Though not necessary, it will help to understand this story if you read Part One, first.
It’s been two or three years since I called myself a baker. Back in Los Angeles I worked at a wonderful patisserie and coffee shop that was well-known for having the city’s best croissants and cookies. The schedule was difficult: had to be up by 3:30 and at the bakery by 4:00. Overtime of an hour or so almost daily, and working holidays was a regular. Deliveries of pallets full of 50 pound bags of flour and 25 pound bags of sugar were bi-weekly events. But the job was rewarding. The food was delicious, the customers were satisfied, and the people I worked with were honest, wonderful individuals who expended themselves tirelessly and resonated a belief that everyone could always accomplish more.
Unfortunately, this all came to screeching halt when my father passed away and my partner and I split after four years together. I moved back in with my mother, took off work, and found myself with more time to explore what I wanted than ever before. The problem was that there wasn’t much I wanted to explore.
That’s when cryptocurrency entered my life. A best friend from high school investing in Ethereum in March and April of 2017 asked for my thoughts. His description of Ethereum was along the lines of, “A friend told me to invest in this coin and I did. I guess it’s like Bitcoin? You should buy some, it’s way up.”
I knew only of the idea of Bitcoin at that point, so began doing research. I was enthralled. There are far better introductions to how Bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies) works, but without getting into the weeds, the main point that excited me was the idea that a digital currency had been developed without a forceful introduction by a nationstate and that Bitcoin could be, for the most part, freely utilized across international borders. And that’s when I stopped baking entirely and fell into the abyss of cryptocurrencies.
In other words, going to a massive factory in China and displaying my baking prowess wasn’t a planned sojourn, nor a task I was mentally or physically prepared for.
I find two recipes I’m confident will work well: banana bread and chocolate chip cookies. The problem is that the factory doesn’t have bananas and the chocolate in China is, being generous here, god-awful. Yong tells me he’ll immediately get some bananas while the two employees and I start preparing ingredients.
The entire affair is a clusterfuck from beginning-to-end. Every word has to be painstakingly translated, every measurement altered, and none of the ingredients are high-quality. There’s no gas stove, the mixers and bowls seem to be strewn about in no tangible order. When I’d been working at the small patisserie in L.A. I’d grown accustom to organic, European butter, flours locally farmed and milled, and thick vanilla paste. Here they have eggshell white butter from who-knows-where, one type of flour (and one type only), and no vanilla.
Hours later, as we finish the cookie dough and banana bread batter, I look at my translator, exhausted, and say, “I think we can go now.”
She calls Yong. “He wants you to bake it now.”
“But the dough has to rest overnight.”
The translator doesn’t understand.
“We aren’t supposed to bake it until tomorrow.”
She nods politely and explains this to Yong. She again nods politely, turns back to me, and tells me, “He says it’s okay, bake it now.”
This is not okay, but I also have no way to express this other than loud sighs and vivid displays of disapproval. We bake off some batches of cookies and the banana bread.
It’s a miracle anything turns out at all. The banana bread is… edible. The chocolate chip cookies are horrendous — as they should be — with no time to rest and the worst possible ingredients. As Yong and the employees try the cookies and banana bread the looks of disappointment can’t be hidden. I’m very okay with this, because working with Yong and his frequent, sudden demands would tax every bit of my being. Not to mention the fact that I’m exhausted and ready to call it a night. Yong, as it turns out, isn’t ready to call it a night. “Let’s go out to dinner,” he says, without waiting for a reply. The translator and I follow him into the Mercedes.
Waiting for us at a small restaurant is a group of Yong’s cronies. They’re all men, mostly in their 40s and 50s, and they start the conversation off singing the praises of Yong. I try to scheme my way out of shots of baijiu, but fail. We cheers several times. The most interesting point of discussion ends up being the tattoo on my arm that someone notices.
“Avocado!” One of the men laughs in Mandarin, pointing at me.
It dawns on me that all of the men seated also have tattoos — something not quite as common in China as it is in Los Angeles. He asks me why I have an avocado and my response is simple: I love avocados. In return, I ask the man what his tattoos signify.
He lifts up his shirt sleeves and shows me that his arm is littered with Dai characters and beautiful calligraphy. He needn’t say more.
By the time we leave the restaurant and Yong sends me away to a no-name hotel in the middle of a city next to Myanmar, it’s midnight, and I’m crippled with exhaustion.
The next day I’m awoken to the sound of banging on my hotel room door. This is the police, I’m certain. I’ve already done something wrong.
The translator says she’s called me several times — it’s time to go, we have to be at the factory.
We have a delicious breakfast of bao, then truck it back to the factory. Yong needs to show me just how immense his bakery is, and it’s FUCKING IMMENSE.
There are three floors, and each floor stretches for blocks.
The first floor is an all-glass retail shop and small kitchen, both of which I’m familiar with. But behind is an enormous warehouse filled with bags of flour, sugar, forklifts, pallets of shortening. The supplies are endless.
We move on to the second floor. It’s… so, so strange.
For us, and I guess visitors(?), there’s a walking path to display the entire production line behind glass — including lockers. The employees wear what I can only describe as HAZMAT suits without the hoods, hairnets replacing the intimidating spacesuit helmets. There are people mixing, kneading, stretching dough, while others shape pastries and form bao, then the bakers in front of dozens of ovens. It’s a vast production line, everyone moving, always, quickly, despite the intrusive gear, gloves, and masks.
Our tour guide points out in the direction of the countryside.
“We’ve just purchased all this land,” he tells the translator.
It’s a plantation. No, a manor. An incomprehensible amount of space. “For what?” I wonder aloud.
The translator translates. (lol)
The tour guide relents and chuckles, his humanity peering through. He points to a small lake. “Sometimes,” he says, “the boss goes fishing there.”
I look at him, not sure if he’s joking. He nods, assuring me, and the translator, the boss fishes at the lake, “and has caught very big trout.”
He calls the tour off after the question. I never find out what’s on the third floor.
The repercussions of the terrible performance resonating within my being, it’s with pleasure that I put my suitcase into the Mercedes and sit on the white, leather seats. I may have lost a job opportunity, but I’ve never been happier.
“What did you think?” Yong suddenly asks.
“About the factory?” I don’t pause for translation, “It was amazing,” I say, “huge, unbelievable. I cannot believe it. The bakeries I worked at were small.”
Yong laughs. “I am glad you like it. When do you want to start?”
I try to laugh, but can’t.
Yong takes the opportunity to interject, “It’s okay,” he says. “You can take some time to think about it.”
I do think about it.