Monthly Archives: October 2007

China Diary, 1988: The Inscrutable West

In 1987–88, the Far Outliers, with their two-year-old daughter in tow, spent a year teaching English at a new community college in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China. The following is one of a series of articles I wrote in 1988. I sent them to a Honolulu newspaper, but they were not interested. So now I offer them as a retrospective on coastal China twenty years before hosting its first Olympics. At the same time, I am scanning in a lot of our old China photos and uploading them to my Flickr account or to my WordPress blog to illustrate this series.

One of my Chinese students wrote:

“Play baseball must have two group and each one have nine person. They stand in the place and play the ball. One group is throw the ball to the other group. The other group must approach the ball and fielding the ball. Before the ball coming you must watch the ball because you must keep it.”

I corrected the grammar but didn’t worry about the ideas. It’s hard to explain baseball in ten minutes, even when you have a blackboard to work with.

You don’t have to understand baseball—or cricket or rugby or Aussie rules or American football—to master basic English. But when you teach English abroad, someone is bound to ask you what it means to strike out, throw someone a curve, or be out in left field.

I don’t feel too confident myself explaining cricket phrases like “sticky wicket,” and I’m even foggier about what the Hong Kong newscaster means when he says “Pakistan are 396 for seven in the third day of play” in a Commonwealth cricket tournament.

To our students in Zhongshan, the eating habits of English-speaking peoples are at least as peculiar as their sports—and more essential to understand, especially when many will go to work in the local visitor industry.

A few examples from our role-play in class illustrate:

Teacher: “I’ll take your chicken and pineapple salad.”
Student: “What kind of dressing would you like on it? We have oil, vinegar, French, Italian, Russian, and British.”

Eating raw vegetables tossed with dressing is a foreign notion in China. Lettuce, called “raw vegetable” (sheng cai), is abundant in the markets. But our students asked, “Have you ever eaten it raw?” We never did there.

Teacher: “I’ll take the French onion soup, the roast beef medium rare, and apple pie for dessert.”
Student: “And what kind of sandwich would you like?”

Our students figure a complete meal should include at least one item under each major section of the menu, just as a complete Cantonese meal might include a soup, a poultry dish, a seafood dish, a meat dish, and a vegetable dish. And they don’t usually measure the size of a meal by the number of helpings eaten. They count the number of dishes served.

Teacher: “I’d like a beverage with my meal. What do you have?”
Student: “Tea, Coke, Sprite, cognac, and brandy.”

A common sight in restaurants in Zhongshan, even at breakfast, is a bottle of liquor in the middle of the table. Having “wine” (usually translated jiu, meaning any kind of alcohol) with a meal is not a foreign idea, but the fine distinctions among the types of alcohol usually drunk before, during, or after a meal in the West require some explanation.

Typical American classroom culture is also hard for students in China to understand.

After hearing in a listening comprehension talk that young Alfred Hitchcock went to strict schools, one student asked, “What other kind is there?”

Chinese students are usually highly motivated and don’t expect the kind of song-and-dance routines that American teachers employ to try to keep their barely interested students from being disruptive or falling asleep. But Chinese students do doze off during long lectures, and most of their classes are long lectures.

In addition to passively listening, the students memorize and recite, read and translate. It takes a lot of work to get most of them to absorb and present information without memorizing it, to answer questions in their own words, or to participate in a seminar-type class.

As one Chinese essayist in China Daily observed, “stuffing students’ heads full of knowledge is by no means the best way” to educate them. The writer, obviously a radical revisionist, advocated less reliance on lectures and more reliance on seminars and directed research.

Still, the examination system in China has for centuries tested memorized knowledge, and classroom initiative has for centuries come from one source—the teacher—even if heads do nod from time to time.

UPDATE: Basketball has certainly become more scrutable in China in over the past two decades (via Language Hat).

