Home, sweet home

CHAPTER FOUR of  “Commie wage slave,” in which I learn to bake biscuits in the living room

Chinese gym class

Every morning at 7:30, the gym teacher at the high school next door and nine stories below would begin bellowing commands into his bull horn at the uniformed boys and girls lined up before him. About 200 of them, in identical blue-and-white outfits, did calisthenics to his barked instructions. He seemed to equate authority with volume.

He was deafening even when the sliding glass doors to the patio of my Beijing apartment were closed. Having worked a shift ending at 10:30 p.m., I resented being jolted awake so early by his racket.

I learned to fall back asleep despite the irritation he always aroused, getting accustomed much more quickly to the violently surging whoosh of water through the plumbing whenever someone upstairs flushed or showered. All the pipes were outside the walls, which greatly enhanced the sound effects.

Once up, I’d bake biscuits from scratch in the big, counter-top convection toaster oven equipping the apartment and brew Swedish-brand coffee from Ikea.

My Chinese colleagues would carry their personal bowls down the elevator and across the parking lot to the newspaper’s cafeteria, where they’d breakfast on rice porridge, fruit or steamed buns. Most also carried an empty storage container for stocking up on whatever was available. They used the company cafeteria, with its very inexpensive food, as a grocery store.

I’d slather honey or peanut butter on my biscuits. The Chinese would sprinkle seaweed or pickles on their porridge, or bite into a bun filled with red bean paste.

Most China Daily workers lived in one of the two apartment buildings inside the company’s fenced, gate-housed compound. To enter, you needed a company ID badge, which hung on a neck cord. Building staffers in the gatehouse and in the apartment offices, as well as security guards at the newspaper entrances and exits, kept an eye on everyone. Although English-speaking foreigners filled many of the apartments, none of the building staffers spoke any. This was a challenge when you needed to report a loss of hot water or a broken appliance, so it was one of many chores our employer’s foreign-worker minders handled for us.

The apartments in my building were comfortable enough. Foreign singles had one-bedrooms to themselves, with a living room, dining room, kitchen, bath and two screened patios. All were furnished with basics: bed, desk, chairs, small dining table, living room coffee table and a television with two English-language channels that got mostly snow.

 Every item – wastebasket, desk lamp, cleaver – was carefully listed on an inventory signed by each resident upon arrival, and just as carefully checked when we left.

Foreigners always supplemented the meager furnishings with household goods purchased at Ikea and WuMart, the Chinese knock-off of WalMart. (I tried futilely to find anything with a WuMart label to bring home.)  I bought a sofa, floor lamp, fan, CD player/radio, a wok, a few pots, a Dutch oven, a comforter, a tabletop ironing board, a couple of plants, knives, silverware, glasses, plates and a coffee press. I looked in vain for a large serving fork and a potato masher. A large fork probably wouldn’t have made it past Chinese mail inspectors, but a friend successfully shipped me a potato masher. It got a workout at Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthdays.

While single foreigners enjoyed their privacy in these apartments, two or more Chinese employees were crammed into the same one-bedrooms. Unlike the foreigners, they also had to pay rent and utilities, and on much smaller salaries.

The closest place for groceries was a 7-11 just across the street, part of the American chain. Instead of coffee, it sold hot soy milk. It smelled inside like fish, not hot dogs.

Shou Hang grocery

A block away was Shou Hang, a small grocery slightly bigger than a convenience store. This is where we bought Jackie Chan frozen dumplings, peanut butter, wasabi crackers and an excellent locally brewed beer called Beijing.

chicken footI bought my first Chinese chicken there, a fryer all wrapped up in plastic just like at home. I didn’t know its claws still were attached, neatly folded up underneath and tucked out of sight. They made a startling appearance after the bird had been in a pot of boiling water for a few minutes. When its legs relaxed, out sprang the feet.

 A couple of typical Chinese markets several blocks away offered stalls selling produce, household items, meat, fish, grains, nuts, spices, condiments, steamed bread and buns. Also nearby was a big Japanese department store, Ito Yokado, which had a large Western-style supermarket in its basement. This was the closest place to buy a good baguette, high quality butter from Ireland or Denmark and cheese, pasta and whipping cream. For more exotic Western items, such as chocolate chips, we trekked to one of the groceries in the embassy district specializing in hard-to-find and high-priced products from home or depended on care packages from family and friends.

