Part of the reason behind our decision to teach in another country—rather than just travelling—was our desire to experience the everyday differences that only become apparent when you live in a place. There’s no better place to begin talking about “everyday differences” than right in our own home here in China. When Briant and I were accepted into the International Language Program (ILP), we weren’t given a lot of details regarding living arrangements. The ILP manages English programs in dozens of schools around China, and even within the same city the schools and living arrangements can be diverse. Given that fact, I can understand why they didn’t give us any information regarding our living arrangements beyond: “some of you will be staying at the schools, and some of you will be staying in apartments.” Upon our arrival we were taken to an apartment building across the street from the school and a room was allotted to every two or three teachers.
Let me take you on a tour of our apartment:
In China it’s fairly common to have the shower, toilet and everything else you’d find in a bathroom all enclosed together. In Fenghuang I used a bathroom that wasn’t even large enough for me to extend my arms—it was just a shower-toilet, where the squatting toilet acted as the shower drain. Our bathroom is a bit more spacious, with a cupboard and Western toilet, but we still have to take out the toilet paper before we shower. Soggy toilet paper is never appealing…Our showerhead is attached to a hose, making it a bit easier to moderate the amount of splashing that goes on. Electricity is expensive in China, so water isn’t constantly heated. When we want to take a shower, we go out on the balcony, turn on the water heater, and wait about 15 -20 minutes. You can always jump in before then, but you’ll probably have a lukewarm shower at best. After we finish showering, we take our cheap, broken-handled squeegee and try to scrape as much of the water on the floor into the shower drain. The floor still stays soppy for a few hours, but we use our bathroom sandals to keep our feet dry. As soon as we’re decently dressed, we go back out onto the balcony to turn off the water heater–otherwise we run the risk of forgetting and going over our utilities limit.
Our kitchen is about the size of a small walk-in closet and is located on the balcony. It comes equipped with a door, to help keep the pests out, but we’ve still gotten bugs in the food we dared to store out there and there’s a brown spider happily building a web by the sink. It’s not safe to drink water from the tap in China, but our kitchen has a drinking-water tap attached to the sink, which has proved invaluable.
The counters are covered (quite literally) by appliances both familiar and foreign: an ancient microwave, a hot-plate, a disinfecting cabinet and something like a toaster oven. I have no idea how to work the disinfecting cabinet, and when I asked one of our Chinese coordinators she simply said, “Oh, I don’t think it works.” I imagine that it’s meant to clean the dishes, or to at least keep the bugs out of them. However, given that it reeks of something, I don’t dare store our clean dishes inside..which means that sometimes I find baby cockroaches running over our “clean” plates and cups. The racks inside the little oven are completely broken off, but from my experience with shrunken-head apples I know that it heats decently well. Too bad we don’t have any pans that can go in the oven. The hot-plate took some time to figure out (apparently you have to have something on the burner before the plate will turn on), but it works very well. We have to keep a sharp eye on any vegetables we attempt to sauté, but that plate will bring water to a boil faster than any electric burner. We went out and bought ourselves a pot to allow us to boil eggs and potatoes, and it’s served as our frying pan as well (after we gave up on using a metal plate that we found). Unfortunately there’s only one outlet in our little kitchen, and the appliance cords are rather short. Right now the ceiling has a leak and dripping liquid is pooling on the tile floor. I only hope it’s clean water.
The balcony is a little bigger than the kitchen and it looks out onto a pleasant view of the forested hillside. It’s home to the dirt-encrusted buckets, mops and gloves of residents past, as well as our washing machine. The washing machine is a small affair and our coordinators have warned us that we shouldn’t wash more than 5 heavy items at once, stretching the number to 8 if they’re made of thinner material. There’s no dryer—something that seems to be fairly common in China—but there’s a hanging bar affixed to the ceiling where we hang our clothes from hangers to dry. On humid days, even a full day of hanging isn’t enough to dry our clothes, but a few more hours hanging in our apartment usually does the trick.
The interior of the apartment is a single room roughly the size of a small hotel room, with white walls and tile floors. The company hosting the ILP teachers provided some basic furnishings, including two twin beds on functional wooden bedsteads. The mattresses lack any sort of padding whatsoever, and sleeping on them is essentially the same as sleeping on a box spring. We’ve dealt with this by using one of the fluffy comforters they provided as a pad, while we squeeze underneath the remaining comforter. To provide a bit more space for long limbs, we pushed these beds together into a “mega bed,” which takes up about two thirds of the room. A wire rack serves as our closet (which is mostly taken up by the large, ancient TV they provided us with), and our suitcases on the floor serve as our dresser. A baby fridge-freezer combo gives us a place to store our food and serves as a shelf for our bathroom items (there’s not room in the bathroom for them). A desk with broken drawers, along with a chair and a stool make up the remainder of our furniture. Although the walls seem fairly thick, the doors are thin and cheap, and a massive grate high in the bathroom wall lets in every sound going on both inside the apartment and in the nearby vicinity. I can hear the children upstairs riding their scooters up and down the hallway. I can hear the person down the hall showering. I can hear the chorus of honking cars on the street in front of the apartment. I can hear the 6:40AM wake-up call at the school across the street—and every subsequent announcement for passing period, break time and exercise time, right up until they go to bed at 9-something. It kind of reminds me of staying at my grandparents’ house at Christmas time, when every bedroom and free space is used to accommodate the visiting aunts, uncles and cousins; in both cases it seems like you can always hear someone somewhere doing something.
As you can see from the pictures, our apartment here in China isn’t very large or very fancy. But it’s generally clean and vermin free (there’s a few cockroaches now and then) and the air conditioning works well. Having lived in a studio apartment the year prior to this experience, Briant and I are used to being in the same room and having limited space, so the adjustment wasn’t difficult in that regard. Living in our simple accommodations has been an opportunity for me to understand myself: what I’m content to live without and what I’d rather not be without. The biggest take away? I’m never going to live without a decent-sized, vermin-free kitchen again if I can help it!