Friday, March 15, 2013

An American in China

When I arrived in China from America six months ago I, naturally, expected to find differences in our lifestyle. I expected the new food, clothes, language and social customs to all be part of the experience. However, there were a few surprises.

When inspecting my new home, I was disappointed to find there was no dryer and no hot water for the washing machine or the kitchen sink. (There’s hot water in my shower, and my hosts, the school that I live at, were eager to brag about it. Which leads me to believe that hot showers don’t come standard in all homes). In the time that followed, I learned to boil water to wash my dishes and hang my clothes up to dry. (I’ve seen women, outside their house in 30 degree weather, washing clothes in a bucket, and then laying the clothes on a tall stone beach and scrubbing it with soap as if to teach those pants a lesson. So, I conclude that the washing machine is a privilege as well.) Although, I still cringe when I see my neighbors large red underwear on display. And when I use to visit beautiful neighborhoods, the hanging shirts, socks and sheets out the windows, will give a nice, historic block an unimpressive third-world look. I would shake my head and think, what a pity.

Another surprise occurred the first time I used a public restroom and discovered to great dismay that there is no toilet paper or paper towels provided. Apparently, everyone carries with them those small packages of tissues that I’ve only ever seen in my grandmother’s purse. Of course, I didn’t learn about this until it was much too late. It took awhile to make a habit of having them with you everytime you leave the house. Restaurants don’t provide napkins either, unless you specifically request them and pay extra for them. And for a newbie chopsticks user who loves soup noodles, this is quite often. I couldn’t help but think, for a country that invented paper, they sure are stingy with it.

More discomforts followed when the cold months hit and there were are no heaters in the classrooms where I teach. (Also, no heater in my living room, although my bedroom has one.) Coming from Los Angeles, any time its under 60 degrees - which is often - I’m teaching my class while wearing a jacket, beanie and a scarf. Staring out into a room of puffy-jacketed students who don’t seem to notice the temperature or at least don’t complain about it. In America, that would never happen. The kids would be whining and parents would be calling the school blaming them for their child’s recent sniffles.

Despite, these inconveniences, nothing prepared me for the first time I saw a small child in public with his butt cheeks exposed. Let me explain further, the kid has clothes on, but on the back of his pants, a long slit has been cut and sewed. This way, anytime the child feels the urge, they just squat and relieve themselves wherever they are. On the sidewalk or the street. (It happens on buses and subways too.) No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I’m never prepared for it. Here is this super adorable baby (Chinese kids are the cutest!) and then suddenly they’re squating on the street. I have to recognize that it is impressive they’ve been trained at such a young age to know what to do (age 6 months to 3 years old). However, the way they train them, well, it’s a bit disturbing (for a Westerner, anyways) so I’ll leave that for another day. I’ve wondered if there’s like a “curb your baby” law in China, but I’m not sure.

All of these have been the source of my ill-mood and grumbles when my towels are rock hard or they develop a mold scent when drying on humid days. Or when my hands become frozen from working with cold water in a cold room. (I do try and remain humble, fully aware that my living conditions are much better than most.)

I did have a sort of epiphany, let’s call it, one day while watching a bare bummed toddler clumsily walk around a courtyard with it’s mother. I’ve spent my fair share of time with small children in America. On average, depending the age, they go thru about 10 diapers a day. Not only are Chinese parents saving a bundle on diapers, they’re also saving a lot of waste. According to Wikianswers, America throws away 49 million diapers a day! That’s 18 billion a year in a country with a population of approximately 315 million. Imagine, if China, with it’s population of 13 billion, started using disposable diapers. (They are starting to be sold here. Growing popular among young mothers.) Even though cloth diapers are starting to make a comeback in the States, environmentalists make good points against them as well. Although they’re not thrown away, most people use a commercial diaper service that wash the diapers multiple times with hot water, creating a large waste of water. And the delivery/pick-up service adds extra CO2 emissions. The more I think about it, the Chinese way is starting to make a lot of sense.  

However, are any of China’s way of doing things a viable solution for Americans? I imagined what would happen if I told one of my friends who are now new moms that they would no longer use diapers. They would probably grab me by the shirt and look at me with those crazy sleep-deprived eyes and threaten my life. And imagine the looks on people's faces if I let my small daughter run around with her bum exposed? (It would look like my face the first time I saw it.) I may even a receive a visit from Children’s Services.

I also, remember a time when I placed my jeans on my balcony on a sunny day to dry, and within 20 minutes, my property manager zipped by on their golf cart and informed me to remove them immediately because it’s not allowed. What about in the suburbs where people have large yards and ample space to make the environmentally friendly decision to stop using a dryer? Would neighbors complain? Would they be hearing from their HOA? It does cause you to perhaps know too much about your neighbor, (hence the phrase, airing your dirty laundry.) I suppose that’s when its nice to have a tall fence.