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China Diary, 1988: Campus Life

In 1987–88, the Far Outliers, with their two-year-old daughter in tow, spent a year teaching English at a new community college in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China. The following is one of a series of articles I wrote in 1988. I sent them to a Honolulu newspaper, but they were not interested. So now I offer them as a retrospective on coastal China twenty years before hosting its first Olympics. At the same time, I am scanning in a lot of our old China photos and uploading them to my Flickr account or to my WordPress blog to illustrate this series.

Should students be allowed to fall in love on campus? Should students be allowed to hold part-time jobs? These subjects of student debates at Sun Wen College in Zhongshan City, Guangdong, indicate how different college life is in China and the United States. School policy answers “No” to both questions.

Sun Wen College students, Zhongshan City, China, 1988Those who argued that students should be allowed to hold part-time jobs said that students benefit by learning about the real world of work. But those who argued that students should be allowed to fall in love said only that a boyfriend or girlfriend is a good study partner. They said nothing about the real world. A few of our 18-year-old freshmen claimed not to know what “falling in love” means.

Schools and teachers play a much more parental role in China than in the U.S. Even in college, teachers may supervise students’ leisure time as well as class time. The students’ role includes running errands or doing chores for teachers.

When we moved into our apartment, some of our students were recruited to fill the planters on our balconies with dirt and plants. Our students often volunteered to help us with shopping.

High school students are even more closely supervised. From morning exercise to nightly study hall six days a week, they have hardly a free moment.

At Sun Wen College, no one who lives on campus needs an alarm clock to make sure they get up in time for class. At 6:15 every morning, the loudspeaker blares forth a wake-up medley of rousing orchestral pieces such as the Carmen Overture, Rhapsody in Blue, and Stars and Stripes Forever.

By 6:30 a.m., all dormitory students are supposed to be out on the soccer field doing morning exercises in unison. Breakfast–mostly rice soup (jook), sometimes dim sum—is served from 7 a.m. Classes begin at 7:45.

Most classes span two 50-minute periods. There are four regular periods in the morning. Everything shuts down at noon for the daily siesta, and classes resume at 2:30 p.m. Regular students attend class six days per week.

College students in China are a privileged minority and are highly motivated. They are also a serious lot, but probably less so in Zhongshan than in other parts of the country.

Sun Wen College also has a relatively high proportion of informal, fee-paying auditors who are improving their English in order to emigrate. We lost several students to emigration during the year we were there.

Basic education classes are held six nights per week from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. for students who have not yet met formal entrance requirements. Lab sessions for informal students are held on Sunday mornings.

There are no elective courses. You choose your major when you start, and that decides all of your courses. There is little room for individual initiative, especially since free time is kept to a minimum.

Our English majors took intensive reading (for grammar), extensive reading (for vocabulary), listening comprehension, oral fluency, physical education, philosophy (political education), and Chinese language and literature.

All classes are with the same classmates. This builds a strong class camaraderie. The whole class is also required to take part in such extracurricular activities as morning exercise contests, song contests, and clean-classroom contests.

Sun Wen College graduating class, 1988The most recent song contest offered a cash prize to encourage more enthusiastic competition. At the same time, the students were required to sing at least one revolutionary song.

Each student sits at the same desk in the same room for most classes. Many study there in the evenings as well.

The dormitory at Sun Wen College is filled to bursting. There are six students to each room. Although some dorm students come from as far away as Guangzhou, others live not more than an hour’s bicycle-ride away.

While the school cafeteria was under construction, the students were fed at an overloaded, tin-roofed canteen with coal-fired woks. A typical school lunch consists of a vegetable–usually choy sum, Chinese cabbage, or daikon–two or more protein dishes–often duck eggs, pork hash, small bony fish, water-buffalo beef, or tofu—and government-ration-quality rice, some of the worst you will ever taste.

Eaters bring their own bowls and spoons. No one uses chopsticks.

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China Diary, 1988: Land of a Billion Thermos Bottles

In 1987–88, the Far Outliers, with their two-year-old daughter in tow, spent a year teaching English at a new community college in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China. The following is one of a series of articles I wrote in 1988. I sent them to a Honolulu newspaper, but they were not interested. So now I offer them as a retrospective on coastal China twenty years before hosting its first Olympics. At the same time, I am scanning in a lot of our old China photos and uploading them to my Flickr account or to my WordPress blog to illustrate this series.