It was easy to recognize the Ito was a supermarket. But as with apes and humans, who share 98 percent of their DNA in common, the remaining two percent makes all the difference.

Ito had the usual departments and many of the same kinds of products. Signs over the aisles were in English as well as Chinese (or in one case, Chinglish; over the aisle with Western foodstuffs, it read, “Anticipate to Western fashions adjust.”) There were metal shopping carts and a row of checkout counters up front, piles of produce and cases of frozen foods.

But that other two percent of cultural DNA turned Ito into a whole different animal, a phenomenon Westerners experienced over and over in China. There were bathrooms, but no toilets; restaurants, but no silverware; faucets, but no drinkable tap water.

The meat department featured carcasses as well as ribs, chops, steaks, ground meat, organs and extremities such as chicken feet or pig trotters. Not everything was recognizable. Since reading labels was not an option, I mostly stuck to chicken to avoid accidentally bringing home donkey or horse. Tanks in the fish department contained live eels and turtles, while fresh squid, octopus and dozens of kinds of whole fish were spread out on ice.

Clerks staffing each department acted like carnival barkers, hollering come-ons over one another to customers. In each aisle, uniformed staffers loudly spieled the attributes of the toilet paper or pet food they were supposed to sell. A moment’s hesitation or any accidental eye contact would trigger a relentless onslaught, a cacophony of commerce.

My Beijing kitchen was barely bigger than the bathroom. It contained a small one-bowl sink, a few cabinets, about 24 inches of counter space, a cooktop with three gas burners and a rather primitive washing machine which got only cold water. The clothes dryer consisted of metal poles running along the patio ceilings, a feature of almost every apartment in Beijing. From any sidewalk, looking up at an apartment building, the most prominent feature of the balconies was clothing hung to dry. The absence of dryers probably explains why stores stocked bins of lint rollers.

There were no ovens, but many of the apartments had microwaves. Mine didn’t, so I borrowed a big tabletop convection oven from another apartment. It was too large for the little counter top areas in the kitchen. But it fit just right in a big open shelf of the credenza the TV sat on in the living room. (The TV/oven combination made for a peculiar entertainment center.) The refrigerator stood in the dining room, as there was no room for that in the kitchen, either. The counter tops came to just higher than mid-thigh; I had to bend to reach the sink when washing dishes.

Because I was much taller than almost every Chinese, my knees couldn’t always fit under the table in a restaurant. Getting in and out of taxis was hard and sitting in the little metal box of a pedicab was out of the question. I appreciated every day that whoever installed the shower head had thoughtfully mounted it almost at the ceiling.

My two-block walk to work took me by the gatehouse and past a family of scavengers with an ever-changing sidewalk inventory of used furniture and appliances. They sold me a bookcase and delivered it for four bucks.

The route took me down the street half a block to the corner with the 7-11, then a left turn and one block down a busy, willow-lined street to the first alley. China Daily’s compound, including a big garden of roses, lilacs, gingko trees, poplars and benches, took up most of this area. On many weekdays during the lunch break, one of the American workers jogged around the compound, while a young Chinese woman moved about the freight driveway practicing graceful and potentially lethal moves with a sword. Always, the smell of sewage wafted through the streets. (This wasn’t true everywhere in Beijing, but it always was present in the China Daily neighborhood.)

Restaurants lined the alley on one side: two Western-style coffee shops, a Subway, a couple of Chinese restaurants, a Japanese restaurant, a pizza place and a noodle shop.

The other side of the alley was lined with parked motorbikes and bicycles. In good weather, the noodle shop, a China Daily hangout, set out tables and chairs. During the World Cup soccer matches, it wheeled out a television for avid fans who’d cheer late into the night. At least 100 watched night after night just at this one small noodle shop.

Usually street vendors lined the way: tinkers selling kitchenware, women selling socks, scarves or sweaters spread out on the sidewalk, people hawking bootleg Chinese and English-language books and movies, others selling small pets like mice, fish, squirrels, turtles and rabbits (presumably, intended as pets), or sweet potatoes and chestnuts roasted in big metal drums, pineapple chunks or candied fruit on long skewers.

They kept a close watch out for the local cops, called chengguan, a force of ill-trained bullies whose sole duty seemed to be enforcement of anti-sidewalk vendor codes. Rather than face confiscation of cash, destruction of merchandise and maybe a beating, vendors hurtled down the alley and scattered at the first sign of the chengguan.


