The Parallel Universe

The parallel universe

I’m a big fan of the TV series, “Star Trek, The Next Generation” (TNG for short).  One familiar theme of this science fiction show is one I call the "parallel universe” theme.  In several episodes the “parallel universe” theme allowed the script writers to explore the “what if” possibilities – “what if” a character had made some decision differently, how would that decision have affected the future life of that character?  In one show, for instance, we learn that Captain Jean Luc has an artificial heart, the result of a near-fatal attack when he courageously stood up to a hostile bully who threatened his friend.  Jean Luc, now many years later, regrets the fact that he has an artificial heart.  Through luck, he has a chance to go back in time and make a different, less risky, decision to back down from the confrontation with the alien and, in so doing, not to be stabbed through the heart (parallel universe theme).  But after he "fixes" his past and returns to the present after making this “better” decision to avoid the fight, he learns that instead of being captain of a space ship at the culmination of his career, his job assignment at the climax of his career is that of a low level paper pusher.  He learns that his lowly assignment is the cumulative effect of living a life in which he always backed down from taking risks.  In the end, given the opportunity to do it over a third time, he returned to the past and stood up to the bully, again losing his natural heart but (in the process) displaying the valor required to become a distinguished Starfleet leader.  Well, like that  parallel universe theme, life in China demonstrates many answers to some of the “what if” questions in life.  How would life be different if people making decisions did things just a little bit differently?  Here, we learn. 

I believe that people are fundamentally the same everywhere.  Everyone who is alive finds ways to meet basic human needs, and people roughly all need the same kinds of things.  All people want enough good food to eat, all mothers want their children to live good lives, everyone wants to love and to be loved.  The Chinese people I know are generally happy people leading the same kinds of lives people live anywhere.  Little boys and girls alike are treasured by their families, dogs are loved as family pets, parents send their children for piano lessons and make them practice every day.  But in some important ways, things are perceived and done very differently here.  For this journal entry, I decided to take a few photographs of mundane things around my house, to show a few things that are different for me here than they are in the USA. 

One picture shows the lovely view from my front door.  My apartment is extremely luxurious and spacious by Chinese standards.  I think it’s about four times the size of an apartment used by a typical, middle class Chinese city family.  We made a decision to look for a four bedroom apartment so that our children would each have their own room and space here, as they had been used to in the USA.  During our search for a four bedroom apartment (as this one is), I came to find that there is no such thing!  Westerners often rent two apartments and make a four bedroom apartment by tearing the walls out between them (with their landlords’ permission).  Even most three bedroom apartments are, in fact, two bedrooms plus a tiny office.  The extra bedroom may be more or less a closet to be used as maid’s quarters.  Two of the three children’s bedrooms in our apartment are, frankly, not much bigger than closets, but at least they have their own space and some light from large windows. 

In spite of the small bedrooms, though, our family liked this apartment compound because of the quiet gardens that surround us here.  Our apartment compound is built so that the apartments (four stories high) are built around the perimeter of a city block.  There is a lush, tropical garden in the center shared by all the residents.  The view from our front window looks out over a koi pond that in spring is filled with blooming lotus flowers.  China is a place that can seem to assault the senses of a person used to a less densely crowded environment.  There are always lots of people, lots of noise, many smells (imagine the animal and fish markets).  The garden gives us a space of peace where we can escape the sensual assault. 

One wonders, with so much foliage in our garden, how bad are the bugs and mosquitoes here?  Well the answer is that there is so much pesticide used that one rarely sees a bug!  Big signs on the plants say “Do not touch, Pesticidal,” and we taught our youngest child not to touch leaves on the bushes.  (I shudder to think of the pesticide that must be washed into the watershed of the Pearl River just a block away from our house.)  Security is tight at our compound.  To come inside, one must first pass through a guard gate.  Visitors must sign in at the gate, and some are required to leave their ID cards as security.  Another picture is of me standing in front of an entrance gate last year during the Chinese New Year (kumquat trees are used as decoration during Chinese New Year).