In China those who have tap water don’t drink it. Almost all the water and tea consumed each day by one billion Chinese goes through a kettle and thermos bottle first.

There must be at least a billion thermos bottles. If each thermos bottle is emptied twice a day, then four billion liters of water pour out of the mouths of thermoses each day.

Hui food vendor, Xian, ChinaBoiled water is the universal cleanser. Diners in China’s typically grimy eating places often rinse their tableware with hot water or tea before they eat or drink anything. Some roadside eateries reassure their customers by bringing out all the tableware in a large soup bowl full of scalding water. The customers can rinse everything themselves.

Disposable eating utensils, like disposable medical supplies, are just coming into use in China. A recent China Daily letter to the editor lauded the growing practice of providing disposable chopsticks in restaurants in Beijing.

Some snack shops on the more well-beaten paths serve fastfood in throw-away containers. When you sit down to eat at these places, you first have to clean up the mess left by those who preceded you. And when you’re finished, you leave your rubbish for the next person to clear off.

On board most trains, you can buy Chinese lunches served in plastic boxes with plastic spoons. After meal times, the train attendants sweep the mounds of disposable rubbish down the aisles to the end of the car, then open a window and toss it out into the fields along the railroad tracks.

Those who live in China are constantly aware of how dirty their environment is and have adapted their habits to deal with it. They are especially careful about what goes in their mouths.

Many people carry their own cups and chopsticks when they travel. When they buy canned or bottled drinks, most people don’t let their lips touch the container. They use straws.

When people offer fruit to eat, they don’t touch the edible part with their hands. They either hold it by the stem or with the peeled skin still wrapped around the fruit until it is accepted.

People in China are much more casual about the inedible parts of food. They discard bones, peels, and seeds either on top of the table or directly on the floor. Spittoons are everywhere, but they are much more likely to hold tea leaves, old rinse water, and food scraps than spittle.

Powdered dye and thumbsucker, Zhongshan City, ChinaWe arrived in China from Honolulu with a thumb-sucking two-year-old who promptly became an even more ardent thumb-sucker when the shock of the new culture first hit her. Little Rachel’s habit is considered vile there, and many an old lady tried to pull her hand out of her mouth when she sucked her thumb in public.

Rachel soon learned to refrain from putting her thumb in her mouth during the whole time she was in kindergarten. When she got home, she always asked us, “Suck this thumb?” so we could make sure her hands were clean before she indulged.

Other Honolulu habits she had to give up were sitting on the sink brushing her teeth with tap water, catching shower water in her mouth, and running around the house barefoot.

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China Diary, 1988: 5 Yuan for Parts, 5 Jiao for Labor

In 1987–88, the Far Outliers, with their two-year-old daughter in tow, spent a year teaching English at a new community college in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China. The following is one of a series of articles I wrote in 1988. I sent them to a Honolulu newspaper, but they were not interested. So now I offer them as a retrospective on coastal China twenty years before hosting its first Olympics. At the same time, I am scanning in a lot of our old China photos and uploading them to my Flickr account or to my WordPress blog to illustrate this series.

China undoubtedly has the world’s largest reserves of rubble. Unfortunately, natural and man-made disasters have helped create a glut of rubble on the world market, so these reserves have little export value.

Of course, China also has the world’s largest supply of cheap labor, with considerably greater export value. Chinese who emigrated as cheap labor in the past remain an important source of much-needed hard currency to China today. And many Hong Kong companies invest highly desired capital in China just to take advantage of the readily available labor.

The overabundance of labor and the relative shortage of capital and resources in China help explain the ubiquitous piles of rubble. Much of it consists of brick, mortar, plaster, gravel, sand, cement, bamboo scaffolding, pipes, and metal frames intended for eventual use or reuse.

