**Disclaimer** If you love China and are easily angered by dissenting opinions, you may not want to read any further. You have been warned.
First, let me preface all of this by saying that an entire country is not defined by one city; neither is China mono-cultural, monolingual, or anything close to a cohesive unit, despite what Chinese people or government entities might have you believe. I do not, in the following post, mean to generalize over all of China, over all Chinese people, cultures, or cities. The following is my experience in what might be described as a typical developing area of China, through the lens of a Midwestern American with limited capabilities in Mandarin and particular distaste for socially conservative gubernatorial policies, censorship, and authoritarianism. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way…
I accepted a job as an English teacher at Jiangxi Agricultural University (江西农业大学) in Nanchang, Jiangxi, China for the duration of the fall 2016 semester. Having visited Asia for several months in 2015, and having taken a Chinese class, I thought I had some idea of what to expect. Culture shock was not new to me; neither was jet lag, nor living in a place where I did not speak the local language, and I had been assured that there were some 20+ foreign teachers at the university. As this was my first official position as an ESL teacher at a University, I was incredibly excited and motivated to do a good job.
A man who went by Jeffrey worked as the liaison between JXAU and its foreign teachers. As it turned out, there were only three foreign teachers on the whole campus including me. Julianne, a middle-aged Australian woman, moved there at about the same time I had, and so we went together for medical exams, resident permit applications, work permit confirmations, and introductory tours of the area we lived in during our first couple weeks there, led by Jeffrey. Julianne was a particularly interesting person, and you might read about her a bit here.
The other foreign teacher was a man who had been living in Nanchang for 15 years. From what I could gather, he had come to Nanchang to teach and look for a wife. In fact, he was successful and had two children, but had been unmarried for a decade before I arrived. Jeffrey provided me his name and number because I expressed interest in befriending other foreigners (lesson one of moving to a new country: build a support network). However, Steve (who you should ALSO read about in this post) made it clear he did not want to be friends with a liberal before meeting me or learning anything about me, and when we did accidentally run into each other during a power outage in our building, he told me the only Chinese I needed to know was how to ask for food without MSG and shouted it into my face. Building a support network doesn’t mean making friends with everyone!
In our building, which was specifically designated for foreign teachers, there were two sides with four floors each and a total of 20 apartments and several offices on the ground floor. That’s where Jeffrey and a few other faculty worked.
Traditionally, apartments in the southern half of China do not use heating or air-conditioning units. My apartment came with a large unit in the living room, which I was instructed to try not to use because of the insane amount of power it consumed. In my room there was also a mounted wall unit, but I’m not picky about summer temperatures. As long as I’m warm, I’m happy– so during the winter, I was miserable.
The water heater ran primarily on solar power, and a monitor which was attached to the wall in the kitchen displayed the current temperature of the water in the tank. If solar power failed to heat the water enough, there was an option to have water heated electrically, but again, this consumed an incredible amount of power. During the winter months, there was almost no sun due to constant rain and smog, and heating water for a shower cost between $1 and $1.50 US. Most toilets in that area are still squat toilets, although I was afforded with a western-style porcelain throne. The shower was simply a hose with a shower head in the same room as the toilet, with a drain on the floor, exactly how the Thai bathrooms I’d used were set up (minus the bidet). For some reason, I didn’t think to take a photo of my bathroom. The kitchen was pretty simple– just a sink and a gas stove (which had been switched off because Steve wouldn’t stop leaving the gas on), so I ended up just buying a heating plate for cheap.
I visited several homes over the four months I was in China, and it seemed to be a pretty standard setup. Nowhere has carpets– it’s just stone or marble flooring and plain walls with a hard bed. The bathrooms are not usually Western-style, though; most bathrooms were equipped with squat toilets next to a hose that served as the shower. In the student dorms this was also the case, and shower rooms were communal.
A couple days after moving in, it became apparent I was sharing the apartment with critter friends straight out of a Lovecraft novel and that there wasn’t much I could do to get rid of them. My least favorite, though, was the huntsman spider that just wanted a friend to hang out with in my bathroom:
What didn’t bother me at all were the Disco Innocuous Lizard Friends (DILFs, if you will) that danced around my flat, probably eating bugs and generally lightening the mood while I slaved over lesson plans at my desk.
At one point, I had international friends from another university come over for Christmas and while cleaning up the flat to get it ready for a party, I discovered Vlad the Chinese Christmas bat hanging out in my curtains. He looked harmless, so I left him there. That was until he woke up around midnight in the middle of Love Actually and started flying frantically in circles above us. Some of my friends went to hide in my room until Vlad found his way out my front door and into the hall. I secretly hoped he would go downstairs to bother Steve.
Apart from the two times I had international friends over, the apartment was pretty dead and isolated. It was half an hour from the city, and the gate outside was locked at 10:30 PM “for the safety of the foreign teachers.” However, we were allowed to stay out late if we notified the landlady of our plans before leaving. My favorite part of the flat was the warning sign that hung next to the door, which had rules about not drinking, not doing anything against the law, and “It is not permitted to have any dangerous weapons, like guns, explosives, pornography, caustic acid…” I constantly imagined someone sending Playboy magazines to unsuspecting Chinese people and wreaking all sorts of social havoc.
By far the most costly part of living in Nanchang was the electricity. During the winter I had to buy a space heater because the wall unit was incredibly ineffective and sucked a lot of power; still, with the space heater on only while I was home, and everything else in the house unplugged, my electricity bill was about 1.5 times as high as it was for my apartment in the USA. I imagine part of this was due to my desire to shower more than once a week, and that I was constantly using the space heater to dry the few clothes and one pair of shoes I had while in China. Power outages happened weekly (and sometimes more frequently) since it’s a developing area, but this was normally fixed within an hour or two.
Overall I can’t complain too much about my living quarters. What really sucks the life out of you when traveling is isolation from other people. Given my location, the off-putting nature of my neighbors, and my very limited control of Mandarin, my only solace the majority of the time was Facebook, and usually once a week I had time to go to the other university and visit my foreign friends. There was also a building next to mine called “Sunrise English Training Center,” which was run by a family of evangelical Christians.
Every Tuesday-Saturday night between 6:30 and 9:30 they ran an English Corner where students came to drink tea, coffee, and try western desserts, all while speaking only English. It was nice to go every once in a while, but teaching 215 students English every week and then going to a room with a hundred students all fighting for a seat with the foreigner can become exhausting. And the evangelical stuff can get on my nerves pretty quickly.
Christians are widely persecuted in China by the government, to the point that churches are sometimes bulldozed overnight. The Communist Party of China is not friendly toward world religions in general for reasons that will become more obvious in later posts. This fact was constantly on my mind since I knew the nature of my neighbors’ business in China. Though the building was clearly inspired by Southern Baptist churches from the Midwest (the kind of church I’m most familiar with), it was not called a church, and its members were not very open about what they were doing there. I wondered if it would someday be the same way for Muslims in the United States.
Either way, I thought I could escape the evangelical bit while I was in China. Turns out the Jesus machine has figured out how to get through the Great Firewall, and it’s fueled by coffee, cheesecake, and Chinese vegetable oil.