Sitting on a stool in the bathroom, with warm water in a basin poured over my body, is the closest thing I’d ever get to a shower in John’s family home.
I’d been there for two days, and soon yearned for the familiar after-shower freshness — but didn’t know how to get it. “I desperately need a shower,” I confessed to John, my Chinese boyfriend. Not long after, he escorted me to the bathroom with a large, plastic red basin, filled with warm water, and a wooden, toddler-sized homemade stool. He placed the stool on the floor, where I crouched carefully to sit after removing my clothes. He ladled the water over me to wash away shampoo and soap — a fleeting burst of warmth to counteract the near-freezing air that surrounded us, even in the bathroom. Taking a shower never seemed so risky, and impractical.
“It’s so easy to catch cold like this,” I said, between the warm water rinses from John. “I guess you don’t take many showers in the winter.”
“I remember we usually didn’t take any showers in the winter when I was young.”
“Really? You went without showering for the whole winter?”
“Sure. It’s more important to stay warm.”
I couldn’t imagine going a whole winter without a shower. Yet, if I had grown up here, like John, I would. And I would probably see the American way — one shower, sometimes even two showers, a day — as wasteful and impractical.
I wonder what he might think of my father’s spacious two story home in the Ohio countryside, with its plush furnishings, floorings, heat and fully equipped bathrooms with showers, sinks and flush toilets.
In John’s home, the furnishings were bare and often cobbled from wood. There were no floorings — except for the porcelain tiles in the bathroom, we walked upon rough, unfinished concrete. The home had no heat, beyond those hot coals in the woks that we gathered around, like domestic campfires. And, until just a few weeks before I arrived, his family didn’t even have a flush toilet or sink.
I pondered it all as John and I spent our last evening in his home, watching Chinese television and trying to stay warm around the coals. “The way you live is so different from the standards I knew growing up.”
“In Tonglu, our home is considered rather comfortable.”
“But you know, some Americans might look at your home and think you were living in poverty. It really shocked me.”
“Sure — there are different standards. But that is your standard, and it is different from us.”
But, in the back of my mind lingered the question I couldn’t bring myself to ask — whose standard is right anyway? American homes, though comfortable, could be seen as wasteful, just like the American expectation for showering.
John and I could never wash away our past, or our upbringing. But maybe we could overcome those differences by creating something new and refreshing — just as John did that one morning, when he gave me one of the most memorable showers I’d ever had.
Has China ever made you question the standards of living in your country (as too excessive)?
Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.