Having to carry my own tissues with me has definitely cut down on the amount of paper I use. Go to KFC in China, and there are no napkin dispensers with white bleached napkins with ick printed on them. (However, Starbucks still has their recognizable brown napkins).  
It would slow down those that use a half roll of paper every time they visit a stall or, my personal pet peeve from my years working in a coffee house, are those that take a huge stack of napkins, wipes their face, and then throws them all away.  If you were to adopt this policy in the States, you best be sure everyone is on board with it. Otherwise, you’d just have angry customers storming out of the bathroom. I could see this solution eventually being adopted though. It’s not unlike asking coffee drinkers to bring their own cups to the cafe. It also saves money for businesses who pay to stock restrooms and place napkins on tables.

It would however, be a tough sale to get my office to agree to spend the winter months in our jackets and jump up and down when we’re cold and cling to a cup of hot water to keep our fingers warm. (This is the way I see my co-workers keep warm.) I’m sure management would love it for its cost-savings and I have no doubt that may very well be why the Chinese do it.

America developed at a time when people did not consider the environmental impact (or at least wasn’t worried about it.) With blissful ignorance we built factories, buildings, ships and trucks. Growing at an incredible rate striving for anything that looked like “progress.” Shouldn’t countries like China, get to develop the same as we did? Unfortunately for China, we can’t go back and ignore what we now know.  While China is growing, here we are, breathing down their necks, constantly nudging and pushing for China to be our environmental allies. But are we being good examples?

If America was to do it again now, what would we do differently? Would we keep some older previous ways of doing things? Or would the temptation for comfort and convenience be too strong?

a coal stove

While China is coming from a time of having little to having ample, will they hold on to these early practices? Sure, for some, it’s an economic issue, but with all this new money pouring in, how long will that last? Would you wash laundry by hand if you didn’t have to? Wouldn’t you buy a car if you could afford it? So, the people of China are going to have to make a decision.

So, what about me? Is this experience going to leave a forever lasting change in my life towards a better planet? Of course I’d like to say so, but immediately I recall the time I spent in the Philippines. There was no hot water, and I perfected my newly acquired ability to effectively take a 3 minute shower. I told myself that I would continue this practise when I returned. My first hot shower back in China, was 20 minutes long and man, it felt so good! The truth is, it’s really hard to turn away from anything that brings comfort and makes life easier. But, in my defense, 20 minutes is a lot shorter than my pre-Philippine showers ever were.

After my mother called to tell me about how much she enjoyed her new jet bathtub, I threw out that nearly nobody in China has a bathtub. In fact, most bathrooms only have a hand-held shower head above the toilet, like the one in our RV. She replied “Yes, Americans are very fortunate and blessed.” This stirred up in me an emotional response I had not expected. I live in an affluent middle class area of China that is growing much faster then most parts. These people choose to not have bathtubs put in their apartments. Their motivation for the decision? I’m not sure. It mostly likely not an environmental reason but perhaps just not a priority to them. Or perhaps, they’re acutely aware of their mass numbers and have accepted that some pleasures must be passed by them in order for the world to continue to spin as we know it. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter. Those kinds of decisions help the world all over, and we (America) are not better off because of our ability to accumulate such goods.

It would be as if living in current times and choosing to do things the way our grandparents did things. That would be a hard decision to for anyone to make.

I believe it’s relevant to point out that many Chinese women are stay-at-home parents and usually with a grandparent living with or near by for assistance. (The grandparent’s presence may also be another reason why old fashion ways of maintaining a home and child care have stuck.) Or perhaps it’s a husband who controls the finances refusing to pay for these luxury items that he personally doesn’t see a benefit from. (Getting behind close doors of family dynamics is difficult for an outsider.)

I’m reminded of an episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy asks Ricky for a washing machine. She has to explain to him why it’s necessary and he can’t see the point since washing by hand seems to do just fine. Watching as a very opinionated and naive young woman (I’m still opinionated and naive, just maybe a little less.) I remember thinking, thank god I’m not a woman back in those days. Completely disregarding, that some woman in the world still live in that time period. In that sense, maybe my mother was right, American (woman) are fortunate and blessed.

Although, China, as a country, is far from being the perfect environmentalist, (stop cutting off shark fins!)  I’d still have to argue that the average Chinese person is doing more for the planet than any of my American self-proclaimed earth-friendly friends. It’s one thing to turn your central air conditioner down a few notches, it’s another to give it up altogether. As Americans, we’re content being told that if we all just do one little thing, then the environment will be a lot better off. This way we get to feel good about helping the Earth and still not have to give up those self-indulges that make life worth getting out of bed for. Clearly, we want - what everyone wants - to have our environmental cake and eat it too.

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