Things inside the house are different, too.  I’ve shown a picture of my water dispenser and some extra bottles of water.  People here don’t drink the tap water.  I’m told that although the water is treated, there are large poultry upstream of the city, and sometimes the treatment is not sufficient.  In our compound, every apartment is equipped with a reverse-osmosis water filter.  (When I learned of the cadmium spill making its way downstream along the Pearl River, I ordered ten extra bottles of water, in spite of protests by my housekeeper that I had nothing to worry about because the newspapers reported that everything was under control.)  Local people drink the water straight from this filter, but foreigners either boil their water, distill it, or purchase bottled water.  We boiled our filtered water until we hired our housekeeper, Song Ying.  The first day she worked for us, I told her I wanted to purchase bottled mineral water.  Eager to prove herself, she went out immediately and purchased a water dispenser which dispenses hot and warm water.  Yes, I said “hot” and “warm.”  The Chinese (and most Europeans as well) believe that cold drinks are bad for your tummy.  Very bad, no, no!  Just today, a Chinese friend told me I must never drink cold tea, because it is so bad for my tummy.  Red tea (the kind we call Orange Pekoe which is used for Lipton Iced Tea bags) is one of the kinds of tea which is especially hard on one’s tummy!  (Oh, I love to visit the tea market, but that is a story for another day!)

In the kitchen, I’ve shown a picture of my dish sterilizer.  We do not have a dishwasher.  We wash dishes by hand, then put them into the sterilizer.  It uses 120 minutes worth of UV light to kill any germs on the dishes.  We do not have an oven, either.  Above the sterilizer is my two-burner gas stove.  This is quite a luxurious stove.  I have been in the home of one Chinese friend who has no kitchen, per se.  She has a sink in her living room, and she cooks on a burner on the back porch.  Another friend has so little space in her kitchen that the top of her stove has a cover which is designed for use as a cutting board. 

Notice in the kitchen that my stove vents to the outside.  I had to ask specially for insulation to be placed in the holes for the purpose of preventing bugs from coming through the cracks.  Another photograph is of my kitchen ventilation fan.  We close the covers to these fans whenever they aren’t running, also so that bugs or mosquitoes don’t come in the house.  Each bathroom has a fan like this, as well.  Oh, did I mention that our windows have screens, special compliments of our landlady?  Most of the houses in my compound do not have screens on the windows.  Instead, people leave their windows open and sleep under mosquito nets. 

Bathrooms are constructed differently as well.  Plumbing in China does not use “S” pipes, so there is nothing to stop sewer gas from bubbling backwards.   My personal solution to the problem of sewer gas smelling up the house, when it happens, is to plug the drains and run a full bath (or shower basin), fill the lavatory with water, and then to release the full plugs and flush toilet all at the same time.  No one ever told me to do this, but my theory is that all the water would push the gas back in the right direction.  It does seem to work.  Or sometimes I just light a candle in the bathroom and close the door.  Bathrooms are also built differently in general, in our housing compound at least.  Showers are not built on a separate drain pan.  The entire bathroom, including the floor, has a drain.  Imagine my surprise one day to walk in my bathroom to find our housekeeper literally washing the floors and walls with a hose, the water rushing over the tile and then down the drain in the corner of the room. 

Once or twice per year, the management office also treats the bathroom drain pipes for cockroaches.  Our housekeeper was instructed to plug all the drains with newspaper.  Then the management office pumped the pipes all full of fog to kill bugs.  Once per month, our housekeeper also puts a germicide down these pipes.  I did not know that one should do this, apparently this treatment was begun when SARS was at its peak and people suspected that it might be spread by cockroaches in the plumbing.  Knowledge such as this about how to live in China – how to buy water, how to purchase milk, how to clean the drains or to use the washing machine (which has only Chinese characters on the buttons) — is a very significant reason we need a housekeeper. 

Speaking of washing machine, we are lucky enough to have one!  It has no hot water connection, though.  It also has no real “gentle” cycle, and we can’t seem to find good washing detergent.  As a result, our clothes wear out in a fraction of the time we would expect, even though they mainly are hung on the roof to dry.  Clothes dryers are a rare luxury.  Our landlady purchased a clothes dryer specifically at our request, but there is no place for it to vent outside.  Originally, the clothes dryer didn’t even have a vent pipe, and on the worst of rainy days it was vented directly into our house, giving everyone an asthmatic feeling from the lint.  So I asked the maintenance man to purchase a vent pipe specially for me.  It took him a couple of months to find one, but now when we use our dryer we are fortunate to have a vent pipe long enough that we can open a window and hang the vent pipe out the window (which I hate to do when there are mosquitoes out). 