Worker hut atop the city wall, Xian, ChinaIn China, labor is “cheaper than bricks.” Bricks are hardly scarce, but the demand for them is very high during the present construction boom. They are the major component of most buildings and most rubble. It isn’t just the bureaucracy that throws up brick walls; virtually every factory, school, office complex, and construction site is surrounded by brick walls. Even temporary buildings and walls are made of brick.

Demolition proceeds brick by brick, each one cleaned of dried mortar and carefully stacked. If you had a dollar for every brick in China you could pay off the U.S. national debt and still have a bit of pocket money.

While China’s conservation of valuable resources at the expense of cheaper labor helps create mountains of recycled rubble, the West’s conservation of expensive labor at the cost of cheaper resources helps generate mountains of unrecycled garbage.

In everyday terms, cheap labor means:

  • The butcher charges nothing extra to trim or slice the meat you bought.
  • The sales clerk spends 15 minutes, at no charge, replacing a broken electrical plug with an 80-cent new one.
  • Labor accounts for only 25 percent of the monthly daycare bill. The rest is for food, supplies, and medicine.
  • A streetside vendor makes a living just refilling and repairing cigarette lighters.
  • The profit from selling 25 pounds of oranges is enough to make it worth the vendor’s while to carry them to town and sit beside them most of the day.
  • It is cheaper to get someone to retype a page of text to mimeograph handouts for class than it is just to make 30 photocopies of the original.

New homes under construction, Shiqi, Zhongshan City, GuangdongThe abundance of labor means that many more things in China are made, assembled, or installed by hand: brooms and mops, doors and windows, cabinets, wardrobes, tables, chairs, and beds. Westerners who pine for the days of pre-assembly-line craftsmanship could learn a valuable lesson there. Our two-year-old learned the ritual explanation “that’s not made very well” or “this doesn’t close very well.”

  • Cabinets come with leftover shavings inside, and doors that refuse to shut properly.
  • Mirrors have to be individually cut to fit the frame on the wardrobe.
  • House doors have handles and latches at different angles and heights and usually need planing to fit the frame.
  • Every large piece of furniture requires wedging to level it.
  • Wiring and piping is installed after walls are finished, leaving a residue of drilled-out plaster, brick, and mortar on the floors.
  • Arc-welders work on-site, often without masks, drawing current from the residential master circuit and flickering the lights–even blowing out major appliances–as voltage drops and surges with each arc.
  • The one-by-two-inch ceramic fuses at every household outlet are often not interchangeable, but anybody with a screwdriver can easily replace the fuse wire.

Reroofing, Xian, ChinaSo while standardized, prefabricated components reduce construction costs in the West, much Chinese labor and material is expended retrofitting and repairing. With so little standardization, designers also find it hard to estimate exactly how much material a particular job will require. As a result, construction sites contain many more primary ingredients and often many more leftovers than comparable sites in the West, lending even newly finished buildings a just-renovated and rubble-strewn look.

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Judt on the British Quagmire in Ulster

From Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt (Penguin, 2005), pp. 466-469:

The Provisional IRA was much like [Basque] ETA in its methods, and in some of its proclaimed objectives. Just as ETA sought to make the Basque provinces ungovernable and thereby secure their exit from Spain, so the Irish Republican Army aimed at making Northern Ireland ungovernable, expelling the British, and uniting the six northern provinces with the rest of Ireland. But there were significant differences. Since an independent Ireland already existed, there was—at least in principle—a practicable national goal for the rebels to hold out to their supporters. On the other hand, there was more than one Northern Irish community, and the distinctions between them went back a very long way.

Like French Algeria, Northern Ireland—Ulster—was both a colonial remnant and an integral part of the metropolitan nation itself. When London finally relinquished Ireland to the Irish, in 1922, the UK retained the six northern counties of the island on the reasonable enough grounds that the overwhelmingly Protestant majority there was intensely loyal to Britain and had no desire to be governed from Dublin—and incorporated into a semi-theocratic republic dominated by the Catholic episcopate. Whatever they said in public, the political leaders of the new Republic were themselves not altogether unhappy to forgo the presence of a compact and sizeable community of angrily recalcitrant Protestants. But for a minority of Irish nationalists this abandonment constituted a betrayal, and under the banner of the IRA they continued to demand the unification—by force if need be—of the entire island.