The bookseller pictured above was always on the sidewalk in front of the office. His selection of books in English sometimes included astonishing selections, such as George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and Henry Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.”

When he stopped showing up, we worried. Had some English-proficient official noticed the inflammatory titles? We hoped not, but we never saw him again.

Coming next: Honorable-mention model worker

Culture shock: hitting the Great Wall

A sidewalk game of - Chinese checkers?

A sidewalk game of – Chinese checkers?

CHAPTER TWO, in which I learn how far away China is from home.

China wasn’t a bad place for the privileged foreign white-collar workers recruited to its businesses. At China Daily, dozens of English-speaking foreigners worked alongside Chinese employees as editors, writers, video producers and graphics designers. We hailed from the United States, Britain, Canada, India, Australia, Scotland and New Zealand.

Between the free rent, the inexpensive food and the cheap, efficient subway system, it was possible to live on $500 a month in Beijing, a megalopolis of some 20 million people.

I even enjoyed the huge comfort of having one of my oldest friends working at the same place and living just two floors below me. Without Renee, I never would have made it to the end of my contract.

She was waiting for me at the Beijing airport with a gift she waved at me from behind a security barrier: an “Oba-Mao” T-shirt that depicted Barack dressed in a People’s Liberation Army uniform. (It’s a wonder birthers and other far-right wingnuts didn’t latch onto this kitschy souvenir as further “proof” of the president’s so-called left-wing extremism.)

The trip on the plane had hinted at what was to come, but after 20 hours of travel, I was too numb to realize it.

While on the plane I couldn’t help but notice, crammed close as we were, that Chinese seatmates all around me were busily picking their noses. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that this would be a common sight for the next 12 months.

In the United States, airplane passengers scatter as soon as they deplane, eagerly re-establishing the ample boundaries of their personal space as they walk through the terminal. In China, my fellow passengers seemed completely unfazed by remaining jammed together in a massive crowd that carried each of us along in baby steps, hobbled by the jumble of bodies jostling up against one another. Even with room to spread out, they seemed to prefer remaining clumped together in the shape of the giant tube we’d been squeezed into for 13 hours.

At 5’ 11” tall, I stood head and shoulders above the masses, looking down on bobbing black heads as we moved en masse past attendants who waved temperature-taking devices at us to screen out those who might have the latest version of flu, then on and off trams to the terminal and through customs.

Imagine landing in an alien place where you don’t speak, read or write the language, and almost nobody there knows yours. In effect, you become illiterate, deaf and mute. The simplest tasks of daily life turn into problems, reducing you to dependency on strangers who can’t understand you. Making a phone call, buying food, finding your way around: All become challenges at which you are suddenly incompetent. It brings out unattractive aspects of one’s personality.

Those hurdles are overcome, but the enormous gulf of cultural differences remains. If you’ve only spent a couple of weeks vacationing in another country, you can’t know how hugely we’re affected by culture. We assume we know how people feel and think because we’ve been surrounded all our lives by people who feel and think much as we do. We mistake these shared assumptions for human nature. Much of what we think we know about people turns out to be completely wrong when we’re plopped into a radically different society.

Even graphics, like those meant as operating instructions on appliances or directions in the subway, will turn out to mean something other than what they seem so obviously – to you – to communicate.

In China, for example, “yes” isn’t always an affirmative answer, just a way of not saying “no,” which they fear might be thought rude or cause them a loss of face. They avoid directness, considering it too confrontational. To outspoken, blunt Westerners, the Chinese notion of tact or politeness often looks like dishonesty or evasion.

This is not to say that foreigners are treated badly or aren’t able to get to know individual Chinese. But the vast cultural gulf between East and West can hinder the ability to make genuine friends.

In addition, Americans carry a special burden, a volatile Chinese attitude comprising suspicion, competition, curiosity and hostility that goes back generations. Chinese the same age as Baby Boomers like me spent their gym classes lobbing fake grenades at imaginary invading American soldiers, or practiced thrusting pretend bayonets into them. Presumably, Chinese youth aren’t still being warned about an imminent (and equally imaginary) invasion by the United States.

Even so, a young Chinese co-worker told me they assumed all Americans working there were spies.