Electricity in general is also different.  Chinese current is 60 HZ  but 220 V.  We chose not to bring any of our American made appliances here, because they would be fried if we plugged them into a wall socket.  Upon purchasing all new electrical items, we also figured out that things are not really cheaper in China, it’s just that ordinary Chinese people don’t have them.  I paid the equivalent of $40 US for my four-cup coffee maker in a Chinese store.  It was several months after purchasing our first one that I first saw a big, American style one, but it was priced at about $120 U.S.  I also paid the equivalent of $80 U.S. for my iron which has zero fancy features other than automatic steam.  It’s heavy and bulky, with a thick cord.  It reminds me of the steam iron my mother used during my childhood in the 1960’s.  The features I most miss from my American made iron are the automatic shut off and the temperature sensor that let me know when the iron was too hot or not hot enough for the fabric setting.  When I went to the store, I could not find a hair dryer in the wattage we were accustomed to, so I didn’t buy one.  On the next trip home from the USA, I brought a small hair dryer in my suitcase.  Fortunately, it has a switch on the back that automatically converts it to 220 V electricity.  We were also fortunately that our old (five year old) HP computer which we shipped also had a simple switch on the back to convert it to the new current. 

The one casualty of the difference in electricity has been our USA made telephone, which we carried with us in our suitcase because was so convenient and it had all our important phone numbers programmed into it.  In the US, we had a wonderful, cordless phone system that had four handsets.  We enjoyed using these handsets in various rooms of the house, like an intercom system.  After we ascertained that sets like this were not available in China,   I carried ours here in a suitcase and then paid about $100 US for a transformer that converts 220 voltage to 110.  I instructed my housekeper that our USA phone could only be plugged in to the transformer.  However, one day an electrician came to our house,  After he was gone, I found our phone in another room, plugged inot into a wall socket.  Fried.  Oh well.  I secretly wondered if it was due to the 900 mhz frequency. As upset as it made me, though, it was not such a huge loss in terms of function.  Since our house is built of poured concrete, the walls and floors of our home are so thick that the handsets only worked when they were in the same room as the base unit anyway. 

I think I’ve heard that poured concrete is a good thing to have in case of fire, since fire doesn’t spread as well.  I’m told that the Chinese are more sensitive about fire hazards than my culture is.  For instance, when I asked a friend why there are gas masks in department stores, she told me they are there because in the event of fire, people will need them to get out of the building.  Hmm.  Four gas masks for about four hundred shoppers?  I think I’ll take my chances on the stampede.

A few minutes ago, the water man knocked on our door to deliver some water.  I didn’t get his picture, but he delivers the water jugs using his bicycle, four huge jugs to a bicycle load.  When he comes inside the compound to carry the jugs to our door, he uses a stick across his shoulders to balance two at a time.  He has the build of a small man, but his calves and the muscles of his arms and shoulders look like Hercules.  We also have a milk delivery manSeven days per week, he delivers six one-cup bottles of milk to our front door every morning by 6:30 A.M.  .  I never see him except once per month, when I pay him the equivalent of about $50 U.S. for my month’s supply of milk.  One of my husband’s co-workers has a wife who makes a good living by “cooking” (pasteurizing) the milk for a milk company, in her kitchen.  We get whole milk, skim milk is not available. 

Another picture is of one of the air conditioners in our house.  Contrary to my expectations, my impression is that most ordinary Guangzhou dwellers do have air conditioners, even though they may use them only sparingly.  It is very, very hot and humid in Guangzhou.  In summer, it never cools off completely at night.  One can exit the house at 6 AM to air temperatures that are already mid 90’s with very high humidity.  Daily afternoon showers do keep things cooler, and there is another wonderful, city planning tool that helps people cope.  The streets are not only lined with trees, but wide streets have special planters down the lanes so that even streets which are eight lanes across have trees growing over them.  People are also sensible enough to be concerned about skin exposure.  White skin is highly prized.  Women and men alike wear hats, long sleeves, and use parasols to protect their skin from the sun. 

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