Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

Dog days
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Well, I'm sitting in my apartment, waiting. Most immediately I'm waiting for the air conditioning repair guys to arrive. According to Wunderground, it's 86 out there but "feels like 90." Feels like a zillion, if you ask me . . .

I've been working on getting the a/c repaired for about a month now. I first raised the alarm during a stretch of 3 or 4 90-degree days in June, but the person whose job it is (was) to deal with these issues was on his way to other pursuits, and his remaining time was spent putting out visa-related fires. I could understand that. I could also understand that the person - people actually - who took over his job needed some time to get the lay of the land before my little ol' problem floated to the surface. I started getting importunate the week before last, when I informed everyone that I needed the a/c before the summer program begins because I can't get to sleep before midnight, and I can't teach all day if I don't get enough sleep. (Today will mark the third time the repairmen have been out. The first two times, they declared that making the repair to my unit, mounted on the outside of my 15th-floor apartment, was "too hard." That's another story. Like this is the first such unit in the city ever to need repair? Oh, please . . . )

Anyway, I've begun to feel a bit like a priss about this whole air conditioning situation. A few weeks ago I got a fan, which really ameliorated a lot of the problem. If I had to, I could get another fan, and probably be comfortable enough. Most places here are not air conditioned (or maybe they have a wall unit or a standalone thing, not central air), but I know that when I get home, if I sit still in the fan's breeze, I do eventually cool off. And I can always take a shower or go swimming to cool my inner core, as I put it. And, having been here since January, I can see this weather (and this place) on a continuum; I know that it's only a month until the weather cools off again and it becomes bearable to be outside. Like so many things in China, often the best approach is just to wait until things get better.

But this morning I discovered that, due to a snafu of incomprehensible proportions, some of my peeps (who arrive tonight) were slated to be put up in non-air-conditioned living quarters. This is totally, completely, over-the-top unacceptable, and priss or no priss, I have to make a fuss, because it can't happen. Today I'm looking at Harbin through my foreigner's eyes, and I'm frustrated. Those people are going to get off the plane tonight at 8 pm (if they're lucky; Wunderground also claims a 70% chance of storms tonight) after over 24 hours of travel, and even if all goes well and they find themselves in an apartment exactly like mine, they are gonna feel like they've landed on the moon. Everything will seem dirty (although it's been freshly cleaned). The electricity and plumbing will seem dodgy at best. They will feel slightly suspicious about the sheets, the bathroom, the sink. I know this, because I remember how I felt the first time I arrived. This ain't the Hilton, by any stretch. If they have no a/c, it's going to feel like the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now.

The whole issue goes beyond just staying cool on a hot day, too. By western standards, this city (and most of this country) is dirty; I can't say it any other way. It's not just the much-touted air pollution. The "don't be a litterbug" campaign has no traction here, so people - grown up, educated people - throw their candy wrappers and soda bottles and tissues on the side of the road, and given that there are 10 million of them here, it adds up. Not to mention the places where there are literally piles of garbage. When we went to Sun Island the other week, I wanted to throw out our picnic trash and there was no trash can near the beach; I had to settle for adding my bag to the piles that others had placed along a wall and hope that some intrepid sanitation worker would happen by. And you know, garbage smells.

(Not to mention that you've got a better than even chance of seeing some guy taking a whizz in the bushes or on the side of the road whenever you go out. Lara and I laugh about that; we have this game where, when one of us is somewhere without the other, we text back and forth when we see it. My favorite sighting was a taxi driver who'd stopped his cab just past the entrance of a tunnel so he could answer nature's call. But my friends won't find it funny, I know.)

And besides that, there's China's image. They're only going to be here a month; they won't see the sweep of the place; this may be their only encounter with China. They won't have time to get used to the oddities. I love it here, and I want them to love it, too, but I know it won't happen if they feel unclean. And there's nothing like heat to make people feel unclean. Lord knows, I've never visited anywhere and liked it if the temperature was over 90. (Not even Madison, Wisconsin - it was around 100 when we were there, and I still think of it as a dirty, unpleasant place despite the fact that everyone else I know who's ever been there has loved it. Maybe I'll give it a second chance someday . . . )

So people need their rooms to be their sanctuaries. They have to be comfortable at home, because so much else is going to cause them discomfort.

And the problem of explaining to our hosts that, despite the fact that lots and lots and LOTS of Harbiners don't have a/c, foreigners can't be expected to live that way . . . well, that's daunting. China's a funny place. Assistant professors on this campus (and on others) often live in rooms - ROOMS, as in ONE ROOM - that they share with another person. One of my close professor friends just got an apartment, but before that, she lived in a room with no refrigerator, no hot plate, no washing machine. And, of course, no air conditioning.

Not to mention the obstacles posed by the fact that the foreign teachers won't be here very long. Contrary to our experience, when ordinary Chinese travel within their country, they expect conditions to be not as good as they are at home. The trains are crowded and the stations sometimes dirty, public toilets are mostly a travesty, and Chinese hotels (the ones frequented by Chinese people, anyway) are spartan at best and at worst . . . well, they make a night in a US campground seem like luxury.

People who've been overseas get the idea, but it's really hard to make the point to people here who have not been abroad. This is one of the ways in which you can see that China is a developing, not developed, nation. It's the second world here. Some people live very well, but lots of people don't, and even the people who are well-off conduct their lives within second-world surroundings, which is exactly the flip side of the U.S. In America, you can go to the richest cities and see street people, but it's the money that forms the backdrop, not the poverty. Here, you can see pockets of money, but they are isolated within a landscape that's shabby overall.

I think that's a really important thing to understand about China, because we in the west misread it so often. We don't really have the sense of what it means to say that this place is developing; what it means, to me, is that some people are rich (and getting richer), but basic Western standards of sanitation, safety, and comfort are not basic here at all.

Oh, well. Gonna go swimming so I don't sweat to death, and try to relax and trust to my friends here to solve the housing issues before the close of business today . . . and try to think of contingency plans for tonight if the issue takes more than a few days to resolve . . . And with any luck, I, myself, will have a/c in an hour or so . . .

Stay tuned.

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