Why I Miss China

My reason for being out of China is my bitch: education. University education. An institution of caged cowards playing internal politics and doing the Party Dance in the name of teaching. Professors so frightened of doing anything for fear of rocking the boat that they gladly cut off their noses to spite their faces. (I hate clichés but I think the only way to talk of Chinese education is to vomit up a plethora of clichés: non-thought for non-thought. A kind of the medium is the message. The Chinese like clichés very much.) University people, the supposed intellectuals that Mao hated– probably because he didn’t have what it took to be one of them (he was, after all, a crude man)–are blind to the fact that if they shine, they bring only good things to their school; and the school can turn around and proudly say, see what we got? No. Better death by I dare not. Gone are the days when the college crowd actually did anything.

And this is not just the professors. This is the student body. In the working class colleges, the students are more human and striving and well aware of what they’re getting–both positive and negative–and how they are changing family fortunes. In the top 100, students are arrogant, lazy, cheaters who figure they made it this far, there’s no reason to work. So they don’t. Most all of my trouble came from these students, this level of society: the middling-privileged and privileged. I was actually faced with, from a sophomore who had done nothing but pass tests here entire life, call me out by demanding of me, after being told of my educational and theatrical achievements, looking down her nose: why are you here? A nasty little girl saying a nasty little thing and not even realizing that she’s shitting on her own education, her own self. Most of her ilk tend to keep the question to themselves but the pressure is there: if you’re so good, what are you doing here! Thoughtless.

These university people aren’t interested in doing anything or amounting to anything. They are classists. They know their place. They are the reason I left China, forced out, really.

Interestingly, it is my working class students who have excelled in the workplace, really gotten those “good jobs.” A tri-lingual translator; #2 in a joint Dutch-Chinese venture; an inventor; an editor, bilingual; poets; getting their Master’s degrees in the West; surpassing their professors in ability (I actually wrote a literature test the faculty could not answer the questions to and they demanded I change it; I didn’t. I sent them the answers. Pass rate for my students was 78.) These students made teaching worthwhile. These students I fell in love with and urged onward. They had talent and vision.

Aside from these few kinds of students, the reason I miss China is the non- university populace. When I went out amongst the shopkeepers and street sellers and the villagers I found a very different China. These people are human. These people are aware of what’s going on in their country, that all of the verbiage from the government is bullshit propaganda, that things really aren’t so much better than they were before, technological advances and modern conveniences be damned. Some treated me better because I was foreign and had a doctorate; some shopkeepers raised their prices just because I was a high-nosed foreigner. The most egregious was the wine-seller who wanted to sell me a bottle of grape wine (not Chinese wine, a very different animal) for 80 RMB but when I sent my student back he sold it to her for 20 RMB. It wasn’t worth even the 20! I never bought from that man again, though they plied me every time I bought bread and cookies from the next stall bakery. When this man, the baker, had to stop making his own bread, he told me that what he was selling was not his and not as good. So I made up the difference by occasionally buying his self-made cookies.

I loved shopping on the street, especially for vegetables and meat. The shopkeepers got to know me and a kind of relationship arose. When the narrow Culture Street–yes! that’s what it’s name translated as, ??? (wenhua lu)–was refurbished and the farmers had to pay more for their stalls, most left and I spent days riding around the streets looking for “my” farmer. Even during dinner, the chicken salespeople would sell to me. They asked me to come in, sit down, eat with them on more than one occasion, thrusting a little into my hands despite my refusal.

Along the back streets, the living areas, I was engaged in conversation, asked to sit down with the neighborhood crowd, even though my Chinese was. . .laughable. But I could joke with them. And I could talk to them. And they would talk to me. They would tell me how they were not so pleased with the way things were going in their world. So very many unemployed. Always, always someone with the children, someone they could run to. Sometimes even the foreign grandpa, laowai yeye–or just grandpa, yeye. Sometimes I was uncle, bobo (??). Either has a mark of respect in Chinese society.

I enjoyed getting beyond the walls of the university and roaming the streets, for these people were real, the university crowd were fake, faking it, playing a part. Making face. The face the university crowd saves is a very different thing from the face of the working class. The working class actually have a face to save; the university crowd have lost all the meaning associated with saving face. I communicated better with the monkeys in the zoo!

The working class. The commoners. That group politicians and social rebels call “the people.” Those people, the ones who are in a group because they are lesser, looked down upon; but, in truth, are more varied than their university betters.

It is these people I miss, the Chinese. It is this neighborliness, this. . .caring–dare I use that word? Sentimentalization!! These people watched out for me. Yes. They were sometimes nosey but if I said their questions were too personal, they backed off.

There is no romanticism here. I’m not talking about coming from the outside. I lived in their midst, more than once. Coming from the West, the conditions were rather barbaric but I was nevertheless living like most Chinese live. For all Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s talk of the “many Chinas” that make up China (and he’s right), he has never lived with any but the urbanized folk (Cf. One, two or many Chinas? At ZZ). When he visits China, he says, he visits mostly Shanghai, a city I was none too pleased to ever be in–though it did have used bookstores–and he only goes out and through the countryside, looking at conditions. Nevertheless, he has a better hold on China than most American university experts.

