People here in Hohhot often encourage Rich and me to visit their home towns or historically significant places in China. “Before you go back to America, you must go to….” As you might imagine, Inner Mongolia let alone, China is a big place. There is no way we could travel and experience the many different sites that have been suggested. However, when our friend Tala invited me to go to Beijing for a week, we made it happen. Rich has been to the capital city and urged me to take the 6 hour train trip to see the sites. With his help through covering my classes, I was able to accompany Tala to Beijing University, now called Minzu (Minzoo) University where she is finishing her doctorate in Education. Her dissertation topic is “Incorporating Mongolian Culture within English Language Classes for Ethnic Mongolian Students”. This particular trip to Beijing afforded Tala the time to meet with her advisor, attend a one day training, and take me around to many tourist sites and “good” shopping areas. During those times she was occupied with school/work demands, Tala had arranged for others to be my travel guide.
This was a trip of ups and downs. I was able to see several important historic sites including a portion of the Great Wall, The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Summer Palaces both “new” and “old”, Temple of Heaven, and an additional Temple that housed many different Buddha statues. I also went to a number of shopping areas, some for tourists (didn’t buy anything here), some for Chinese, (bought some things here). One shopping street that looked much like an alley, turned out to be a boundary line separating two ancient political districts in Beijing. It has maintained the same market function for several hundreds of years. And, of course, I ate. Food for the week varied from KFC chicken nuggets, to an all Mongolian meal, to Beijing (Peiking) roast duck, to soup from the street that looked like it was filled with centipedes, to porridge and pickled veggies for breakfast. I had two meals, each with post-graduate and doctoral students. One Lunch included Tala’s advisor and a later dinner included a college Dean. The highlight for me was being able to get to two different Starbuck’s for a western coffee fix. I know it sounds shallow, but after you have tried watery porridge, and centipede soup, you really, really want something familiar and appealing.
Along with playing foreign sightseer, I got to experience campus life. This was an experience that will take up it’s own email. I think I have said before, that if my living situation is equal to or better than camping, then I am fine. Dormitory life in China, even the most prestigious college in the country, does not come close to camping. It was a challenging experience that had an unfortunate surprise the night before we returned to Hohhot. More later.
The other two positives about the trip were Tala’s friends and peers as well as being able to run on the campus track. It was enjoyable hearing about the students’ studies, research, educational and career goals. Everyone, smart and passionate about their particular academic areas. The track was not a big deal. In fact it wasn’t much better than the two at IMNU. It was just nice to get out and run.
Despite some ordeals interspersed through the 6 days, looking back, the positives far outweighed the negatives. Rich and I may even return to Beijing before leaving the country. If so, we won’t stay in a dorm.
CHINESE COLLEGE DORMATORY LIFE
Everyone who has taken a basic psychology course has heard of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”. Essentially, the notion is that only when you have your basic biological needs, such as food, shelter, sleep, excretion etc. met, can you then proceed through higher levels of functioning like safety, love and belonging. The pinnacle of this hierarchy is Self Actualization, where you are in a “pretty good place” in your life. The Chinese authorities put Maslow to the test as demonstrated by living conditions of college students.
Tala and I arrived at her 8th floor Doctoral student dorm room mid afternoon last Wednesday. Soon after getting off the elevator, I noticed three things. First was the smell as we walked by the semi open bathroom area. Second was the cold temperature due to open windows in the bathroom area as a strategy to reduce the smell. Third a single clothes line overhead on the right that extended the length of the hallway filled with drying clothes. There was an occasional shallow round plastic tub catching drips from the freshly washed clothes.
