Housekeeping, Chinese Style —by Jinny Batterson
At New Year, many of us engage in rituals of winnowing and clearing out last year’s “leftovers,” “outgrowns,” and “worn outs.” Similar activities occur in China in connection with Chinese New Year. Making a “clean sweep” periodically seems cross-cultural, maybe even instinctive among humans. However, some other aspects of housekeeping can be rather different in China, especially away from coastal areas and large cities. During most of my time in China so far, I’ve typically been housed in foreign guesthouses or tourist hotels. The schools where I’ve been a foreign teacher have all had specialized apartments for outsiders. However, it’s been my privilege to share meals and, occasionally, living space with Chinese families. In these situations, I’ve noticed several differences from my customary American lifestyle: 1) lack of clean water; 2) squat rather than sit toilets; and 3) smaller, fewer, more efficient appliances. I’m in awe of China’s multitudes of talented housekeepers—resourceful, adaptable managers of sometimes scarcer resources.
The first time I went to China, as a member of a tour group in 1980, we were cautioned ahead of time to bring our own toilet paper and never to drink the tap water. The toilet paper warning proved mostly irrelevant—at times the local product was less than Charmin-soft, but it was never in short supply. Warnings about not drinking anything except bottled or boiled water were more valid, pretty scrupulously observed by Chinese as well as foreigners. Most larger establishments provided thermos bottles of pre-boiled hot water, and we used their contents for everything from afternoon tea to brushing our teeth. In apartments, units had a “water machine,” somewhat akin to the water cooler found in American office complexes, but with an electric heating unit to produce hot water on demand. Water containers to fit these machines held about 20 liters of pre-boiled, filtered water—replacements could be obtained from specialized water stores, usually at fairly reasonable prices. Most of the time, tap water was available and clean enough for bathing or cooking (provided it would be boiled in the process), but the idea of drinking it was unthinkable.
A second difference for this older Western woman used to private bathrooms with “thrones” was in toilet facilities. In China, as in many other Asian countries, peeing and pooping are mostly squat activities rather than seated ones. The British term “WC” is more widely used than American “bathroom,” which, after all, seems to indicate a room where one takes a bath. In my earliest China travels, rural water closets could consist of parallel planks stretched over an open trench within a rough stick-and-daub chest-high enclosure. When multiple people used the facility at the same time, we went as quickly as possible and avoided eye contact. On other rural farms, the WC was part of the shed for animals, with a common waste trough that could be hosed or washed down as needed. In China’s past, providing private toilets required resources for walls and doors that could not be easily spared. As China gets more prosperous, more of her public and private buildings everywhere have individual, private toilet stalls (though still mostly squat ones).
Many Chinese housewives want a washing machine more than any other appliance. On my earliest foray into rural China, I saw women with shallow pails and soap bars scrubbing their laundry by hand, then laying garments to dry on rocks at the edge of a small stream. The washing machines I’ve since encountered tend to be much smaller and lighter-weight than American models. Sometimes several families will create their own informal “laundromat,” arranging their schedules so everyone gets a turn at a shared washing machine. Electric driers are rare—instead, an apartment or dormitory is likely to have a narrow, semi-enclosed “drying porch,” partly exposed to the outdoor air but sheltered from rain, wind, and the worst of ambient air pollution. Kitchen appliances are less abundant than in American kitchens. No ovens; no large stoves; no freezers; limited refrigeration. Shopping in lots of areas is still done daily—the food to be cooked for dinner is generally growing in the fields, or clucking, quacking, or swimming just a few hours before it is consumed. Because cooking fuel can be scarce, the emphasis is on dishes that can be cooked quickly and thoroughly. Much Chinese cuisine favors lots of chopping and slicing. In cold weather, “hot pot” restaurant meals are popular—a large circular table surrounds a cauldron of boiling broth at its center. Groups of diners choose plates of veggies, mushrooms, and sliced meats to be dumped into the communal pot to boil until done. The burner that cooks the food also warms the diners.
Travels in China have sobered me about the use of earth’s physical resources. My somewhat casual attitude about available clean water has taken a hit. I try not to waste water, especially during drought years. I pay more attention to run-off when it rains. I am more grateful for bathroom privacy than before. I try to eat lower on the food chain, not to run appliances or burn lights unnecessarily. I like to think that my experiences in China have helped me better appreciate non-physical resources—when January brings sleet or biting winds, memories of hot pot meals shared with Chinese friends can bring a warmth all their own.