In 2006 I lived in the old centre of the city of Anyang, Henan province, once the Shang Dynasty capital. I kept a long journal that focused on the kitchen, a built-on cubby hole that was falling away from the main room, itself an addition to the original single room dwelling.

As I noted to Yuki [adopted daughter], as we traversed the back roads and pathways to my new house, I was getting deeper and deeper into China. Certainly no foreigner would have bothered to go as deep into living areas as this; none would even consider living in such a place. I will learn something (more) about China, things that most all foreigners are ignorant of– discounting that they are ignorant of China in the aggregate. Living like the Chinese live! Once, for a couple weeks, I had lived in similar circumstances while spending New Year’s with a student’s family in a village outside of Jinhua [Zhejiang province]. So, there was some foreknowledge of what I was getting into. The differences are marked, though.

Off the not-so-wide back streets there are smaller, what might be called paved alleyways (as well as other less wide streets, which we’re not concerned with here). Off of Dongnanying jie (????) East South Trade Road, is a smaller roadway, perhaps 2 ½ bicycles wide at its widest. There is an archway-tunnel entrance, under which, in the “street,” the construction workers sleep over the noon break (2-3 hrs, standard). It would be easy, I found out, to run them over. Luckily, I was quick on my bike this afternoon. On the east wall of the tunnel is a sign and a further hand-written notice: Linfu jie (???), Forest Home Road. No trees. It bends and narrows as it goes along, finally ending in a cul de sac; there are a couple alleys and streets that are dead ends leading to large houses up that way, too.

Along the east wall are the entrances, through little tunnels, to the living areas–more than one house, more than one family. I live in #7. Quite a ways down the street. The entryway is paved; where it turns left, concrete civilization ends: the ground is there, pounded down by use and mossy-ish. An open courtyard with houses around its perimeter must be passed through to get to the even narrower passageway that leads to my courtyard, bounded by three houses. Once a long time ago, this narrow, between houses passage was bricked over, cobbled; now it is a tumult of tsunami-tossed bricks sticking up into the non-sunshine, embedded in the hard, hard earth. I think of staying in when it rains, though I do have boots to counter both the running water–a little watercourse is obvious and not necessarily down the middle–and the mud.

Old houses. Clay tile roofed, white-washed brick or plastered concreted brick; or, like mine, the one right across the yard is brick with a concrete lower third; there is a large hole in its door where the thin plywood type panel has gone missing. Must be cold in the winter.

Along the west side of the street (Linfu jie) are larger, double-door entrances to single dwelling courtyards of good size; these are unnumbered, for the most part. Opposite #7 sits a grandfather on his little stool holding a fly swatter. Sometimes he stands up and walks a little ways down the street. He smiles and nods to my “Ni hao.” The people in #6 gather outside their entrance tunnel to watch me pass and comment upon the foreigner. I understand nothing, not so much because they are speaking Chinese, at which I am not especially competent, but because they are speaking Anyanghua, the local dialect, of which I know one word: kebei, which kind of means “okay.” I am very familiar with the word for foreigner, laowai (??).

For the most part, the bricked-over first courtyard is intact. For the most part. Beaten, mossy earth abounds; there are a few trees and flowers. It’s a nice, homey, shaded area. One resident, an older auntie, was sitting outside in the shade of a tree making jiaozi (dumplings). I commented in passing and the next time I came through, she gave me a bowl for lunch. It was not bad. Not bad. She gave me kuaizi (chopsticks) and I fed Tiger and Tony [two students who had come to visit] in my house, like a good grandfather.

Wooden door, pretty much square once, low framed and with four window panels–one missing and filled in with a piece of wood–is my front door. Similar to those old country farmhouse doors in the States that do not any more fit their frames. Green peeling paint. Bamboo curtain before the door that must be lifted to enter. When inside, I leave the door open for air and a modicum of light. It’s dark inside, like living in a cave. Years before, when living in basement apartments I’d get depressed. Same kind of darkness. High electric bill.

And, nowhere, any sign of toilet or shower. The house was old enough not to have been built with any and, sure enough, I either used the public facilities down the end of Linfujie and up the street a couple hundred metres or I used a pot–which of course would be needed in the evenings anyway. This is not unusual. When I lived, for a couple months, in an older teacher’s apartment on campus, the WC was outside off the little walkway-patio and there was no shower–that worked. There was a 1 x 1 metre room, rough floored, in which nothing worked; however, the showers were only 5o metres back toward the cafeterias. Wonderfully warm water and people who talked to you. The men– and apparently the women, judging from the chittering and chattering and peels of laughter beyond the wall that separated the sexes–gathered in the changing rooms and had their neighborhood gathering. I never stayed, my Chinese too rudimentary and embarrassing, but I joined in as best I could before and after. Both on campus and when living in Linfujie.

