Daily Life in Guangzhou, 1982/83

My apartment in China was luxurious compared to where most other people lived. My young married Chinese colleagues (equivalent in place in life with me and Jim) who didn’t have a family, lived in one room — usually a married couple and an old mother. When a baby came, they would apply for a larger place, but it would take time for that to happen. And, if they had any bad marks against them politically, it might never happen.

We lived on the third flour of a four story building. Downstairs was the university president, a really lovely man. The featured photo shows his rose garden. His passion was fish-farming, and he gave us three beautiful carp to eat. They lived in a bucket hanging from the bathtub faucet for a few days until our cook could steam them with green onions and garlic. I got fond of my carp but I think, considering how good the steamed fish was, they died a good death.

In the gallery below, are photos of my apartment. Many things in it “looked” right but weren’t. There was a bathtub but no hot water and no plug for the drain. The toilet — a Western sit down toilet (very very rare, but stand up ones are more hygienic) — was cemented to the floor. God forbid any plumbing problem ensued. There was a washing machine in the bathroom we could hook up to the sink. The thing is, it only agitated in one direction meaning it tied the clothes in knots. After each cycle, a human had to take out the clothes, wring them, and put them back in for the next cycle. Still, I think it was easier than washing everything completely by hand. Everything was dried on hangars, outside (god-willing it wasn’t raining). We had a really cool bamboo pole with a bent nail on the end to lift the hangar to the highest clothes lines on our balcony.

The kitchen was built of concrete — kind of trendy today. We had propane to cook on, but most Chinese used charcoal. The drains were open which meant the roaches had free access to everything. My mother-in-law who visited said she thought the Chinese got used to them, but I saw my Chinese brother (I was adopted by HIS mom) freak out more than once and I killed several roaches for him.

You can see a toaster over in my kitchen. I brought it from the US. At that time in China no one had a personal oven. There was bread — really excellent bread — every other evening I went to the campus bakery with coupons and got a ration of delicious, fresh-baked buns.

If you look on our stove, you’ll see an interesting terra-cotta unglazed pot. This was for boiling hepatitis tea. Jim had a damaged liver from eating something in Acapulco (poor guy) and it flared up in the spring (for lots of people) while we were in Guangzhou. Another white guy we knew also got hep. There was a crystalized tea that the doctors prescribed Jim along with gamma globulin shots.

Lots of people were sick that spring from bad water. Human waste was used to fertilize crops and the wet winter meant lots of flooding where there should not have been. When we stood at stops waiting for busses or trams, we saw lots of people waiting, carrying identical bags of hepatitis tea crystals.

I had no symptoms and by then I’d “gone native” in many respects anyway. I went every morning to the Chinese Medicine Doctor on our campus for a sack of herbs which I came home and prepared in that pot — which was part of the prescription — as I had been taught. I never got sick.

Chinese health care — even in those days — was excellent. Free to all. Clinics were everywhere, both traditional medicine and Western medicine.

The black stuff on the walls in the kitchen is mold and mildew. The walls were concrete, the climate is humid and that year was beyond humid. The walls had been whitewashed with lime white wash. Now when I hear people freak out about mold I just think, “You have NO idea.” But, yeah, it’s not something you WANT in your house.

I made curtains for our bedroom window. It faced the apartment of our boss. When he saw the curtains go up, he summoned the other “heads” and they hurried over and asked why. I explained it was for privacy.

That’s when I learned that “privacy” translates to “selfishness.” Pretty un-communist of me, I know.

“Why are they red?” asked my boss.

“It’s my favorite color,” I answered. Red is very significant in China and when I knew more about it, I realized it’s the perfect color for bedroom curtains. OH well…

You’ll notice the knotted mosquito nets over our beds. The knots are to keep mosquitoes out during the day. The worst was getting a mosquito inside the net at night.

There’s nothing romantic about mosquito nets if you need them. The perfect scenario is you open the net, check for mosquitoes, tuck the ends into your mattress, then climb in without bringing mosquitoes with you. I got good at it.

But once in a while it was funny. One night Jim kept slapping his face in his sleep, but there was no mosquito. A steam train was blowing its whistle in the distance and, to him, it sounded like a mosquito.

Most married Chinese sleep in one bed, but we had twin beds because they had seen in American movies (Rock Hudson and Doris Day) that couples in America sleep in twin beds. These were made for us.

The floor tile was pretty but not grouted, so monthly everyone (a day announced on the campus loudspeaker) got buckets of water and cleaned their floors. I couldn’t understand the loudspeaker so I didn’t know. I cleaned my floors once on an “off day” and caused a great inconvenience to my apartment building. Water was swept out the front door, went down the stairs and sometimes into other peoples’ apartments. From then on, our “watcher” (who became my brother) let me know when I was supposed to do this chore.

In some of the photos you see a kind of mural on my wall. It is a tissue paper sun. We had rain for four months and it was the only sun we saw. I glued it to our wall. Paper cuts are a true art in China — something I didn’t know — and at Christmas, when we had a party, one of my students made beautiful paper cuts to put on my wall. I’ll find them, probably…

Here goes…

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