Campus Life, China, Communication, Family, Republic of Georgia, Social Customs, Village Life

Airing the Laundry

Many things are easier in China than they were in Georgia. Fortunately, laundry is one of them.

The laundry situation in Georgia was tense. Or at least it felt that way to me. My host family had recently purchased a washing machine. In the village, this was quite significant. Though a television was always a given, there was no guarantee that the average family would have a refrigerator or a washing machine, much less indoor plumbing. I felt quite lucky because my host family had two out of three. Indoor plumbing AND a washing machine. But no fridge.

In the absence of a washing machine, other volunteers were doing their laundry by hand, Oregon Trail style. Can you imagine washing your blue jeans by hand? Scrubbing, rinsing, and wringing them out? A truly unpleasant affair. To be carried out with disturbing regularity to every item of clothing you own, including all your unmentionables.

I was sure of my good fortune having been placed with a washing machine-blessed family; though there were many times I wondered if I would’ve rather had a refrigerator. It’s like one of those semi-impossible decision scenarios: what two things would you take to a desert island, rescue from your burning house, etc.

Nevertheless, the washing machine was there, waiting to be used, to fulfill its purpose in the world. However, the family seemed reluctant to put it to work. They seemed to regard it a little warily—the new technology. Laundry was carried out with gravity. With due reverence and ceremony I would make a petition for use of the glorious machine and the presence of its devoted attendants that were required for its operation. I was not deemed capable of operating the new technology unsupervised. And, following the example of my family, it was communicated to me that its use should be limited. We wouldn’t want to tire it out, now would we?

The realization that I was drawing near to a time when I would need to do laundry was always accompanied by a sinking feeling. There were a number of factors to consider: time of day, weather, the use of the WM by other family members, the use of the kitchen for other purposes, would I be available to immediately remove the clothes from the washer, was washing powder available, was someone available to get the surge protector from the shop, was there water, was there electricity, estimated drying time due to weather conditions, and how quickly I needed the clothes clean and dry.

I am not pulling your leg. This was my reality. I learned from experience to take all of these factors into consideration. Do not assume anything. Do not assume there will be washing power. Do not assume there will be water. Do not assume there will be electricity.

Laundry had a psychological and emotional toll. There was the preparation to ask, the asking itself, the material preparation for laundry (getting the surge protector, attaching the water hose to the sink, inserting the waste hose into the drain, and filling buckets with water for the family’s use while the machine was in use), the actual washing, the immediate removal of laundry from the washer, hanging, drying, folding, and then finally rest. It was an all day affair.

Was I making this more difficult than it had to be? Being overly considerate to my host family? Reading too much into body language and tone of voice? It’s one of those things that I will probably never know. I felt it was a huge inconvenience for me to do laundry as I could not do the whole process myself. And I could not expect that the people who I needed to help me would be available when I wanted them. And I could not be sure that even if the people were available that all the required facilities would be available. It was maddening. I developed a laundry psychosis. I wished I didn’t have to do laundry. Ever.

My solution to this issue was to do my laundry as infrequently as possible. I usually did one gigantic load of everything I owned every 10-14 days. Surely they could not begrudge me one load of laundry in that time frame? I don’t know.

I didn’t enjoy doing laundry in Georgia. Far too emotionally fraught it was.

China is much better. Independence in doing laundry, as in other things, is very important. Materially the situation has not changed. I have a washing machine and I air dry my clothes. But everything is on my terms. Laundry: as often as I need it and whenever I want to do it. If I spill something on my clothes—no cause for concern! I can pop it in the wash as soon as I get home. I can do laundry at a time of day that is convenient to my work schedule, not just when I can count of the aligning of the multitude of factors that are out of my control. No one is pounding up the stairs 2 second after the cycle finished, telling me that I need to come immediately to get my clothes. Nor am I sitting around waiting for the perfect moment to ask if I can use the washing machine.

For those living in an apartment building, the balcony becomes the center of all laundry operations. The washing machine is usually located here. For drying, there are a number of convenient devices that make the most of the available space. Installed on the balcony ceiling is a drying rack, which requires a little pronged pole to lift your clothes on hangers up to it. It’s fun. Just don’t drop your wet clothes on the dirty, dusty balcony floor. I also have a clothesline which I use for heavy items like jeans and towels. A portable drying rack is used for shirts and other small items. Widely popular for socks and underwear is a little double hoop with dangling clothespins that can be hung on the clothesline or from the upper rack. It’s very space efficient.

So on my little balcony I have enough places to hang a fair amount of laundry. The only challenge is drying our dismayingly white sheets. This requires a complex operation involving a lot of hangers, clothespins and most of the upper drying rack. It also obscures my view completely until they are dry. But it gets the job done. And I feel the usual feelings of domestic tranquility as I bring in my laundry to fold it and put it neatly away.