[The landlady] says I can have this house because she rarely comes here–and it’s obvious, especially in the kitchen, which is kind of like a closet with gas top alcove. It’s built onto the main room and the joining of the two structures is pulling apart. I can see daylight through the cracks. Cracks, hell–crevices! When will it separate and fall off, I wonder. . .

The dishes she left are coated with so much dirt and dust and whatever it is that falls from the ceiling that I’m sure they couldn’t come clean except at a car wash using steaming, furiously pounding water. The shelves are coated with the same fine signs of life making them unusable–if there were any space. There are only two shelves below the cook top. I brought over my remaining tank of gas and my gas cooker; hers did not work. If it did, I doubt I’d have used it, it looked to be something out of a Poe or Lovecraft story and very well might have done something other than cook when it lit, if not blow up at least some creature might emerge from the flames–not a genii with wishes and gifts. The sink is a concrete square basin with bare pipe with faucet running into it from above, about chest high, which makes for nice places to hang things–and I cleaned it and do so use it. But, still, there’s lots around it that is disgusting. The walls flake off. I kept falling against them last night as I hurriedly worked and turned around, having consumed considerable vodka. I stopped because it began tasting like hell. Perhaps because I made it cold; warm–room temperature in which you sweat while breathing–was good, smooth, though not nearly of the quality I had in Moscow in 2001.

There is one light bulb in this kitchen area: just inside the entryway, to the right in the cooking alcove; when cooking, your shadow falls over the gas range and food. One cannot say it is bright, though it does enlighten the tunnelishness of the kitchen, something a large mole or Hobbit might find just right. The two-panel windows look out on the courtyard, hanging loosely on rusty hinges and supporting themselves, otherwise they would crash to the ground. There is screen in the window. The light it lets in is minimal. Not really enough to make shadows. The smaller one over the sink is pitiful–but there’s enough penetration of Mr. Sun that if I lay frozen meat on the sink rim it will thaw in more than enough time for dinner.

This front room is full of the landlady’s shit, hers and her daughter’s. On the north, door-facing wall is a bureau with old things on the top; a table that I’ve cleaned off and am using, lots of dusty baskets and boxes beneath; a dressing table loaded with things. My rice cooker is there. In front of this is a pile of round, holey charcoal with a round, folded-down table before it, hiding it from view–but only if you stand directly in front of it. The dusty, rusting stove [for which the charcoal is there: winter heating] is in the large bedroom through the door on the east wall, a door similar to the front door and which I leave open. Just before the kitchen tunnel and next to the bedroom door is a tall bureau or maybe chiffarobe. Filled on the inside, pilled high with dusty things. Behind the open front door, which opens inward, is a device for hanging clothes and towels and such; this also sports a shoe rack with lots of female shoes, virtually all out of fashion. I will wash the rags and towels hanging there, they might come in handy. Beside this, on the wall at the right height for me (short person), is a mirror that I’ve wiped down but is still vague. I’m able to use it because I’m so shiningly handsome that I can still see myself in its depths. There are nails and spikes sticking out of the walls hither and thither; some are usable by me, others are in use and I dare not look into the aged plastic bags; some are rustily bare.

To east (right) and west (left) are the other two rooms, bedrooms. The west room is smaller and concrete floored with white-washed walls. . .except for the west wall of the house which is covered in its middle from one end to the other with tacked up paper and cardboard where the plaster has fallen off and the underbrick is visible. Things fall from it onto the bed that’s there. I only use this room for storing my suitcases–one with clothes, one with books–and for the desk, where I sit typing this, looking, occasionally, out the screened window (two-paneled) onto the courtyard and the house across the way (the one with the broken door) and my clothes hanging on the wire “line.” I washed them in a basin in my kitchen sink this morning, about two hours ago. This is the original single room of the house, the now main room being built on–and showing separation. The larger bedroom is also showing continental drift.

There is no telling how clean or devoid of soap [my handwashed clothes] are. It’s kind of a muggy day; there’s no telling how long it will take them to dry. It doesn’t matter. I’ve got all day. Tree branches occlude the sky somewhat. Although it’s somewhat cooler than it has been this past month, it’s still humid to the point that you could cut it with a knife. Thinking causes one to become dripping. Just riding [by bike] downtown (to get my front tooth repaired) and back left my shorts and shirt so wet I could very well have climbed out of a swimming pool.

A dove just flew in and perched on the flat roof of the house to the west. This is the house my neighbor lives in. The broken-doored one is her storage shed. Perhaps I should get some bird seed and put it out; I wonder what other denizens of the air would descend upon the little courtyard? I’d hate to see bird shit all over our clothes, mine and the other family’s (a mother and son). Actually, I’m thinking I might take a chair or little stool (called a bench here) and sit outside my house before the gathering darkness and read or just look around. I’d get to know my neighbor. I might very well learn some Chinese while here, though most of it will be Anyanghua, which I’m not interested in learning: it’s useless outside of Anyang.

