By Alan Gao, VI Form
“Das Brotchen”: The ‘Flouring’ of Culture All Across the Globe
I remember learning this phrase in one of my first German classes. This word could be separated into two parts, “Brot” for bread and “-chen” for referring to smaller versions of things. “Das Brotchen” just refers to little bread.
Yet when my German teacher, Frau Wells, told my class that word, it seemed to carry much more than the simple meaning. She told us with great excitement about her time in Germany when the sweet smell of the roasted fresh wheat flowed over the streets and the bakeries presented their newest baked bread. As an American who had no family relations with Germany, she amazed me with her love and passion for German culture. At the time, I was surprised how this daily word created such a deep impact on her.
Before then, bread, or pastry, didn’t mean much to me. Although Shanghai is a very international city with chain bakeries like Paris Baguette and Lilian Cake, I never paid much attention to them and bought them only in times when I’m rushing down subways and hurrying to classes, paying no attention to their characteristics.
At St. Mark’s, our dining hall does provide some pastries as desserts. Sometimes, when I have some free time, I linger around the dessert bar, comparing and observing the various cakes, pies, and cookies. In classes, teachers often buy donuts for treats. However, I found many American pastries too sweet. They seem to focus on auxiliaries such as chocolate and sugar coatings, which are too artificial in Chinese standards.
One Thanksgiving, I stayed in the Chinatown of Boston and had a chance to explore the various Chinese restaurants, which were very authentic and reminded me of home. There, I found a bakery standing at the crossroad of two busy streets. This brought up my memory—the old, familiar bakeries around my home in Shanghai. I rushed in and saw the same familiar “Chinese western” pastries, such as pineapple bun and coconut tart. I loved it so much and bought plenty, sharing them with my peers back at the hotel.
When I was in Russia, I started to look into their culture through bread. In Moscow, we were given time to see the State Department Store, where we saw a European-styled bakery. On a whole shelf of bread with different frostings and different fillings, I saw the big hard Russian “khleb.” In the suburbs of Moscow at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, I tasted the bread and pastries made by the nuns and at noon, we had a typical meal with the khleb and borsch.
With these new experiences, I started to pay attention to the bakeries when I was back in Shanghai. Going through a Paris Baguette once again, I was able to appreciate the beauty that was once ignored. The glittering specks of sugar that look like crystal reflect the light shone upon them, giving each of them a unique décor. What’s more impressive is the complexity of this cuisine that allowed the western bakeries to integrate into an oriental city. These bread and pastries are not only food to fill hunger, but also representations of cultures.
I also remembered Frau Wells, and now, I think I may be able to understand why she remembered “das Brotchen” with such an immense feeling. Yet, by the time I realized this, my German teacher had retired. But still, I would continue on my pursue in German culture. The bread is not only a creation of flour and sugar but also an integration of local history and culture. Through bread, a common daily object, I was able to peek inside the complexity of different cultures, and I look forward to more deeper and wider exploration.
Alan Gao is a VI Form boarding student from Shanghai China. He likes history and plays the piano.