Even after living here two years, sometimes the differences in the way we think just astound me.
A few days ago, I was sitting and having lunch with S Y. Our conversation is limited, since she doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Chinese. She points to the Scandinavian style candelabra on my table and says: "Beautiful." Then she adds, "Americans like candles. Danish people like them too." (She has lived in Denmark, where she took care of her brother’s children while he started his restaurant business.) "Chinese don’t like them." Then, she points toward the electrical lights in the ceiling. With a knowing nod upwards and raising her eyebrows slightly she looks at me to explain, "We have electric lights." I told Sophie about this conversation and she chuckled. "We are only interested in what is practical."
S Y used to live in the center of the old city, in a flat just beside Beijing Lu (the main pedestrian shopping street). But her apartment building was razed to make way for new construction, and she had to move. The new apartment is more expensive and in the northwest side of town, in a much less desirable area, and it now takes her one hour to commute in to work each way on the bus instead of just riding her bicycle 20 minutes. I’ve never seen her house, and my understanding is based on a conversation we had in rudimentary Chinese, so forgive if I mis state. However, my understanding is that it has two bedrooms, which she and her husband share with their daughter and her father in law. I believe she told me her old apartment was 70 square meters but this one is only 55. Her father in law had a stroke this spring and fell, injuring his head. He recovered to some degree but he can no longer walk, and his mind isn’t right. He stays home alone all day. He doesn’t go outside. I’m sure they don’t live on the first floor, and there’s virtually no handicap access anywhere in China, that I’ve seen. Their sixteen year old daughter gets the small bedroom to herself. The "master bedroom" has two beds, the one on one side of the room for SY and the one on the other side of the room for the father in law.
As I went walking down an alleyway near Beijing Lu last spring, I saw some of the old style apartment buildings. These, too, had been condemned and they were nearly empty save for a few holdout squatters. So, I was able to peek inside. I was surprised to see that each one had running water in the form of a faucet and sink in the kitchen, but no toilet. There was one set of toilets for each block of houses, so several families shared. Each one (among the ones I saw) had a kitchen in the front, a living area at the back, and a loft upstairs for sleeping. No wonder most of my Chinese friends don’t invite me to their houses. I live in a veritable mansion. Sophie told me one day about how initially she felt awkward in our friendship because of this extreme difference in lifestyle. It’s something we have somehow managed to overcome, with a sprinkling of grace. When we go somplace expensive, I pick up the tab. When it’s someplace that she can afford, she often delights in treating me.
Even the way we westerners cook is extravagant. My family’s most recent addition to the "comfort food" list is baked potatoes, which we can do pretty well in our convection microwave. We think the Chinese don’t know "how" to cook potatoes because when we get them here, they usually are cooked too fast at too high temperature, so they turn out hard. Well, one day Sophie was at the market with me when I bought some baking potatoes. She asked me how long I bake them, and at what temperature. I told her about an hour at 350. She exclaimed that even if she had an oven, the electricity to do this would be far too expensive. Flash frying is much cheaper, and that’s all the ordinary person can afford to do. The conversation reminded me of another set of apartment buildings saw one day, in a different area of town. In the alleyway outside the buildings, there were fire pits for cooking, spaced about every fifty feet. I guess they weren’t merely the weekend barbeque grill.
A few days ago, a tiny, baby cockroach ran out of some books that a Chinese friend had carried into our house. David saw it and made an effort to squish it, but I could see he didn’t want to make a big deal of it and embarass our friend (who had not seen it emerge from his books, as we had). In the resulting "studied nonchalance" of the moment, the little bug got away and ran into some papers. So now, we have a little "pet" bug somewhere in those papers. The next day, I told S Y about it in the hope that she would help me keep an eye out for it. She replied that Americans don’t like cockroaches, but Chinese aren’t bothered by them at all. She said that all Chinese have them, it’s just part of life. I think she was trying to tell me that it would not have been an embarrasing situation for our friend if we had addressed the issue right then, since he would not have been surprised to have known that he escorted a cockroach into our house. Regardless, that’s another difference in how we live. As open as it is to the outside (e.g. very little if any air conditioning, no screens on windows or doors, etc), I’ve thought before that those places have got to be full of cockroaches. (I think about these things because cockroaches are actually one of my picky little phobias!) Some westerners mourn the razing of the "old" and "historic" dwellings in this city with a 2,000 year old history. But if you are one of the people who has to live there, and if you don’t have money to do a complete "restoration" including modern amenities, then you might have a different perspective.
And the rats! The biggest rat I’ve ever seen in my life was one that ran across the street nearly right in front of the American School one night. I later figured out that there’s a garbage sorting place nearby, and that’s what attracts the rats. Here, nobody separates out their recycling, but that is all done at the local garbage collecting stations. (Some westerners, like me, put our recyclables in separate bags so that people who make a living of recycling can come get the bags to generate some income for themselves.) Just the other morning riding J to school on my bicycle, I saw a rat that had been completely crushed flat by a car tire directly in front of the American School. With my bizarre sense of humor, I took a picture of it. It reminds me exactly of one of those little pictures of dinosaur fossils embedded in stone. "The one that didn’t get away."
Yes, it’s very much about Maslow’s triangle here. Americans have no idea how rich they really are.