Chapter 49: Winter Showers and Different Living Standards

John warming himself in the living room of his family home in China's countryside
Living at John's home was different than what I'd known -- from showers to even the living room. But as I pondered the excesses of American life, I wondered -- whose standard is right?

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.

8 Replies to “Chapter 49: Winter Showers and Different Living Standards”

  1. It is interesting, isn’t it? I was talking with my father on the phone recently and he mentioned something about my husband’s “poor” village, which my mom and dad visited when we were married, and started talking to be about about how Wang Yao’s family was living in poverty. I was rather shocked, since, as far as villages go my husband’s village is pretty prosperous and his family is probably one of the more prosperous families in the village. Even the old house (which no one lives in anymore — both older brothers have their own houses, the eldest brother having built a new 3 story modern complex about 2 years ago, complete with running hot water! The old house is my husband’s by rights but we don’t live there so it is empty), while simple, is by no means considered a dump by Chinese village standards. I guess I’ve gotten used to a really different set of standards for what constitutes “living in poverty” because it really surprised me to hear my husband’s village referred to that way, and I felt like I had to set my dad straight.

    So much about standard of living has to do with what you personally are accustomed to. If you grow up with a certain standard, say, no flush toilets, you don’t really think not having them is a hardship. There are even certain aspects of my rather comfortable apartment in Beijing that my parents consider “roughing it,” like the fact that I don’t have a bathtub or that the toilet and the shower are, as is common in Chinese bathrooms, simply next to each other without a separate enclosure away from the toilet for showering. After 7 years here I’ve gotten used to some things to the point where I don’t really notice anymore, and I am sure that if I went back the excess of comfort in the West would probably surprise me as well.
    .-= Jessica´s last blog ..Mao Zedong and Hu Jintao =-.

  2. Wow Jocelyn, and I thought I was tough for enduring “Guatemalan” living for a few weeks. ha ha ha. You’re so right, some things that we can’t imagine not having (like a flush toilet or hot showers) here in the US or a complete luxury everywhere else in the world. I must admit, when it came to modern US conveniences, the longer I stayed in Guatemala the lower my standards became. When I was there I couldn’t quite grasp the concept that in the mornings most of the city doesn’t have any water. Want to wash your clothes? Too Bad! Want to flush the toilet? Wait until noon! For me that was unthinkable, especially since my husband lived in the city. It wasn’t like we were out in some little village. We were in the biggest city in Guatemala. But no one there even questioned it. Showers were indeed the biggest thing I had a problem with since I have a love for scalding hot water in the early am. But on the other hand, it really makes you realize that there is life outside the US and for the most part it is very different. It also makes us realize how easy we have it here. What we consider “poverty” here is considered good living in 80% of the rest of the world.

    Well, as always I do enjoy reading your blog. I find myself anticipating the next chapter in your adventures.

    Take care

    1. Dear Jessica, thanks for the comment — and what a coincidence you were just talking about this with your dad! It really is true that we judge living standards on what we’re accustomed to.

      Dear Melissa, thanks for sharing. I am always amazed by the similarities between your experiences in Guatemala, and mine in China. That is fantastic that you had the opportunity to experience these things, and to realize that the US way is not necessarily the way of the entire world.

  3. I am reminded of the showers we took in Costa Rica. There was no hot water heater, just a strange device fitted to the shower head. As the water flowed through the device and out the head, the device heated the water. Just imagine showering under an electrical shower head with the electrical wires sort of just dangling between the wall and the device… it often smoked. Our showers were super-fast! These types of showers were called “suicide showers.”

    On a related note, one of the teachers at the school where I studied Spanish told us that we should wash our hair in the morning and wear it damp so that the Costa Ricans would see that we did indeed shower. I guess there was a belief that norteamericanos (US Americans) didn’t bathe much. Strange, since as you said, we often shower to excess!

    It is interesting to examine the question of whose standards are right. I struggle with this one as I try not to be too judgmental of the places I live. It’s just sometimes you do so without even thinking. I have to be honest that I have commented to myself on occasion that “my” standard is better in regards to some issues of sanitation I have encountered where I live in China. As a nurse it is hard for me to accept that using the bathroom on the sidewalk is okay, but I tell myself that my way is not the only way. The first time I mentioned my Spanish boyfriend to my mother, she exclaimed, “Europeans don’t shower and they never change their clothes!” I was so surprised. After she said it she realized she had absolutely no idea if that was even true, it was just something she’d always heard. Later I discovered that while my husband did pick up the American habit of frequent showers, his family did not always shower everyday, and they certainly did wear those clothes many times before washing them. However, what my mother did not know is that most Spaniards will quickly change into house clothes the moment they get home, keeping their “going out” clothes cleaner for longer. Is this better than the way the Americans do it? I now do this, too, but I couldn’t say whose way is better. I just decided not to make that decision!

    1. Dear global-gal,

      Thank you so much for the detailed comment, and for sharing your experiences! Costa Rican showers do sound “suicidal” — I had no idea. Nor did I realize that such a stereotype about Americans existed in Costa Rica. Interesting.

      I had heard the same stereotype about Europeans regarding showering from others, and of course, it’s patently false. I spent some time in Spain and experienced the same thing — that they just didn’t shower everyday and re-used clothing. There’s nothing wrong with it, and certainly it saves water and resources. When you have these experiences, it does make you think twice and re-examine what you were taught in the US.

    2. Dear globalgal,
      Spaniards don’t shower daily?! This is a shocker … and hearing that Europeans dont wash themselves is rather insulting… as im an European [from Eastern Europe]. [in this city, people over a certain age (+45yo?) might fail to wash their bodies daily, those under the age of 40 are surely cleaner…. your mother is not completely wrong in assuming that though]
      And i have to remind myself that unless you know people from a certain area, you can’t know their living conditions. And even then, not everyone is the same.

      I can tell you for a fact that most romanians [in the city at least] do have a set of ‘home clothes’, another one for when going out [in the park, shopping, or relaxing outside], and most likely another set of ‘work clothes’. However, unless it’s the home clothes, we don’t really like to wear the same stuff 2 days in a row, but we won’t wash them after just one day wearing it either… unless you’re like me and sweat more than others..

  4. Find your blog interesting reading:). Just read the articles on your experiences at John’s home which, I have to say, actually looks pretty well off and of a very good standard for a rural home in a Chinese village!
    Kind regards

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