Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Different Sort of Standard

After spending a weekend with my sister in Beijing who is blogging as payment for all her trip expenses, I have been inspired to break from my more academic-feeling blogs and simply relate some of my experiences and feelings while here in China. I will start at the beginning (the very best place to start…).

Despite having lived in China previously, I realized on my first night back that a year and a half away from China was plenty of time to “forget” some of those less pleasant aspects of this land. I walk into my apartment building to discover that the elevator is broken, and I must walk up four flights of stairs with two 50-pound bags and my book-laden carry-on. I sigh and roll my eyes because I should have known. I lug up what I had thought was my fairly downsized material possessions, but doubt on this matter builds with every stair. Maybe I did bring one pair of shoes too many… Well, I successfully make it up to the fourth floor by three a.m., click open my door and enter.

At first sight, the room is clean and spare. Then I enter the bathroom. I lift the lid on my toilet, ready to sit down after having access only to squatty potties for the past several hours and behold, worms. Yes, worms. I suck in my breath as my eyes widen to make sure my mind is not playing tricks. But no, there really are a family of worms that look a lot like our ice worms in Alaska—black, thin, and about an inch long—swimming around in my toilet. Add to that, brown wavy mold is clinging as high as the water line, transforming my toilet into a miniature scum pond. How I wished at this moment that my R.N. mother had not taught me all the fun little details of bacteria. Ignorance would truly have been bliss. Next came the shower I had been looking forward to for the past 30+ hours but that did not turn out as expected either. I was one of the lucky teachers that did not have a water heater already in their rooms, meaning I am on public water, which is unreliable at best (and non-existent at worst). So no hot water at 3 a.m. but ok, I can deal with that. As I open the shower door, I glance down and am assaulted by the black mold ringing my shower floor. Oh, would my mother faint! It appeared that years of leaks had been caulked without ever trying to remove any mold so that caulk and mold were sealed together in wide strips. I breathe out and step in, thinking I can simply wear sandals and survive. That hope dwindles as the water level rises—my drain is clogged. Soon I am standing ankle-deep in moldy water. Ick. So much for washing away the grime of my travels. I opt for sleep and temporary forgetfulness.

Today, three months later, and I smirk at how “American” I was back then. I have become mostly inured to these lower sanitary standards in China—not even thinking about the mold any more, simply flushing down the worms when they show up every now and then, eating street food without caring that the people here rarely use soap, never use sanitizer, and probably don’t have refrigeration. Living in China is an exercise in disciplined thinking—if you think about where your food is coming from or what you are walking on (everyone hawks on the streets and young children frequently pee and poop on the sidewalk) then you might never leave your room. But if you can box up your American standards until a later date, then that public squatty potty in Beijing might even seem more welcome then some gas station stops along I-55.


  1. you have seen, accomplished and endured more than many others. Your candid remarks on how life really is tells us that your a remarkable person and can survive unintended events. Have you ever thought of going on the "greatest race" or survivor.

  2. Interestingly, my younger sister and I had an enduring passion to enter the amazing race for several years. We actually almost had the opportunity when try outs came to Alaska a couple of years ago until we learned that one had to be over 23. My younger sister has still not reached that mark and so our dream must be put off until the opportunity rises again.