It’s a real improvement for me here. This thought crossed my mind last weekend as I was putting a new load in and taking down a load that had dried. I have not changed my mind about Georgia. I still love it and am actively plotting my return. However, it was very, very complicated living in a host family, in a village, and working at a school where you cannot truly communicate with people, where no one speaks your language. The effort required for laundry is perhaps representative of so many of my struggles there. The longer I’ve been in China, the more I’ve been amazed at what I survived in Georgia. China has been a cake walk in comparison.

China, Cultural Differences

Tackling China

I’m learning a lot being in China. It’s a whole new world. One that is so different from the way it appeared sitting in my suburban California home pondering my move here. When students ask me why I came to China, my answer is not one they were hoping for. No “I love China” or “I’ve always wanted to work in China”. Sorry. Actually, I never wanted to come to China. I came because it was here. Because I didn’t know anything about it. Because it was the country that offered me a job. Not exactly warm-fuzzy inducing.

As an ignorant Westerner, I’ve tried to keep my eyes wide open for China. To learn about it. To understand it better. In the West, China is all human rights violations, currency manipulation, and Communist Party. Maybe throw in a little Tibet and some kung-fu for good measure. The portrayal isn’t very human. It’s mostly political. If it’s at all human, it’s the suffering of factory workers or the extremes of China’s super-rich. There’s no middle. And there’s a lot of middle in China.

So it’s interesting to observe the life of the average Chinese: the things that are important to them,  what they want, what they talk about. After a while of being in China I started to feel that Western media was going overboard on its negative portrayal of China. It didn’t match with what I was seeing.  The following quote from James Fallows’ Postcards from Tomorrow Square expressed what I was feeling:

I think that even now the Western world’s limited familiarity with China…leads to two important problems: an overestimation of China’s power and a misestimation of its strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities….…Sharon Shirk, of the University of California, San Diego, who in 2006 published a book on China called China: Fragile Superpower…When Shirk discussed the book with Amercans, they always asked, “What do you mean, fragile?” When she discussed it with Chinese, they always asked, “What do you mean, superpower?”

China does not seem on the verge of taking over the world.

But in the West, China is portrayed as threatening, a danger. Our American leaders have been busy wagging their fingers at China in the last year of so. China must cooperate with us, they say. They must do _____. They make knowing faces. We know what you’re up to China! We’ve got our eye on you. No funny business!

Come to China and you’ll see how bemusing this all is. Really.

So that’s the first point of interest: the portrayal of China in Western media compared to the very non-threatening, pro-America environment in China.

The second issue relates to the place of the negative media, specifically the human rights violations, when everything appears so peaceful here.

The utter normality of my life here can sometimes lure me into feeling that perhaps these human rights violations are being exaggerated. Emphasis on sometimes. Everything just seems so quiet. Which is a little eerie. I think I came to China half expecting to experience trouble of some kind. Or at least to see it somewhere. Walking past Communist Party offices or even police officers gave me a slight feeling of tension. Don’t laugh. You hear stories. You come to verify whether they are true, even if in part. Plenty has been said about China. If you want scary stories, you can get them.

So lately I’ve been trying to feel around the edges a bit, trying to get a sense of the things that are not being discussed or publicized. Like Tibet. Like angry villagers rioting. Like the mysterious Falun Gong issues.

It’s not generally a good idea to ask the students about these types of issues. Not like they usually know that much anyways. Instead I prefer to talk to some of the Chinese teachers I know and trust. On the whole they seem a content bunch. Those that are Party members are almost shockingly flippant about it, complaining about the fees they have the pay and stating that that is their sole function as member. A few gripes about the one child policy. They understand the difference between politics and reality. Taiwan being an example of politics. A story of a previous Falun Gong coworker that went away for awhile and came back completely changed. On the whole, they’re very aware that as long as they keep their heads down and don’t rock the boat, then life will be fine. A peaceful progression from birth to death, with everything in between.

The boundaries are clear. To cross over is to open yourself up to an undoubted world of trouble. And it would be a very conscious decision. A deliberate transgression. So the danger is there, if you want it. Human rights violations are undoubtedly being committed daily, but you’re not going to hear a peep about that in the Chinese media. Which does allow you to sort of forget they are happening as you admire all the new infrastructure and buildings.

Sometimes I don’t know whether I should admire the practicality or abhor the apathy. But any such judgment is not that simple. China is a complex place. It’s also a gigantic place. The variety is endless. From the urban metropolises of Hong Kong and Shanghai to the dusty, dirt-poor plains of western China. It’s developed and developing. It’s rich and poor. In the words of James Fallows, “I suspected before coming to China, and now know for sure, that no one can sensibly try to present the “real story” or the “overall picture” of this country. It is simply too big and too contradictory.”

Perhaps I didn’t know before, but I certainly know now. There’s a lifetime worth of information that I should learn about China. And, of course, there’s still that vexing problem of learning the language. To get a sense of the vastness of China, please check out this fantastic photo spread in The Atlantic.

China. Understanding it is going to take a lot more than a year.