This situation remained largely unchanged for four decades. By the 1960s the official stance in Dublin somewhat resembled that of Bonn: acknowledging the desirability of national re-unification but quietly content to see the matter postponed sine die. Successive British governments, meanwhile, had long chosen to ignore so far as possible the uneasy situation they had inherited in Ulster, where the Protestant majority dominated local Catholics through gerrymandered constituencies, political clientelism, sectarian pressure on employers, and a monopoly of jobs in crucial occupations: civil service, judiciary and above all the police.

If politicians on the British mainland preferred not to know about these matters, it was because the Conservative Party depended on its ‘Unionist’ wing (dating from the nineteenth-century campaign to maintain Ireland united with Britain) for a crucial block of parliamentary seats; it was thus committed to the status quo, with Ulster maintained as an integral part of the United Kingdom. The Labour Party was no less closely identified with the powerful labour unions in Belfast’s shipbuilding and allied industries, where Protestant workers had long received preferential treatment.

As this last observation suggests, the divisions in Northern Ireland were unusually complicated. The religious divide between Protestants and Catholics was real and corresponded to a communal divide replicated at every stage of life: from birth to death, through education, housing, marriage, employment and recreation. And it was ancient—references to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century quarrels and victories might appear to outsiders absurdly ritualistic, but the history behind them was real. But the Catholic/Protestant divide was never a class distinction in the conventional sense, despite the IRA’s efforts to import Marxist categories into its rhetoric. There were workers and priests—and to a lesser extent landowners, businessmen and professionals—on both sides.

Moreover, many Ulster Catholics felt no urgent desire to be ruled from Dublin. In the 1960s Ireland was still a poor and backward country and the standard of living in the North, while below that of most of the rest of the UK, was still considerably above the Irish average. Even for Catholics, Ulster was a better economic bet. Protestants, meanwhile, identified very strongly with the UK. This sentiment was by no means reciprocated by the rest of Britain, which thought little of Northern Ireland (when it thought of it at all) .The old industries of Ulster, like those of the rest of the UK, were in decline by the end of the 1960s, and it was already clear to planners in London that the overwhelmingly Protestant blue-collar workforce there had an uncertain future. But beyond this, it is fair to say that the British authorities had not given Ulster serious thought for many decades.

The IRA had declined to a marginal political sect, denouncing the Irish Republic as illegitimate because incomplete while reiterating its ‘revolutionary’ aspiration to forge a different Ireland, radical and united. The IRA’s wooly, anachronistic rhetoric had little appeal to a younger generation of recruits (including the seventeen-year-old, Belfast-born Gerry Adams, who joined in 1965) more interested in action than doctrine and who formed their own organization, the clandestine, ‘Provisional’ IRA. The ‘Provos’, recruited mainly from Derry and Belfast, emerged just in time to benefit from a wave of civil rights demonstrations across the North, demanding long overdue political and civil rights for Catholics from the Ulster government in Stormont Castle and encountering little but political intransigence and police batons for their efforts.

The ‘Troubles’ that were to take over Northern Irish—and to some extent British—public life for the next three decades were sparked by street battles in Derry following the traditional Apprentice Boys’ March in July 1969, aggressively commemorating the defeat of the Jacobite and Catholic cause 281 years before. Faced with growing public violence and demands from Catholic leaders for London to intervene, the UK government sent in the British Army and took over control of policing functions in the six counties. The army, recruited largely in mainland Britain, was decidedly less partisan and on the whole less brutal than the local police. It is thus ironic that its presence provided the newly formed Provisional IRA with its core demand: that the British authorities and their troops should leave Ulster, as a first stage towards re-uniting the island under Irish rule.