After weeks of constant confusion, strange food and opaque customs, Westerners typically are walloped by culture shock, a miserable mix of stress and homesickness. Mine was aggravated by close attention to news reports from within China, a daily chronicle of extreme oppression, corruption and cover-ups. Not even the active repression of government censors could hide the ugly, brutal, unjust and often fatal conditions of daily life for the average Chinese.

As an example, here’s one of the weekly round-ups of news items from Chinese English-language media that I would email to people back home. After just a few of these, I stopped sending them, figuring that my friends and family would assume from the predominant negativity of them that I’d lost my marbles. No way could they understand that this was just a small sample of an overwhelming daily struggle for Chinese:


The day after the first snowfall of the year in Beijing, authorities quickly took credit for it.

Big, wet flakes blanketed the city on Nov. 1, a month earlier than normal. The next day, the city’s Weather Modification Office proudly announced it had seeded the skies over the city the previous night with doses of silver iodide. They wanted to break a 100-day drought. But because they hadn’t been sure it would work, they kept quiet about it until after the fact. There was no mention of snow in the weather forecast. 

Tons of it fell. It stranded thousands of people at the airport, many of them trapped for hours on motionless planes, after hundreds of flights had been cancelled. (The inept handling of all those frustrated passengers is another story.) The power grid faltered, with 60 blackouts around the city as heavy snow collapsed tree branches and electrical wires.

Public anger exploded after the weather-mod people finally spoke up. But they offered only a half-hearted acknowledgement couched in dense bureaucratese.

“It shows there is a lot of room to improve the national weather manipulation warning system for the public,” a press officer said.


A 19-year-old taxi driver in Shanghai cut off a finger to protest his arrest by traffic cops. He said police had entrapped him in a sting operation against unlicensed cabs, and that he was innocent. Eventually, police admitted he was correct and that yes, they had been paying people bounties for every illegal cab they could help police nab. The cabby said cutting off a finger was the only way he thought his plight would be taken seriously.

Thirty migrant workers climbed onto a downtown bridge in Guangzhou on Nov. 2 and threatened to commit suicide after their employer failed to pay them. By May of this year, 15 people had already climbed the same bridge and threatened to kill themselves for various reasons.

Also in Guangzhou, one hundred relatives of a woman whose baby died in a hospital on Nov. 3 went on a rampage. They smashed equipment and windows until police sealed them off on one floor.

Finally, a brawl started in – where else? – Guangzhou last weekend after two children bumped into each other. Their angry mothers first fought each other, then called relatives and friends to come help. Police arrested 26 people after eight police cars were destroyed and three officers injured.


The central Chinese government has ordered that free swine flu vaccinations be given to anybody who wants one, but local authorities have been charging for them. Local governments are supposed to fund the free shots, but poor areas have a hard time affording them. In some parts of the country, authorities have charged an “equipment fee” of 5 yuan (73 cents) per shot. The mainland so far has had almost 51,500 cases of A/H1N1, including eight deaths.

In central China’s Henan province, 300 villagers discovered that local authorities had removed their names from census lists as long as 13 years ago by declaring them dead. This allowed local government to hold back tax payments owed to higher levels, but it also deprived the “dead” of accumulated medical and pension benefits for all those years.

In central China’s Hubei province, up to 6,000 farmers have been selling their blood twice a month for years to help cover their basic expenses. They get 168 yuan ($25) each time. The average annual income of rural Chinese residents is about $572.

Despite the nearby presence of Renee and a community of English-speaking expats all around me, I hit the culture-shock wall after six weeks, when just reading that day’s China Daily left me sobbing in despair over breakfast.


At this point, some expats never regain their emotional equilibrium or sense of humor. The majority of Westerners don’t last a year in China. Those who do often rely on drink or drugs to get through their days, and that was true among the foreigners at China Daily. My friend and I relied on bottles of cheap Great Wall wine purchased at the 7-11 across the street, which we downed while watching bootleg American teen-slasher movies. We clung to our English-speaking friends while tentatively getting to know a few of our Chinese co-workers.

I never learned any Mandarin beyond the words for “hello,” “beer” and “thank you.” As an English-speaking foreigner who spent only one year in Beijing, I don’t know much about China. But even that brief time skimming the surface of their society gave me a bit of insight into the world’s most populous country.

Next: A harmonious and stable society