Over the summer, I did, though communicating was difficult. She was extremely tolerant, smiling and shaking her head when I was totally befuddled. I learned a little not to be so embarrassed at my language ignorance but, still, it frustrated me no end that I couldn’t talk very much, not really hold a conversation beyond the surface of things: what I’m doing, where I’m going, how I feel. Although she understood my putonghua (Mandarin), she herself was a little shy on it, as many of the townies (and villagers) were, ensconced in Anyanghua. Children really don’t learn putonghua until they are around 5-6 or so, during their last years of kindergarten. She would bring me food now and again that she cooked in the old broken-down building opposite, the same place she stored the bikes and such. I got on with her young son, too, often teasing him when he was in the big basin on the concrete centre of our courtyard getting his bath or in the evenings. He was, as would be expected of a 5-6 yr old, filled with energy and ran around shouting alot.

The East bedroom is the larger, including larger double bed. There are three cabinets, one a chiffarobe with a storage cabinet above; the aforementioned ancient charcoal stove with new pipe leading out one window, otherwise unusable; two arm chairs and the refrigerator. The wall around the head of the bed is protected by a cloth, most probably to keep the wall from spilling its surface and contents onto the bed, into the sleeper’s mouth. The floor is brick, well-worn. Nice. A small window is high up in the east wall looking out over a concrete wall and a bricked up doorway (or windowway, I can’t tell). But I can see sky and tree branches above the wall and the slight breeze is a minor aid to the stuffiness inside. The room is musty and mildewy smelling. Perhaps with the house open much of the day, this will dissipate. [It never did.]

Nevertheless, this is the room in which I keep my pot, plastic bag-lined for easier, less messy disposal. I hide it in the space between the old charcoal stove and the chiffarobe. Later, I began pushing it under the bed. There was a little bit more privacy in this room than the other with it’s large window. I had another for a pissoir and surreptitiously emptied it down the drain outside where a piece of lumber lay covering an opening. Right at the foot of the outside sink. As I discovered, the water bill for this sink was mine. I rarely used it. She washed her clothes and her vegetables and dishes here.

The ceilings of the rooms are covered with some kind of tar paper to keep the filler between the wood–and whatever else–from falling onto chicken little’s head. Except in the kitchen where the wood–sturdy tree branches spread between little tree trunks–and stuffing is exposed and dropping powder and lord knows what else onto the floor and whatever else may be in its way. Like the pot. I think I might have to buy something to cover over the ceiling in the cooking alcove.

The garden to that side is rampant, unattended. The dog, dirty and not-so- friendly lies in the dirt. In the centre of our courtyard is a concrete slab. Actually, two blocks next to each other. To one side is a spot of concrete, looking like something construction workers left behind. Construction workers often do this, leave shit behind. The steps to our houses are stone blocks, mine more than one. The little boy pees on this central concrete block. It’s a very hot, muggy summer.

The unkempt garden is full of weeds with an occasional baby tree, stones, bricks in a big pile, huge pots and smaller pots with flowers, broken vase pots, a bicycle tire and a pile of debris of all sorts along the east wall. There is a clothes line here; it gets a little sun at one end. I think I’ll start using it so my clothes (on the other line) don’t interfere with her getting into her house, as I noticed was the case this evening.

Used the public toilet this morning. Walked up there. Inside shows a line-up of huge vats for pissing in, of a size ancient civilizations used for funerary urns; deeper inside the filthy structure are squat toilets, stainless steel, lined up along each wall. No dividers. No privacy. The flush mechanism–I was surprised to find one–is a button in the floor. As I learned, to the right of the toilet used. Obvious to me that there’s no light at night–and, to be quite frank, I wouldn’t want to stray in there in the dark. Aside from the very real possibility of slipping in the muddy wetness or on the wet paper there’s a great possibility that something might materialize and jump out at me. Frankenturd! No sink to wash hands afterward. Highly unusual. I was, of course, watched. I think I took a shit like everyone else. I hope my parts were exposed and large enough to be satisfactory, all Americans being big, you know.

The condition of this toilet. . .brought home again to me how filthy this country is. The people are fairly clean but the environment is a mess. Dirt, dust, trash everywhere; people spitting, even in restaurants and hospitals; men pissing against walls, in the bushes, in the showers (I see and smell this at the gym); children shitting and pissing wherever. The people in Hong Kong are most upset at mainlanders because they filthy up the city. The younger generation are complaining but no one is doing anything about it. Mostly, people do not use the trash bins on the streets or in the parks, just tossing their litter on the ground. I was somewhere yesterday where some guy had hawked a lugey in the middle of the entry carpet. I stop class and make spitting students clean up the wad. They never do it again: acute embarrassment.