The British did not leave. It is not clear how they could have left. Various efforts through the 1970s to build inter-community confidence and allow the province to run its own affairs fell foul of suspicion and intransigence on both sides. Catholics, even if they had no liking for their own armed extremists, had good precedent for mistrusting promises of power-sharing and civic equality emanating from the Ulster Protestant leadership. The latter, always reluctant to make real concessions to the Catholic minority, were now seriously fearful of the intransigent gunmen of the Provisionals. Without the British military presence the province would have descended still further into open civil war.

The British government was thus trapped. At first London was sympathetic to Catholic pressure for reforms; but following the killing of a British soldier in February 1971 the government introduced internment without trial and the situation deteriorated rapidly. In January 1972, on ‘Bloody Sunday’, British paratroopers killed thirteen civilians in the streets of Derry. In that same year 146 members of the security forces and 321 civilians were killed in Ulster, and nearly five thousand people injured. Buoyed up by a new generation of martyrs and the obstinacy of its opponents, the Provisional IRA mounted what was to become a thirty-year campaign, in the course of which it bombed, shot and maimed soldiers and civilians in Ulster and across mainland Britain. It made at least one attempt to assassinate the British Prime Minister. Even if the British authorities had wanted to walk away

from Ulster (as many mainland voters might have wished), they could not. As a referendum of March 1973 showed and later polls confirmed, an overwhelming majority of the people of Ulster wished to maintain their ties to Britain.

The IRA campaign did not unite Ireland. It did not remove the British from Ulster. Nor did it destabilize British politics, though the assassination of politicians and public figures (notably Lord Mountbatten, former Viceroy of India and godfather of the Prince of Wales) genuinely shocked public opinion on both sides of the Irish Sea. But the Irish ‘Troubles’ further darkened an already gloomy decade in British public life and contributed to the ‘ungovernability’ thesis being touted at the time, as well as to the end of the carefree optimism of the 1960s. By the time the Provisional IRA—and the Protestant paramilitary groups that had emerged in its wake—finally came to the negotiating table, to secure constitutional arrangements that the British government might have been pleased to concede almost from the outset, 1,800 people had been killed and one Ulster resident in five had a family member killed or wounded in the fighting.

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China Diary, 1988: Subtropical Winter Cold

In 1987–88, the Far Outliers, with their two-year-old daughter in tow, spent a year teaching English at a new community college in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China. The following is one of a series of articles I wrote in 1988. I sent them to a Honolulu newspaper, but they were not interested. So now I offer them as a retrospective on coastal China twenty years before hosting its first Olympics. At the same time, I am scanning in a lot of our old China photos and uploading them to my Flickr account or to my WordPress blog to illustrate this series.

Zhongshan lies just below the Tropic of Cancer at almost the same latitude as the Hawaiian Islands. Bananas and sugarcane, hibiscus and bougainvillea, mango, papaya, and palm trees are abundant. But the continental weather makes the winters much colder than Hawaiian winters—unless you live halfway up Mauna Kea or Haleakala.

The first time we got a real winter monsoon, the temperature dropped from 25 degrees Centigrade (77F) to 5 degrees (41F) in 24 hours. During winter, the southerlies and sunny weather can give daytime highs of 20 degrees Centigrade (68F), and the northerlies and cloudy weather can take overnight lows down to 5 degrees.

Houses are unheated, with no hot running water. The floors are mostly bare concrete or tile. The universal building material is plaster-covered brick and mortar. The doors and windows fit so poorly in their frames that houses are drafty. So the temperature inside is almost the same as it is outside, except for a slightly lower wind-chill factor.

The average is 22 degrees Centigrade (72F)—11 degrees (52F) in the morning, 11 in the afternoon!

Our apartment sat on a hilltop, fully exposed to the north wind blowing down over the flat delta. The kitchen, bathroom, and toilet all faced north. The winter wind gave each room its special torture.

The half-inch gap under its balcony door makes the kitchen the coldest room to work in. Chinese kitchens don’t have ovens, and wok meals require minimal cooking time and a good bit of washing and chopping time. Icy tap water didn’t make washing anything very appealing.

