Where No Self-respecting American Would Go–Part 3

The Third Day?–I’ve really lost track of time. . .

The electricity in the house is an afterthought: originally, there was none. Outlets are set on a wooden base that is hammered into the wall, there being only two. Otherwise, extension cords are the wound, old style cord draped everywhere like Christmas tinsel decoration, several plugs coming out of one extension end leading to other extension cord box–ends. Extension cords in China are different from those in the States. The cords are larger and more sturdy and the female end is usually a box with 4+ male connections. More often than not, the cords are white. I’ve added my own, of necessity, so that, when I’m using the rice cooker there’s an electric burn somewhere–I’m not sure which plug-in as I pass three, though the first does not seem to be a problem. Could simply have been because my hands were wettish when I plugged it in and water got down into the connection. Howsomever. . .with the cords draped hither and thither, this is a fire hazard. . .for the West. As this arrangement is not out of order, I begin to see how over-protective we Americans are, paranoid of the smallest thing. We go overboard. Yes, this arrangement can be dangerous and I do kind of shiver as I add more to the mess; but it is not prohibitive. Americans are so über-safety conscious that we almost prohibit ourselves from fully living; we repress ourselves. We are safe and more safe where it is not so very important. At the same time, I think the situation is that the Chinese are aware and, therefore, are more careful, more attentive, though it may not look like it. We Americans are afraid of everything.

Light bulbs hang naked into space, some in rather inaccessible places, some in corners that illuminate naught else but the ceiling and walls. To turn on the bedroom light, I must have the main room lit or I’d never find the cord with the switch: it is halfway along one wall around the side of a storage cabinet, near the old charcoal stove. Then, when it’s glowing, I can’t read in bed because the book is in the shadow as the light is across the room. Even during the daylight hours reading is difficult, as the windows are high up and to the side. I must buy another extension cord, one of the cheaper variety, so I can plug it in and have my bedside lamp. Lord–another plug to fill up a female end!

This type of arrangement is not out of the ordinary, so many people still live in these older houses where there was once no electricity. The extension cord phenomenon is everywhere because of the usual dearth of outlets in a room, even if built when home electricity was available–which was, in the scheme of things, relatively recently. This, I think, is unbelievable for Americans as we have come to expect electric homes and we can only see this, our way, as the acceptable way and that any other way is outré. Well, it may be but, in fact, it may be, as in this case, just everyday. Not only do we find these living conditions outrageous, if we allow ourselves to get so close, we cannot understand why these conditions exist since we avoid knowing of such in America and see any such poverty characteristic that we see in pictures as the problem of the people living in such conditions. The people have a character flaw. A very common characteristic of the classism that marks America. We push aside and deny such limited, backward, dangerous. . .situations and pretend they simply do not exist. Ignore it and it doesn’t exist, yeah?

The breaker box is a breaker and main power source boxes on a board on the wall. The breaker is of the old style: a lever with metal legs connecting into a ceramic holder. Actually, I like this better than the modern, Western variety. I’ve even repaired one, running thicker copper wire inside so that blowouts don’t happen as often, thin wires giving out under any kind of load easier than heavier wire. Easy enough to do; there’s no trouble knowing whether the electricity is on or not–the switch is right in front of your face, connection broken. No fuses. I would say that fuses don’t last as long, don’t tolerate overloadage as well as these old hatchet type devices, which you can make more tolerant by supplying higher gauge copper wire. Would fuses, then, be a means for the electrical industry to make more money in the name of technological advancement? I think returning to this type of breaker box, which is where the name (breaker) comes from (breaking the connection), would be better and less costly–and might make us more independent, less reliant on the electric supply companies. We might take on more responsibility for our own lives, do you think? We would be directly involved in its continuing functioning. But, hey, why would we want to do this when someone else can do it for us, eh? If someone else can do it for us–and there are definite situations where this would be best–we must pay more to live.

If you buy your own home in America, you are responsible for all its workings. If you can troubleshoot some situations, you save yourself money. However, there are so many laws about who can work on what and what can be done that it’s almost impossible to do anything yourself without breaking the law. And the insurance companies think you’re ignorant of any of this, whether you are or not, so they up their rates at the top of an extension ladder that just keeps right on going and going and going.

Because I was raised differently and because I worked electric construction for awhile, I found this set-up rather barbaric and unsettling. But nothing happened and when the lights went out and it wasn’t old bulbs, I was able to fix things. Meiwenti! I kept larger gauge wire on hand; I kept extra light bulbs; I kept candles and matches. Although I did have lighters, I preferred–and still prefer–matches, aside from the fact that they cost less and last longer. Even now, back in the States, I have boxes of safety matches in various rooms about the house, along with candles just in case. Nature and poor quality craftsmanship mess with technology. I have found that 4-5 candles set up on a table where I happen to be writing are good enough to illuminate the page so I can write and read. Granted, I don’t do this very often, but it is romantic! It is difficult to find acceptable candle holders; most are either tacky or over-priced or both. It is fun to improvise. Which means none of the candle holders I have match. . .nor do the candles.