The Third Day

The electricity in the house is an afterthought: originally, there was none. Outlets are set on a wooden base and hammered into the wall, there only being two. Otherwise, extension cords or old style wound cords are 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+ 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. Light bulbs hang naked into space, some in rather inaccessible places. To turn on the bedroom light, I must have the main room lit or I’d never find the cord: 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 shadow. Even during the daylight hours reading is difficult, as the window is 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.

The breaker box is a breaker and main power source 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. 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.

Now. . .a bit more needs to be said about the kitchen, a subject we may be revisiting on and off. Not only are the walls separating from the main room–there was no interweaving of the bricks, just abutment with concrete filler–but the floor is moving away from the walls, moving westward. There is a crack in the foundation–just a bed of concrete on top of the ground–about halfway into the little burrow hole. This makes for a slight rise to the crack and then a kind of leveling off. The floor is wet, sticky with something as my house slippers stick and slap when walking through. It never dries. Looking back, you can see the darker, dampened area.

The cooking corner has a different problem. There is 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–out of the pan. This makes for a blackening of the walls and ceiling beams. Remember, the ceiling itself sheds, so there’s little discoloration there. I imagine this situation is why the double window is forever open. Not that it helps. This little corner is like a den where meat has been roasted, meat gotten on the hunt. There are not, however, any fat deposits on the floor. The concrete here is dry, miraculously.

I washed [my clothes by hand] again this morning but it was so overcast, so humid today that even after six hours the clothes are not dry. Not much direct sunlight into this back area: too many overhanging trees. Breezy, though none gets in [the house]. I’m sitting in the pathway of the fan or I’d be sweating like a stuck, roasted pig.

I am so disgusted by the public WC that I won’t use it. I am appalled. It’s almost enough to make you puke. The floor is slippery and muddied, wet, used paper is strewn about and, as in the US, men don’t bother to flush–or make sure they’re on target if they use the stainless steel squatters rather than the urns. None of the local area residents seemed as nonplussed as I was. The girl students who came to visit complained of the conditions on their side of the wall, through which you can hear the women talking–men never do–and my daughter [Chinese] walked in and right back out again, waiting til we got to a. . .better opportunity. This is pretty much the way it is for public WCs, though some are just trenches that don’t drain well; some are pay toilets, including buying the paper. There is no paper in any public toilet, even in restaurants. Always, always carry tissue wherever you go. No one in China is the least little bit off-put by asking for paper.

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. Then, they 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 vendors and passers-by. Everyone but everyone gets out of the little truck’s way when the driver shouts he’s coming through!

I noticed that the WC doors are not marked ? (female) or ? (male). I think there may be a method, with the? always being on the left, as you stand contemplating the outlets. I was helped by seeing boys come out of one; no one has 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 (???) outside Hebi City: act the fool (to gain information).

Back to my house. . .

There is a bulging crack in the middle of the main room floor, though not of the geological uplift 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. Chinese are pack rats–and yet there is little appreciation of art or antiques. (An understatement.) 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. No one bothers to fix up a new house either!

The storage house across the yard was once a lived-in house. Its front wall of brick extends above roof level. There is a drain there where, in Europe, there would be a gargoyle spouting water. Cross 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 brick balustrade around the roof. Only junk juts up over this. There are no windows on this side.

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 slabs 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, the water was wood stove heated. Wood heated water feels different: softer, more truly hot. Other places use charcoal. I wonder if any go electric–the bill would be outrageous.

Earlier today, a little boy, from the front courtyard, wandered into my house and watched me sort things into my HD and then left.

The ceiling shed last night all over my kitchenware and dishes, sitting at the further reaches of the table. I washed it all and put it back, turning the bowls upside down and moving the kitchenware elsewhere, then draped a towel over it all. In the bedroom, parts of the tar paper have torn loose and hang like stripped flesh, the insides of the ceiling exposed, some covered with cardboard of an inferior type by prior tenants. Still, it filters down onto the bedstead, the head of my bed; I tend to sleep with my pillow further down the bed. Being so short, my feet do not manage to hang over the end. It is amazing that the Chinese, instead of repairing things, will do a jerrymandering kind of fix-it-up and leave it at that. Over and over again, like a neurotic rat in his labyrinth going after his treasures even though his treasures never appear again, or very rarely. Learned behavior and difficult to give up, difficult to break the habit.

At night I can hear the ceiling shifting and sifting, as if there are creatures up there that scurry about. There may be. I don’t know. I’m not about to look. In this room, the ceiling tar paper is still 90% intact, though around its edges it’s separating from the wall.

The kitchen–again. The cooking alcove with its blackened walls. Beneath, on top of and intermixed in this grease is the dust of the house, topped off by a frosting of cobwebs, not always having maintained their spidery beginnings but piled up in little stringy bunches here and there. Food long since abandoned? Getting rid of it would also get rid of the plaster, exposing the concrete beneath and its crumbling soul. Alas and alack, I must live with it. As do millions of Chinese. I cannot speak of Indians or other cultures but I would imagine so–and worse.

