Steamed Buns and Cultural Anomalies

December 30, 2010

In Setagaya, a borough or ward of Tokyo, there exists a small storefront that sells the best Chinese steamed buns I have eaten thus far. They cost 140 yen, less than two dollars, and depending on my appetite, I can manage one or perhaps one and a half. They are filled with a mixture of pork (I think; if it is not pork, I’d prefer not to know what it might be), vegetables and some liquid that is roughly the consistency, color and temperature of molten lava. The preferred method of consumption is to bite a small hole in the top of the bun to allow the steam out, and then wait about five minutes before attempting any further incursion into the bun’s heart. The first time, one is sorely tempted to dig in directly, as the outside of the bun is cool enough to hold in one’s bare hand, but this is a mistake made only once.

In late December, Setagaya ward holds a week-long flea market. The streets are filled with eat-on-the-fly food stands and sellers hawking every manner of merchandise imaginable: antiques, jewelry, clothing, artworks, kimonos, New Year decorations, and stuffed animals depicting the upcoming year’s mascot on the Chinese lunar calendar (2011 is the Year of the Rabbit). This provided a good excuse for me to pay a visit to Setagaya, a place I don’t often get to as it is some distance from my house. And of course, any visit to Setagaya would not be complete without a stop at the steamed bun place.

It turned out I was not the first person with this idea. The line for steamed buns stretched from the shop front all the way back to the first corner, at which point it made a 90-degree turn and continued down the side street to the first crossing, then another 90-degree turn down that street a good fifty or seventy-five feet! Yikesu, as we say in Japan. Still, I was not going to come all the way to Setagaya and not get a steamed bun (or two), so I gamely got into the line, and there I stayed for the better part of an hour.

During this time I made some observations, which as time went by turned into assumptions, and which at some point may evolve into a hypothesis or theorem. The concept of a queue is regarded quite differently from country to country, I think. In the US and Canada, if there is a line for, say, a movie, one is expected to join in at the end of the line, and await one’s turn to buy tickets. In Mexico and other Latin American countries I have visited, this seems to be more or less the same in concept, but differs in practice in that one looks for a friend or acquaintance already in the line, expresses hearty surprise at one’s good luck at meeting said acquaintance at such a propitious time, and then joins the queue at that point, engaging in enthusiastic conversation with the friend until arriving at the destination point (and then, of course, buying the tickets). In China, lining up seems to be for dilettantes only; one simply makes one’s way to the forefront, sometimes by misdirecting the attention of one of the aforementioned dilettantes already in line, and then sneaking in ahead of him, or sometimes just by outright shoving. The Japanese, naturally, are polite above all else. The queues are quiet and orderly, and everyone waits his turn. But here’s the part I have never seen anywhere else: I’m standing in line, minding my own business, dutifully waiting my turn, when some guy walks up and asks “What’s everybody lining up for?” So I tell him we’re waiting for steamed buns. “Cool,” he says, and he gets into line too. Where else in the world would somebody veer off his intended path to voluntarily join an hour-long queue for something he had no particular knowledge of, and no previous desire for, just because other people were already lined up for it? I love this place!