It isn’t just China that is “behind” the US. Most countries in the world are not so invested in technology that imposes reliance. In fact, most of the world utilizes this kind of technology different from America, so much so that it might even be unsettling. But Americans are very narrow in assessing these situations and, like the Brits in the 19th century, are totally incapable of letting go of their lifestyle and culture. I think, with this inability to adapt, that most Americans overseas miss out on much of the culture and identity of the people. We do not let ourselves enjoy.

Far too often have I run into Americans who lambaste the Chinese for things Chinese because they do not come up to American standards, as if America is THE standard for everything great, wonderful and positive. Very many Americans look so far down on Chinese, and are not at all shy about going off openly on these situations and these people in front of “these” people, that I am embarrassed. We Americans are such a fucking judgmental lot!

Perhaps my adjustment was easier because I had lived in Japan 15 or so years before. In Japan, there is no heating in older housing. I lived in older housing–or even country-urban housing. No heat. No AC. Heavens to betsy! I would wake up in the mornings to an iced-over beard and moustache, sit up to turn on the kerosene heater and then lie down until the room warmed up. Electricity was limited, though less anxiety-provoking. And the Japanese are more apt to modernize because they can do it without losing their Japaneseness. Mao has all but wiped out Chinese culture. Mao, a man who had little understanding beyond himself and his opinions.

Eh bien. So it goes.

Now. . .a bit more needs to be said about the kitchen, a subject we may be revisting on and off. Not only are the side walls separating from the main room–there was no interweaving of the bricks, just an abutment with concrete filler–but the floor is moving away from the walls, moving westward. There is no foundation as we know it, so the floor and sometimes its walls in its entirety shift. There is a crack in the foundation, to give the simple bed of concrete laid on top of the ground character–about halfway into the little burrow hole. It stretches from one side to the other, making for a slight rise to the edges of the crack and then a kind of leveling off of the floor. I must remember to pick my feet up or I stumble forward–not enough room to fall to the floor without hitting the sink unless I twist to the side and bounce off the walls. (You can see I’ve done this before.) The floor is wet and sticky with something-or-other as my house slippers stick and slap when walking through. It never dries. Looking back when you’ve exited into the main room, you can see the darker, dampened area. Z. I imagine this is from the grease from cooking: there is no exhaust fan. The broken open window does no good, for there is no circulation of air in the kitchen to begin with.

The cooking corner itself has a different problem, aside from no fan, no outlet for the spattering grease and the steam or, in some cases, smoke. . .as last night when I could not move fast enough to get the chicken–which turned out to be spoiled–into the pan and fried and toasted the garlic. This kind of non-cooking makes for a blackening of the walls and ceiling beams. Remember, the ceiling itself sheds, so there’s a little discoloration up there, too. I imagine this situation is why the double window is forever open, aside from the fact that its hinges are broken. Not that it would help anyway. This little corner is like a den where meat has been roasted, meat gotten on the hunt, and the housewife labors and sweats to provide for her man–and her little ones. Once, little ones; now, one–unless you find a way to cheat. There are not, however, any fat deposits on the floor. The concrete here is dry, miraculously.

Although there was the usual two burner cooker top and some bottled gas, I brought in my own. Well, Fanfan and her father did. Made sure I did. Quite simply, mine worked and was clean. There was not much I could do with the little flimsy cabinet upon which it sat but not use the implements left to grace its dusty shelving.

I think some explanation is in order here. In China you cook with gas. You have a 2-burner cooker. No stove. And–hallelujah!–you cook with gas. Bottled gas that is delivered when needed. Large bottles. You learn how to turn it on and off. It is a must to turn the gas off, for there may be leakage. And, then, BOOM! Unless you are on a rotation with the gas company, the only way you can tell you are getting near replacement is to knock on the side of the bottle. Great empty metal bottles make hollow sounds. I must admit, over the seven years I lived in China, I ran out more than once. Because, although the university supplied the housing, you, the foreign teacher, had to make sure you did not run out of gas. At the university, I did not have to pay; on my own I did. However, there was so much gas left in my tank that I did not need to have it refilled. Fanfan and her father took what was left for their own when I went elsewhere.