Time for the pot!

This will have to be gathered up and, together with the kitchen garbage, disposed of when I leave. There is a little garbage area just outside #7’s entrance, a kind of topless, knee high alcove. I guess this arrangement makes it easier for the garbage man and his shovel. Yes. Garbage is shoveled up and into a two-wheeled wheelbarrow conveyance drawn by manpower and then taken to. . .wherever. Apparently, wheelbarrows made their first appearance in China. Hmm. . .I wonder. . .Pieter Breugel’s paintings show wheelbarrows. . .did Genghis Khan have them with his advance into Eastern Europe? That might explain it. The rats, too.

The Sixth Day

8:30. It’s been raining for 12 hours, since last night. A steady rain with moments of increased intensity, once coinciding with the ringing of the Church bells at 5 this morning. The courtyard is, as expected, mud puddles and mud. The boy and his mother went out in this, to work and school no doubt. I don’t think I will; I have no umbrella nor no poncho for riding.

I’ve propped my bamboo curtain up with the mop to let in more of the nice rainy air–and also make it easier for me to step outside and take a piss. The rain water carries it away where it will seep into the hard, hard ground. Probably nothing will grow over that area. I noticed that the neighbors had set their bucket upside down over the drain. At least, I guess that’s what it is. What it is doing. There’s really no reason for it to be there, though I can’t see why they’d leave it outside but to cleanse it. It just sits atop the wooden slat that resides atop the drainage channel. Upside down. I wonder why she’d not want clean water in the bucket? Perhaps it’s a hint to me concerning what I’m supposed to do with my own pot.

The kitchen yet again. I put on my kettle–hers was coated on the inside with some kind of sandy-brown sediment with some floating on the top of the water she had in it–and looked forward to some hot water and pouring the cooled water into bottles. Alas, my kettle does not whistle. It is cheap aluminum. It has now no bottom. Finally, I smelled the smell of melted aluminum and turned off the gas. I guess you could call it a bottomless kettle of water. Well, now I must go out and buy one of the more expensive variety which won’t give off odor or little bits of mineral in the boiled water.

Speaking of which. . .the water from the tap in the kitchen also dispenses mineral matter. I can feel it when I wash the dishes, when I wash my hands.

More ceiling shedding last night. Good thing I covered my utensils. The kitchen is another matter. Before the gas top cabinet there is, at the bottom of the pieces of wood piled in the corner, a pile of ceiling. New pile: it’s brownish-white. Fresh ceiling flesh. All over the side of the kettle too. I must buy some nails and some material to put up.

As I was staring at the original wall, now the west wall of the main room, I discovered blackened discoloration as in the kitchen, from about 3′ off the ground up. This must have been where a stove was. Perhaps the stove, since when these were first built I’d have to say the cooking might have been done outside, perhaps in a covered area. As I have seen in the country. . .and around the corner. In summer people, families, might gather at a very small table outside their doors to cook and eat. Basically in the street.

How dirty is the floor of my house? Well, I propped up the bamboo curtain during the rain and some water managed to find its way in. Now, at the entrance to my house, on the inside, is a minor mud slick. How many aeons has it been since this floor was mopped, much less swept! The rest of the floor is a kind of black from accumulated dirt. It wouldn’t be so very much better if someone had been living here and sweeping. As I recall, when it rained at Fang Lei’s the floor got wettish-muddyish, though her mother swept it right up and out the door. Here, there is a wooden lip to the lintel; no sweeping things out the door.

The pathway out (and, of course in) is not so bad. The hard, hard earth sucks up the water and is not muddy, though of course it tracks in. The waterway is obvious, though not too very watery, now 2 hrs after cessation of the rain. It’s kind of nice outside; muggy-getting in here.

What I [expected] did not occur, with Dr. Wu [that he would be amazed at the house I was living in when he visited]. This is just nothing out of the ordinary for a Chinese. The only thing people have asked me was if I’d adjusted to this kind of living yet. They know it’s hard. They know it’s–how shall I say?–below standard. But it’s all they’ve got and will have until their children or grandchildren manage to do better. And, so, it’s all I’ve got, too. Perhaps I have adjusted. It would be nice to be able to take a second shower, at night; I’m getting wringing wet in here.

Yes. Having my own facilities would have caused less concern and anxiety but, on the other hand, I’d have lost the camaraderie of the neighborhood, something that does not exist in America any more. Neighbors don’t know their neighbors and there’s no gatherings morning, noon and night where the news and gossip is dispensed with laughs or sighs and head shakings. I was hailed often on my trip to the public showers, stopping to play with the kids (some of whom spoke as much Chinese as I did). I sat and joked with the grandmothers one night–and they never ceased to hail me after that. They were interested in the foreigner, of course, and I kind of spoke their language. They were surprised at my age, almost as old as they were (I look 10 years or so younger than the calendar’s reckoning). They asked about my wife–an always question–and I told them, no, I didn’t have one. One of them suggested I find one and I quipped that she was good looking, why not her (over 70). That set them all laughing, especially that one grandmother. So, I became their dear, as it were. They looked out for me; questioned me when I didn’t appear on schedule, worried that something had happened; offered me food; they would tell me the road was blocked off due to construction or that the showers were closed or other neighborhood stirrings I needed to be aware of. At one point, when the showers were closed, I was told in meticulous detail how to get to the other nearest one. . .which I never found. I rode over to campus and used that one.

