Saturday, October 30, 2004

Nowhere else but here

I wake up in the morning and it is around ten degrees in the room. Because of the cold I change clothes under the blanket and wait a while until my body heat has warmed them up a bit. It is comfortable under the blanket, but my face is cold during the night. I've stopped showering in the morning since it is way to uncomfortable. Only the little spot of my body that is covered by the water is comfortable while the rest of the body turns blue. While some of you reading this thinks a certain part of me normally is very small, but I tell you Samantha, it's even smaller during these times. I shower in the evening instead and I have cut down to only shower every other day. The shower is in the toilet. The smell is the same as in a public toilet that is never maintained. There is a dirty squat toilet (not much more than a hole in the ground), and a shower hose on the wall. When showering most of the water has already leaked out when it comes out from the shower head.

Instead of taking a shower in the morning I go to the sink in the kitchen and wash my face. There I have to fight with the other guys for the space. Usually we end up standing two or three of us washing our face, brushing our teeth, or loudly harkling and spitting. Don't worry, I don't really do that last part. Haven't really developed that skill (yet). The water is freezing cold and I get done very fast. When I'm not too tired I try to shave in the evening too to minimize these freezing cold minutes in the morning. The kitchen is a 2,5 x 2 meter room, with a bench and a gas burner on one side, and a sink on the other side. Most of the floor and bench is covered with pots and utensils, all unwashed since whenever someone used them last. The stove and the bench have probably never been cleaned. When cleaning ourselves we all use plastic bowls. I have two, one bigger for cleaning my feet and for hand-washing clothes, and a smaller for my face. The other guys aren't so picky. The other day I for example saw that someone was using one of these bowls for the dog meat that had been cut up. It was half full off water and half full with pieces of a dog. To add to the horror there are all kinds of bugs running around, with the ecosystem seemingly being dominated by cockroaches.

The floor in the whole apartment is considered a dirty place and should not be touched by anything but my shoes. There is junk all over. Mostly pieces of newspapers, but also old shoes, bags, pieces of food etc. The trash is gathered in a black plastic sack in the corner, but just as much trash is out side laying on the floor next to it.

Now, why would anyone like to stay in a place like that? Perhaps more interestingly, why would I want to stay in a place like that? The first question is easy to answer. The couple of millions of students and workers that live under these conditions doesn't have a choice. We each pay about 300 RMB a month and that is a lot more than the student that can live on campus. Why would I want to stay there?

Places like this is defining the student life in China. You live with many people and no privacy. Your relationship with these people is very important. Friends and contacts are so much more important here than where I come from. Your friends will help you find out everything essential you will know about your courses and study, they help you out to reserve seats in packed lecture rooms, and give you notes from the lecture you couldn't go to. They know where to buy things and how much it can be bargained down to, help to find someone to fix your computer, or help you out with an assignment you don't know how to do. They lend you a bike when you need one, come with food to you when you are sick, and know who to talk to when you need the right stamp for your internship application. These people will be the one who stand up for you in case of trouble, support you if you have to argue for something, and comfort you when you feel down. All these small things and big things add up and without it you can easily loose out without ever having a chance to do get where you wanted. In return for this you have to give back. Do everything from small symbols to big favors. Spend a lot of time and a lot of thought. It is a constant giving and taking, paying and being treated, giving and receiving gifts and tokens.

I could find a decent and cheap place and share it with some other exchange students or English teachers. We could have a nice TV, DVD-player, alright shower, washing machine, and most of all a clean comfortable place with a separate room for some privacy. Then then again, I would have very little connection to the everyday life that many students here face. Without that I don't think I would be able to understand their conditions, what considerations they have to make, and basically what they are thinking. Guess that was why I came here in the first place and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else but here right now.

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