The watertank lid on our western-style toilet broke before it was installed, and the jerry-rigged flushing mechanism fell to pieces soon after we started using it. So after testing our mettle on the cold toilet seat, we had to dunk a hand in freezing water and pull out the rubber stopper to flush.

Until well into winter, we either took cold showers or filled a small plastic tub with hot water to wash with. Those are the two options available in most houses there. Then, in January, our school finally installed the gas hot-water heater they had bought for us.

The water heater had first been mounted above the western-style bathtub. But there was no room to fit the gas canister in the same room, so it was taken out again.

Several months later, it was remounted in the bath, holes were drilled through the wall into the toilet where the gas canister was put, and a rubber tube was run through the wall to the heater. Then it turned out the water heater needed repair, so it was taken out again. A month or so later, it was reinstalled. This time both water heater and gas canister were placed in a more open area outside the toilet—to reduce the chance of asphyxiation in the toilet or explosion in the bathroom. The workmen had to drill new holes and run new pipes through the toilet and bathroom walls. But they didn’t feel the need to clean up the debris they left behind.

So now the hard part of taking showers was turning the hot water off and feeling the cold air all the more severely. The hard part used to be first turning the cold water on yourself.

There were two real advantages to the cold indoor temperatures.

First, the household mosquitoes take a vacation. Still, we usually lowered our mosquito nets at night, if only for that added layer of gauze between us and the cold.

Second, we didn’t have to refrigerate the Chinese-made old-fashioned peanut butter to keep the oil from separating. In fact, we could have just unplugged the refrigerator if we hadn’t kept a few things in the freezer.

To counter the cold, we drank many cups of hot tea, using the teacups to warm our hands as the tea warmed our throats. We learned to make ice tea from hot tea in 20 minutes—without ice or refrigeration.

We didn’t have to count calories. We just had to keep shoveling them in. We developed more of a sweet tooth than we used to have, and our bodies demanded between-meal snacks to keep the furnaces stoked.

We dressed for dinner—and for lunch and breakfast—in the cold dining room. We even had to dress for bed, sometimes sleeping with our socks on—a barbarous custom!

As friends from Winnipeg, Canada, who were teaching there observed, cold is not so bad when there is somewhere you can go to get away from it. In our house, the only place we could escape the cold was under our quilts.

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China Diary, 1988: Cheap Rent, Expensive Food

In 1987–88, the Far Outliers, with their two-year-old daughter in tow, spent a year teaching English at a new community college in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China. The following is one of a series of articles I wrote in 1988. I sent them to a Honolulu newspaper, but they were not interested. So now I offer them as a retrospective on coastal China twenty years before hosting its first Olympics. At the same time, I am scanning in a lot of our old China photos and uploading them to my Flickr account or to my WordPress blog to illustrate this series.

How would you like to spend only ten dollars a month for rent? The only catch is that you have to move to Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China, and work at a local company for local wages.

Rent in Zhongshan looks good no matter how you figure it, but comparing the cost of living there with the same in Honolulu is still a bit tricky.

If you convert a Honolulu income of $2,000 per month to Chinese currency at the official rate of 3.7 yuan to the dollar, you would have more money to spend in a month than most people there make in a year. At the blackmarket rate of exchange, you would have twice that much. A couple who wanted to retire in Honolulu and live on their Zhongshan pension of 500 yuan per month would find first that they could not legally convert their yuan to “hard” currency at the official rate. If they then exchanged it on the blackmarket, they would end up with little more than $60 a month to live on.

But of course most people in Zhongshan earn Zhongshan wages and most people in Honolulu earn Honolulu wages. We need to match prices and wages in each place. So let’s compare fairly average working couples with one preschool-age child. Both couples are full-time teachers. Each month, Mr. and Mrs. Zhang in Zhongshan receive 500 yuan between them, if you average in the periodic bonuses they receive. Mr. and Mrs. Hara in Honolulu bring home $2,000 after taxes, union dues, and so forth.

A typical monthly wage in other parts of China would be about 100 yuan. Prices are also lower, as are the choices of goods available.