My neighbor put a potted plant on my window sill, for this room, the original house room–the only one with a window sill actually. She is so nice, so thoughtful. And all I can say is “thank you” when much more is needed, I think.

The neighbors are playing majiang in her front room; I can hear the tiles clicking. Wish I knew more how to play. I know a little, enough to get me through, but I don’t have the damnedest idea whether I’ve won or not. Scoring is beyond me. Probably too simple.

Shanshan said tonight that she used to live in a house like this. So, I’m poorer than my students!

Ninth Day

Bought and hung material over the sink and the cooking area. Each nail driven into the wood loosened more ceiling until I was covered with it, as was the floor and the sink. But now it shouldn’t be a bother. Some of the problem is the filler, which looks like concrete, in the ceiling; some of the problem is the bark falling off the wood; some of the problem is the concrete and whitewash falling off the wall high up. The material was remnant, 6 RMB/metre; off-white brocade of green swirl-like leaves and vine. Perhaps it will brighten up the area, especially when the light bulb is on.

If I’d bought one more metre of cloth, I could have covered the entire kitchen ceiling–and I’m thinking of it; though it’s the walls that need covering. At least the east wall. I’m not sure I’d spend 6 RMB/metre to do the wall, though. I think it would take too much to do the one wall of the main room that keeps shedding onto the table and my dishes, speakers, etc. The white wash type walls in the kitchen appear to be much like rotting cloth, more so than plaster. At any rate, it’s nice not having bits and pieces of wall and ceiling in the sink, on the gas top, in the guo (wok; literally “pot”).

Got a little dysentery from eating street food lately. Ciprofloxacin, here we go!

It is so dark coming off of Linfu jie, where there is also no lighting, that I carry my little flashlight with me to light my way into the compound and through to my house. Comes in handy unlocking the door, too!

Thirteen and counting

The entire neighborhood had no electricity last night. It happened right after I got home, around 9:15 or so, and had turned on some lights. All up and down Linfu jie, only the street lights were on. People were out in the street talking; I was in the front courtyard for a time [chatting with one of the aunties], then moved back here where the kid was getting bathed. It was horribly, horribly humid. Not a breeze stirring. Sweat rose up out of my body like volcanic magma overflowing its crest, so I filled up my kettle with water and poured it over my head and body. This helped for about 10 mins. I went to bed around 10:30 and just lay there, a mummy in wetness. No rest. No rest.

The garden out back is indeed the dirt-piled floor of an old house. There is some of the brick foundation visible–you’ve got to step over it to get to the garden. Along my wall is the inside brick of the house, a supporting timber and the outline of a not- so-completely removed tile roof. Another two beams lie on the ground, kind of dividing the land up. Bricks piled up against the storage house–which contains cutting boards for my neighbor. No lock on the door, just pulls to. Pans and such strewn about. It used to be an entire house at one time. This back courtyard must have been crowded and stifling–four houses!

When I came to Linfu jie [later the following night], I found there was a neighborhood movie going on. An old B&W yüju (Henan opera) performance.

I feel so dirty here. Dirty and clammy. I’ve spent nights wallowing around, feeling as if things were crawling all over my body. Buggie things. Despite the mosquito-killer coils that kill more than mosquitoes. It is true, though, that little black bits of something fall from the ceiling–er. . .the sky.

Gotta empty the piss and shit. As the Beatles sing, “It’s too much.”

The writer was fed tonight, or he’d have plugged away until whenever. Her husband brought it to me. Who knows whether it was in response to their earlier arguing or not. Noodles. I had to use vinegar and some hot sauce; it was pretty bland.

The kitchen floor dries out occasionally now. Not sure why.

Twenty-second day

The kitchen floor–and sink, rough enough to count as river stones upon which to beat clothes–dried. For the most part. Patchy. My brocade is doing its job nicely.


The ceiling falls more during and after a rain. Lord knows how much of it I ate for breakfast! I had to throw out a glass of juice for the little black & white pieces floating on the surface.

The “street manager” came by last evening, gathering ID of house residents; she hadn’t been told it had been rented to me, apparently. This ID-catcher is parallel to the village headman–only she was a broad, large breasted woman who took up the entire doorway. Kamen (??). Kazhu (??).

The sweet-acrid perfume of urine permeates the room, even after emptying the pot. Do my clothes smell like piss? Do I?

There was a fellow at the showers tonight who only stood under the water to have a look at me. 30 seconds? Then he left to drip dry–the favorite kind of drying off by Chinese men. I don’t know about women. The place was a little cleaner tonight, though the bathtub was. . .cloudy. I never use it.