I never figured out how people baked, for they do bake. Perhaps in ovens of clay? However, I did see students’ mothers steaming or stewing or whatever in the guo 锅 (wok in Japanese), the guo covered and over low heat. In some cases, the heat was not gas but wood. The wood was delivered or, more often than not, chopped yourself. In winter, the wood-fired stove made the kitchen the warmest place in the house. Indeed, in one especially snowy cold winter I was up in the mountains and, when I went in the kitchen to be with my student’s grandmother, she got up from behind the “stove” and made me sit there, adding more kindling because, well, Americans are not so capable of withstanding the cold. Up to a point, she was right. But anywhere I might have found myself with this woman would have been warm enough for me; however, other members of her family would not allow us to get together. There was a lot of culture involved in this and I learned it but I was none too happy. Neither was she. In fact, she was more “modern” than her children and grandchildren.

She had been a widow for nigh onto 40 yrs. Her husband died young, secondary to the Long March. That he or anyone survived is a miracle, for Mao was selfish, self-centred and manipulative–as long as he won, other people did not matter. According to some sources, Mao did not need to go through the hell he dragged people through; but it was strategically and politically expedient. Mao did not walk, he rode in a litter or rustic palanquin. When it was over, grandma’s husband returned home to farm in the mountains south of Hangzhou, on the south central east coast. This time of my visit was during the big snow of 2008. (I have written elsewhere of this.)

Day Four?

I washed clothes again this morning; I’m almost caught up. But it’s so overcast, so humid today that even after six hours outside the clothes are not dry. No direct sunlight. Breezy, though none really gets down in here, walls and buildings being on all sides. Some trees. I’m sitting in the pathway of the fan in the main room or I’d be sweating like a stuck, roasted pig.

This is where fans come in handy. Old people wave then slowly; younger people faster, more frantically. I’m somewhere in the middle. And everyone carries a fan, whether small or large. I have several, including one small one and one that folds up and fits into a shirt pocket. Mine are not masculine, as judged by American standards; sometimes, grandmother, nainai 奶奶, give me fans–even from stores, no charge. I make a point of going back to those stores for whatever it is. How can one forget such kindness? Such caring? Which is one reason they are so caring: customers return. It is more appropriate to shop in your immediate neighborhood, unless what you need is elsewhere, for this solidifies your relationship with the people. . .and it makes you, the foreigner, appear more normal.

I must admit I was a tad shy about whipping out a fan and fanning myself. But I soon learned. And I learned, too, that my Japanese fans, theatre fans, were too big and, no matter how subdued colorfully, were too much. I amassed several different kinds of fans, even went out of my way to buy some, on the cheap if I could find them. Now, if they are not lying around on tables, they are somehow suspended from the walls.

Fans and tissue, for use in the toilet, are mandatory accoutrements to living. Public toilets don’t have “paper.” Some hotel toilets don’t have paper. Neighborhood restaurants may not have a toilet–they may not have napkins, as we know them, either but, rather, a roll of toilet tissue, as we know it, on the table for wiping your messy mouth–not too many Chinese manage this–or your hands.

Which leads to a discussion of public toilets. This will not be a tasteful discussion.

I am so disgusted by the nearest local public WC that I won’t use it, preferring to suffer through constipation or the possibility of a leakage until such time as an opportunity for a better place happens. I am appalled. It’s almost enough to make you puke. My students would not use it either. The floor was wet, glistening wet, with papers, news and other, strewn about. Some of the squat basins had not been flushed, of anything. The huge plastic vats for pissing in were full. And it was dark in there. No electricity. Small windows placed high up near the ceiling.

The WC cleaners, whom you rarely see during the day time, only empty the piss tubs–except for the older variety where you shit into a pot. No one cleaned the floor, even as little as throwing water about. Then, the night soil men trundle down the street, piss and shit stinking to high heaven and slopping around in their huge vats. With the condition of some of the roads here, it’s a wonder there’s not a trail of waste down the street and spillage on streetside vending places. Everyone but everyone who might be out at all hours of the night gets out of the little truck’s way when the driver shouts he’s coming through.

However, some of the public WCs were no more than latrines, long channels dug into the hard, discolored ground up against one of the walls. Piss or shit, it didn’t matter. Splish splash, take a bath. And most assuredly bring your own paper. Around the corner from one restaurant I frequented, I ran in distress and hunkered down to do my business when the darkness was invaded by several men who did not even bother to pretend: they were there to see if it were true that Americans were so fucking big. Or maybe just to see if an American could do it the proper Chinese way. I could and it was too dark to see my things.