Public housing, Xian, ChinaEach month the Haras turn over $600, nearly one-third of their take-home pay, to their landlord, Mr. Chong, Zhang’s uncle. The Zhangs’ work unit—their college—provides them housing, but charges them 10 yuan each month for rent, 2 percent of their income. Gas, water, and electricity cost the Zhangs about 30 yuan (6 percent of their income). The Haras pay $40 a month (2 percent) for utilities.

The Zhangs are very lucky to have a telephone. It costs them about 25 yuan per month (5 percent of their income). They pay by the minute even for local calls. One time Zhang called his uncle in Hawaii and talked 10 minutes, at 12 yuan per minute. He’ll wait for his uncle to call him next time. The Haras pay $25 a month for their phone (1.25 percent). They rarely call the mainland but do call the neighbor islands occasionally.

New home, Shiqi, Zhongshan City, GuangdongThe Zhangs pay about 40 yuan per month (8 percent of their income) for full-time daycare for their 3-year-old. That includes breakfast and lunch six days a week and occasional doses of medicine. The Haras pay $300 a month (15 percent), to a private daycare center. That includes lunch and snacks.

Since their work unit furnishes their house, the Zhangs live close to work and pay little for transportation. They own two bicycles. Mrs. Zhang bought hers for 170 yuan (34 percent of their monthly paycheck). The Haras owe one more year of car payments at $170 a month (8.5 percent of their combined net), on the car they bought three years ago. They alternate chauffeuring.

Both the Zhangs and the Haras keep in touch with their relatives by mail. It costs the Zhangs one yuan (0.20 percent of their monthly income) to send ten airmail letters within China. But it costs them 20 yuan (4.0 percent) to send ten airmail letters abroad.

The Haras, by contrast, pay $4.50 (0.225 percent of their monthly net) to send ten airmail letters to Japan. It costs them $2.50 (0.12 percent) to send ten letters to the mainland.

The Zhangs recently made photocopies of family documents to help a relative emigrate. They paid 2.50 yuan for ten pages (0.50 percent of their income that month).

The last time the Haras photocopied ten pages, they paid 50 cents (0.025 percent).
The Zhangs spend about 40 percent of their income on food, 200 yuan per month. The Haras spend about 20 percent of their net on food, $400 per month.

Both couples eat a lot of rice, the Zhangs 50 lbs. a month, the Haras 25 lbs. Each 25-lb. purchase costs the Zhangs 12.50 yuan (2.50 percent), and the Haras $5.00 (0.25 percent). The Zhangs could buy government-ration rice through the state store but the quality is much worse. So they cash in their ration and use the money to offset the cost of the better rice they buy on the private market.

Official fruiterer, Shiqi, Zhongshan City, GuangdongThe Zhangs eat much less meat than the Haras. They pay about 4.50 yuan per pound for pork (0.90 percent of their monthly income), 3.50 per pound for chicken (0.70 percent), and 3.00 yuan for a 12-ounce can of luncheon meat (0.60 percent). The Haras pay about $2.70 per pound for chop suey pork (0.14 percent), 99 cents per pound for chicken (0.05 percent), and $1.30 for a 12-ounce can of luncheon meat (0.07 percent).

Produce such as bananas, bean sprouts, cauliflower, celery and tomatoes cost between .40 and 60 yuan per pound in Zhongshan, 0.07 to 0.12 percent of the Zhangs’ monthly income. Similar produce in Honolulu ranges from 39 to 99 cents per pound, 0.02 to 0.05 percent of the Haras’ monthly net.

Sundries store, Shiqi, Zhongshan City, GuangdongIn proportion to typical local incomes, then, rice and meat cost ten times more in Zhongshan than in Honolulu. But fruits and vegetables only cost two to three times more. Of course, the Zhangs are able to spend much more of their money on food because they spend less than one-tenth as much on rent.

Imported food is outlandishly expensive in Zhongshan. A six-ounce jar of instant coffee costs the Zhangs 20 yuan, two months’ rent (4 percent of their earnings). It costs the Haras about $4.00 (0.20 percent).

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