I keep hearing creatures in my ceiling at night–and big blobs of ceiling falling (that I can never find). My body itches horribly! I’ve got some ringworm on my right thigh.

6 August

Neighborhood WC outside not useable yet. When? Depends on the workmen, we were told. Must be more of a private neighborhood project than a city one. A month overdue.

It is so wet in the house! The clothes I brought in not 12 hrs ago are damp. Musty, smelly place.

Everyone along Linfu jie was looking forward to the opening of this new, modern convenience. Perhaps, though, not as anxiously as I was. The workmen were not in the least worried about our convenience and took their time. Occasionally, the oldsters along the street would stand watching them; I nodded and said hello. . .and watched, remembering when I ran wheelbarrows on a construction site (some 35 yrs previously). One evening, while it was still light, I ventured inside: a huge open room with windows high up on one side. The men’s at the far end of the narrow passageway and up a couple of steps; the women’s about half way up the passage and off to the left.

7 August

More and more bugs and spiders in my house. The word is out! This is particularly the case in the kitchen. Every morning I walk through spider webs, a net before the sink and below the top door frame. I got all tangled up the other morning. Web and whatever in my hair.

9 August

My cutting board is useless. It is wood. No matter how often or hard I scrub–or with what–it gathers up mold it is so damp (and dirty) in this house.

11 August

People sitting outside in chairs, on mats, on stools fanning themselves, playing cards, talking–not talking–kids running around with no clothes on or lying on little bamboo mats, their mother’s fanning their hot little bodies. . .all along???? on the way to the showers. Lights on the corners, issuing from shops and open doorways, otherwise dark, dark street. Riding a bike is quite frightening. I’ve noticed that during the long noon break (two hours or so), grandma’s will be lying down for their rests on mats on their stoops. Sometimes with her grandkids.

The son of the woman who owns the bathhouse studied HS in Shanghai and will start at some university in Wuhan in–next month? Wow!–it’s already “next fall”! I think public bath owners must make good money: a school in Shanghai is nothing to sneeze at.

16 August

Bought some bleach to kill the black mold in the sink. Can’t tell if it’s worked. Night time.

Had a towel rub with mild very soapy scrub at the showers today. Felt mighty good. After the rub, he beat the shit out of me and kind of mushed his fingers into my shoulders. Bad massage but I felt good after. Even smell different. I’ll do this again! (I never did. This time was free and the other times I tried to pay, he was “too busy.”)

18 August

WC’s–one for each–finished. New routine coming up.

The WC is ready! Today, all I’ve had are emergency pisses, so there’s been no need to use it really. There are no lights along the passageway, narrow like those in the pyramids, or in the rooms themselves. I use my flashlight. They are, for the moment, clean. Lord knows what they’ll look like I a week!

19 August

WC is already dirty. Dust and dirt is mostly leftover construction dirt but water’s already spread around. Many stainless steel squat toilets all in a row on two sides, one Western style seat, a small trough to piss in. Nice textured tile floor. The doors are not yet hinged or hung. The windows, high up in the west wall with house tops and trees beyond, are empty of glass.

25-6 August

The opening, as it were, of the???WC was a big deal. Lots of people using it, some I’d never seen before. Conversations on both sides of the wall. Men– because I don’t see the women–sit, open the paper and wait for Mother Nature. One man came in just to look at me. He looked and then left. After a week, someone had cleaned the stainless steel toilet bowls and the floor. I’m betting part of the neighborhood donations go for this service.

This is how most of China lives, if not worse: I’d seen worse and was to see worse again. Yet to see them gathered in the street outside their houses chatting and carrying on, doing the corn or green beans or whatever they’re going to have for dinner, their good nature seems to belie the horror of their living conditions. They are not blind to this but what can they do? Even I joined in with this, happy to be with people. No face to put on. Several stories came from this experience, not only in my writing but in my classes.

I don’t think I’d cotton to living like this again but I do miss the people. Like I don’t miss the people in universities–with few exceptions. These people, the common people, accepted my education and my competence, were not put off by it. They wished, indeed, that their children and grandchildren could manage some education beyond middle school. Most probably wouldn’t. I tend to be kind of self-deprecating (when I’m not arrogant with anger) and don’t offer up my accomplishments, if you will, unless asked. . . and then pass them off as “just something I’ve done, nothing great.” And, indeed, doctoral work is more perseverance and politics than intelligence, hard work or originality.

Yes. I’d seen more, travelled more, done more than these people–than most people–but I don’t know if I’d lived more. And it is this life that I miss. Real people.

Interestingly, it is these people and the farmers who are the ones rebelling and calling for change. These people who are amassing and protesting and suffering at the hands of the police (and army sometimes) and thrown in jail, not the university intellectuals, the cowed class of civilization.

JAMES L. SECOR can be reached at: hellecchino@inbox.com