I noticed that the WC doors are not marked 女 or 男. I think there may be a method, with the 女 always being on the left, as you stand contemplating the outlets. I was helped by seeing boys come out of one; no one ever exited the other in my sight. I’m sure it would have been more exciting if I’d gone in the “wrong” one. I’m quite good at playing absolute idiot here. Such behavior is one of the 36 ways to victory found engraved into stone at Yunmeng shan (云梦山) outside Hebi City: act the fool (to gain information).

Yunmeng shan is the first military academy in China. It is on a hill, stony and cave-ridden; perhaps low mountain is a better description. Apparently, Sunzi studied there under the then old founding master. Any more information is not remembered. Yunmeng shan is not on tourist maps, unfortunately, as it is most interesting and, therefore, most unassailed by touristy fixing up. I’d like to go back for another tour. I wonder who I can get to come with me. . .

The wheel ruts in the hard stone of a great war chariot were pointed out. And the platform from which Sunzi was supposed to have jumped, without hurting himself, in order to be allowed to study. Someone said, in the neighborhood of 14′ right onto stone. Sunzi did not injure himself. The entire academy and its myriad buildings is a religious monument where people come to ask for help and, I suppose, meditate. I was not allowed to take pictures. This was considered rude as the people were praying, I was told. I acquiesced.

When I rode by the market last evening, at 5:30, there was no one there. No food vendors. Only grandfathers gathered at the far wall playing majiang (mahjong, to you). So, I rode back to my veggie haunt on Wenhua lu (文化路), Culture Road, only to find the meat places were not open. I bought veggies: 4 RMB (about 50 cents), enough for several meals. Wenhua is only cultural because it is lined with food vendors, fresh, and restaurants and stores/supermarkets. The Chinese like to eat. Alot. I think you could say the loves of the Chinese are sex, eating, drinking and talking. And more eating. No business is ever conducted without eating. . .and drinking.

We foreigners hear this as a story but, in fact, I was once at one of these business meetings, being part of the business enacted and to come. However, I bowed out of drinking as I had a class to teach. My behavior was much approved of, though I had to decline drinking even the polite first sip three times before it was acceptable.

But back to the house. . .

There is a bulging crack in the middle of the main room floor, though not of the split in the kitchen; here, the halves are still connected. I looked behind the curtains of the cabinet and found dishes, pots and pans, kettles and bowls. With the filthy dishes in the kitchen, a population of 20-30 could be fed and watered. Things just do not seem to get thrown away here, like poorer, what used to be known as white trash, neighborhoods in America, where cars and trucks long past use are rusting in the yards along with you-name-it all. . .sinks, water heaters, washers. . . . Happens here, as in everyday, inside and outside the houses. Chinese are pack rats–and yet there is little appreciation of art or antiques. No one fixes up an old house or building; one destroys it and builds a more modern one. Box-like and without character or any redeeming cultural value.

The storage house across the yard was once a lived-in house. It’s front wall of brick extends above roof level. There is a drain there where, in Europe, there would be a gargoyle spouting water. Cross-like openings extend across it. So, probably, there was a way up there, for other houses of a similar bent sport rooftop gardens. It would be nice to get up there, too. Above the rooftops, what could be seen? However, the next building over is at least two storeys high, with a brick balustrade around the roof. Only junk juts up over this. There are no windows on this side. But if I’d climbed up there, everyone and his mother would have seen me invading people’s privacy.

Between the storage house and my neighbor’s concrete block style house–most likely brick beneath the concrete face–is a wall of old bricks stacked up ¾ of the way. Are they hiding something? Are they “just there”? Being saved for some future use? Walls will be made thus. Unused, unwanted windows and doorways are blocked off by stacking old bricks in them, not finishing them off. Sometimes, when they are walls, the wall will gradually dwindle as these bricks find use. And, then again, temporary often becomes permanent. Better, I guess, than leaving them lying in a disorganized pile, as with the rest of the courtyard, at the far end.

The windows to the storage house are gone, all but one panel and ¾ of another. Why bother to fix it? Bicycles and basins don’t freeze. . .though I do wonder what the boy bathes in in the winter–and where. Now, he is in a big tub on the centre concrete slab as his mother pours cold water over him. Probably the public showers where the wind will not get you and the water is hot. In Jinhua (金华), pretty much in the centre of Zhejiang Province where once the elite of society and government officials lived during the Southern Song (南宋; 1127–1279)–and one of my student’s lived without knowing diddly of this history–the water was wood stove heated. Wood heated water feels different: softer and more truly hot. Other places use charcoal. I wonder if any go electric–the bill would be outrageous.

In an hour or so Tony will come by for dinner. He owes me for France’s win the other night. Tonight. . .Germany plays Argentina. I don’t know who the second game is between. Today is 30 June 2006. I start teaching part time on Monday.

Dinner tomorrow night with Carnation and Yuki.

 

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