has a tradition of serving tea, not to an actual building. We’re outside on a square, or rather many squares, many patios broken up by small karst rock outcrops and ponds.
Here the loose leaf tea is serves in clear glass mugs with handles – to a Westerner, they are traditional beerhall mugs. The thermos for the hot water are stainless steel, corked with a wooden stopper.
Buying a tea, seemingly, gives you a seat for as long as you care to stay, and also gives you the privilege to do whatever you please while in that seat. Some poeple are playing a 4-player dominos game. Other's are picnicing, mostly on oranges and sunflower seeds. Everyone is chatting. LOUDLY.
Woke, researched a company, read an earnings call, went walking.
Walked until I found some hard boiled eggs. It didn’t take long. They’re readily available in the morning, on carts and in storefronts on the narrower non-main streets. 3 eggs, 1 black rice porridge in a plastic cup with a sealed lid and straw – 9 CNY ($1.40). I’ve had eggs for as little as 1 and as much as 2 CNY, rice porridge for 2-4 CNY. Rice porridge was no good today. It had probably been reheated in that plastic cup many days in a row, or that’s how it tasted anyway.
Kept walking, saw a fellow and wife at their storefront frying long strips of dough – the common morning ‘doughnut’ here, very airy and well fried, 12” long by 2” wide. I bought one for 2 CNY. It was fine, worth trying a few bites. I also had a ‘hashbrown’ or breaded rice square. It was probably mass produced, it was quite uniform and rather bland.
I kept walking and decided it was time to try the most famous of industrially produced hashbrowns, McDonald’s. I’ve seen McDonald's in Paris, Rome, Chongqing, and it’s interesting to see the unique offerings – espressos in Rome, macaroons in Paris, for example. I’ve heard people say that McDonald’s is so much better outside of the US. It’s not. A burger in Rome was nothing special. “Same, same.“ Anyway, I’m in Chengdu, and I thought I’d give the McDonald’s Chinese adaptions a try. I ordered rice porridge with cabbage/bean topping, and a hashbrown. The breakfast combo was 6 CNY ($0.90). The porridge was actually very good – temperature, texture, taste, all very satisfying. And the hashbrown! Close my eyes and I was a little kid, back in Germantown with Dad or Grandpa Sol, enjoying a hashbrown, same as ever.
I didn’t want to eat Micky D’s. I just had to try it. I ate half, then went outside and had the hardboiled eggs and black rice porridge from earlier. I love the hardboiled eggs. I’ve been eating them every day. Probably a bunch of reasons. They’re cheap. Everything is cheap, so that is probably not the primary reason. They’re protein, and good protein is harder to come by than at home. Maybe the biggest reason is hygiene. There is rarely soap at sinks. I’ve had nary a stomach ache while in China (knock on wood for me, please), but the rarity of handwashing still freaks me out. Hardboiled eggs are untouched by the shopkeeper’s hands, and I can peel and eat them right out of plastic bag, so that I never need to touch them either.
There seem to be people going to office work. They bike, metro, walk. I don’t know what they do at their offices. There are tourists about, on foot and on busses. There are scooters and mopeds making food delivery. There are 3-wheel scooter-trucks and vans delivering produce to restaurants. There are deliveries of all kinds.
Package delivery - the system seems to be to drop many packages in one spot, on a tarp on the sidewalk, then somebody mans that depot and either gives the packages to the final recipient, or to a courier that delivers the last few hundred meters.
There are cleaners of all kinds, all wearing orange. They sweep. The empty and clean trash bins. They maintain public restrooms. There is a fellow wiping down escalators. Mostly they use handmade brooms, buckets and rags. Sometimes there is equipment involved - street power washers, grass watering trucks, garbage trucks.
I was attracted to the welcome sight of steam, heaps of steam pouring forth from a street-side kitchen. I ducked inside, joined the people getting the day going, under the cover of tarps and bright lights that pushed away the drizzle and gloom of the predawn. We shared a moment, with fried eggs, fried dough, noodle bowls and rice porridges. I had 3 eggs and black rice porridge! Yes!
Side note: China only has one time zone. All of China uses east coast/Beijing geographic time. So even though Sichuan province, where this photo is taken, is 1,000 miles west of Beijing, it is the same time zone. This photo is taken at 7 or 8am in March, but because of the single timezone, it is still pre-dawn.
Here is a video. It’s China morning activities. The majority of this video is food. A lot of China culture is centered on food – production, preparation, consumption – so it’s probably appropriate that the majority of these morning activities are also food-related.