Tala shares her dorm room with another doctoral student. There are two bunk bed sets, two desks, a single small self standing closet and an area for both cleaning supplies and one gallon thermos containers for hot water. Unlike undergraduates who total 6 to 8 in a room and master’s level students who number 4, doctoral students live with one other roommate. Tala lives with Tana, another Mongolian student. They use their respective upper bunks for storage. Generally theirs is like many dorm rooms: small, cramped and filled with stuff. I slept in Tala’s bed, while she slept down the hall in another friend’s dorm room. Tana, the roommate, was up around 7:00am would quickly dress and immediately leave for the library. She wouldn’t return until 11:00 at night. This meant I hardly saw her. We did have a nice chat on the weekend, but otherwise she stayed away from the dormitory. Though a bit squished, the room was ok. Best was that it was warm.
I knew that the bathroom area would have squatting toilets and I steeled myself to this fact. There were only 4 “stalls”, all of which, to be frank, were disgusting. At the risk of being too graphic, it is customary to put all paper products used during toileting in a small waste basket. You don’t put paper in with your bodily fluids cuz you don’t want to plug up the plumbing. The baskets are emptied, I think, maybe daily. Needless to say, stall environment quickly becomes an assault on 4 of our 5 senses. Those who have traveled to countries with squatting toilets also know that if you don’t bring you own paper, you are out of luck. As I said, I knew this would be the situation and was fairly prepared for it. What I was a bit surprised with, was the fact that in the entire building there was no running hot water. Students can take showers, but they have to walk across campus to a communal (single sex) shower building to do so. Throughout the day, young co-eds could be seen in their pajamas and slippers carrying a plastic basket of toiletries, shampoo, soap, etc., walking to the shower building. (Remember, this is November). They often also brought their brightly colored thermoses in order to refill them with boiling water in the building adjacent to the showers. These two buildings were the only sources of hot water for students. Additionally, students had to pay for water when they showered. They places their ID cards in a meter next to the shower head to enable the water to be warmed. The cost, I was told was nominal, but the hot water was not part of their tuition package. Given these circumstances it will not be a come as a surprise to know that students do not shower daily. Instead, they “wash up” in their dorm rooms. To do this, they mix cold tap water from the bathroom sink with boiled water from their thermoses into those shallow round plastic tubs. Some students wash their hair in the bathroom sinks using the tubs with warmer water to rinse off the soap. These same tubs are used for hand washing clothes as well.
So, once again, I was in a “When in Rome” situation. I washed up every day but only once went to the showers with Tala. It is funny, but as I was undressing in a very crowed locker area, it occurred to me that I had successfully avoided having to take a group shower my entire life. In high school, I would dress after gym, all sweaty, because I was too self conscious to be exposed in front of my peers. Of course, they did the same thing. It was just too embarrassing for us all. Yet here I was, at age 60, getting naked with at least 100 young Chinese women. They with their lithe youthful bodies and long black hair and me with my sagging skin and short grey hair. Fortunately, they seemed so lost in their own thoughts or conversations with others, they didn’t really take notice. As for me, I had run 5 miles earlier in the day and knew my body, though old, was fit. Plus, I was so ready for a hot shower I didn’t care what anyone might think. Tala and I simultaneously used the same shower head that was being paid for with her ID card. I have decided that hot water is a gift of the Gods. Life can be really, really bad, but if I have hot water to drink and bathe in, then I have a sense of hope. This is how I felt after my one shower.
I finished dressing a little quicker than Tala and waited outside the lockers in a hall. She came out laughing and then told me that a few of the women students earnestly asked her if I was Chinese. Did they not see my blue eyes and whiter than white skin? It was too funny.
Though the shower was good, the life of college students; daily hauling hot water to dorm rooms to wash bodies and clothing, having to use cold, smelly semi exposed toilet facilities that back up and over flow and cold water sinks for all other needs, is not only unappealing, but also wore me down. These conditions, along with a few other circumstances that occurred during my stay, resulted in some private emotional breakdowns. Only Rich, who received my phone texts knew I was struggling. The basic physiological needs that Maslow talked about are met in China, as far as these students are concerned. They know no differently. However, for me and the handful of post-graduate students who have attended schools in the west and Japan are not so comfortable. As it was, as soon as we boarded the night train back to Hohhot, my body let me know, I was sick with a cold. China remains an adventure.