Hello from China

I have been in China for 3+ weeks.  My mom is doing well.  I may live here for another 3 months.  That gives my mom time to get adjusted to the new life.  I’d like to thank everyone for your thoughts and prayers after my father’s death.  Thank you, and that means a lot to me and my family.

Today I like to share what this Chinese village looks like, and what the people here care about.

“How much money do you make?”

This is the question I have been hearing over and over again during the last couple of weeks.  A tough question, isn’t it?

I faced this question several times.  They thought I’m living in US, and must be making tons of money.  They looked up to me as a probably alien.  Then I told them: “I don’t make any money now.  I’m retired.”  My lousy answer didn’t shut up the question, but opened a can of worms:

Q: “Retired?”  “How old are you?”

A:  52.

Q:  “Do you have a pension?”

A:  No.

Q: “Then, how are you paying the daily living expenses?”

Oh my God, why do they worry so much about me?  Are they going to set up a GoFundMe account, to fund my early retirement? (just kidding)

Why in the world is this lady not working anymore?  She gives up the salary?  She must be insane.

They thought everyone loves money as much as they do.

The other day, my uncle (my dad’s brother) and his wife came over.  They chatted with my mom.  Then decided to go and visit a guy who lives close by.  The guy used to be my uncle’s high school classmate.  They both are in their 80s.  I was curious and wanted to know what topics they would be interested in.  I asked my uncle if I could join them.  My uncle said yes.

This guy has serious hearing issue, and won’t be able to answer the phone.  As a result, we didn’t call ahead, and just dropped in.  After a couple of superficial greetings, the guy was asking my uncle: “How much is your pension?”  My uncle put up 4 fingers, meaning it’s RMB4,000 (about $570 per month).  Then the guy was yelling back: “My pension is RMB4,400”.  Okay, you won, old man!  I couldn’t hide my amusement.

A school with less than 10 students:

The local school is going down the hill.  In the early 1970s, my brother and I spent 5 years in the primary school and 2 years in the middle school in this village.  Later it changed to a primary school only, plus kindergarten.  Lately it changed to Grade 1 to 3 plus kindergarten due to the low enrollment.

It’s said that now this school has only 4 students, plus a couple of kindergarten kids.  How many teachers are there in this school?  6 teachers.  Wow, for this teacher/student ratio, even private schools can’t beat them.

Where are the students in this village?  Most of them choose better and private schools that are located in other villages or in the town.  Many parents are willing to rent an apartment, pay higher tuition, and send their kids for better education.  Education is the only way out.  Who wants their kids to be left behind in this village?  There is really not much hope here.

The other day, I visited the school principle.  He used to be my brother’s classmate.  Being a boss of 5 teachers, and 4+ students, he doesn’t seem to have as much power as the school principle in US.  The school yard was so quiet, and it’s hard to imagine that’s a school.

For the 4 students, it’s even hard to pick a fight.  Without fighting, pushing, or arguing, who can claim that’s a normal childhood?

My mom said that, the teachers in this village have the best job in the world, because they just sit there every day, and do almost nothing.  I don’t think that’s a fun job.  Being a teacher, you have to teach in order to have fun.  The vacant classrooms look so depressing to me.

Luxuries – trees, taking a shower, running water and washers:

Only quite a few trees here.  No grass. The mountains are on the north and south sides of the village.  They are rocky and barren.  I don’t see any trees there.

When the wind blows here, the dust is just waltzing around in the air.  The funny thing is that, in the last couple of years, I become a little bit allergic to dust.  Come on, I grew up in this dusty place.  Without dust, without me.

After living in US for 22 years, I become spoiled.  Who doesn’t like trees, grass, and clean air?  Now I realized I have to reset my mind, and embrace the dust and a lot of inconvenience, in order to enjoy the next 3 months here with my mom.

Taking a shower is a luxury, too.  I would be very lucky if I could take a shower once a week.  Showering once a day?  Just forget about it.  As the weather gets colder, the solar hot water system at my mom’s place is already stopped.  It won’t be available until probably next April.

I may have to find a shower place at my friend’s or relatives’ apartments, which are at least 7 miles away in the town.  Taking a taxi, going to the town, taking a shower, then taxi back, pray for no wind or dust, it could be a good topic for stand-up comedy.

Running water is still a luxury here.  The water from the tap is available for about 1.5 hours during each meal time only.  People have to be vigilant about the time, and store the water.  The hand-pump well at my mom’s place is not available for winter, due to the concern of freezing.

I’m washing the clothes manually.  Ha ha, I have not done that for many years.  It’s not fun, especially during winter.

22 years ago, I bought a washing machine for my parents, and my mom still uses it except winter.  It’s not an automatic washer.  One side is for washing, and the other side is for spinning.  This dinosaur still runs.  No dryer here.

Many of the inconvenience here is related to lack of running water and sewage system.

Miss my home in central Ohio:

It’s good I’m able to stay with my mom for a while at this difficult time, but I do miss my home in central Ohio.  Listening to my favorite channel Classical 101 streamed from the internet, I feel the attachment to Ohio.  It’s wonderful to hear the voice of my favorite hosts who are 7000 miles away.

I also miss the football games.  The final scores are available, but no football games here on TV.  My husband gives me an update on the phone once a while, about the Ohio State and Browns.  I’m also following my alma mater team.

The Google search engine is dearly missed.  It’s not available in China.  I have to use bing as an alternative.  Luckily my blog is accessible.  What a blessing.

Definitely I’m going to miss the yellow and red tree leaves in Ohio. Every fall, I become obsessed with the beauty of tree leaves.  It won’t happen this year.  Will enjoy more next year.

I’ll miss the elections.  This trip was so unprepared that I didn’t have time to do the absentee ballot in Ohio.  In China, I missed the absentee ballot deadline set up by the US Embassy in Beijing.  Too bad.

A quick note to US readers, don’t forget to vote on Nov 6!  Let your voice heard.  It matters a lot to you, and our country.  As Al Gore said, every vote counts (he knows that for sure).

To all our readers:  have you ever been to a place as barren as my village?  If yes, how did you handle the daily inconvenience while keeping exploring and having fun?  I definitely need some advice please.

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14 Responses

  1. Katrin says:

    Hi Helen,
    I can totally understand it’s quite a tough change from Ohio…But I really appreciate you sharing those insights from your home town. I sometimes feel when we think of China it’s all about the new affluent, though I’m sure there are a still a lot of towns and villages similar to where you grew up (?). And maybe I missed it in your earlier posts: do you share whereabouts in China your home town is?

    As far as suggestions are concerned I’ve never been to a place quite like what you describe. But I have to admit that despite the difference in comfort etc., I always feel a bit out of place in the village/small town where I grew up today as well. It’s a bit like with a broader range of experiences than the people who have stayed one doesn’t quite ‘fit in’ anymore…Maybe you could get together with the headmaster and the teachers at the school and come up with some activity to the benefit of the students? Your own journey could be very inspirational to them, I think!

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Katrin, thanks a lot for sharing your thought. To the outside world, China seems more about the new affluent. That’s true, too, from a different perspective. For the visitors, probably they see more about the big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, etc. The reality is, many places in China are like my home town, where they are still emerging slowly. This village is located in the northern part of Shan Xi province, about 250 miles west, and south west of Beijing.

      Yeah, I feel out of place here, too. Not just the running water and comfort, but the thinking and values. It’s a little bit hard for them to understand early retirement, hobbies, and glass-half-full attitude. Good idea, I might reach out to the school or the young kids in the neighborhood, and have a chat with them. If I could help motivating any kid a bit, that would be good.

  2. I think we take a lot of things for granted here in the US. Unfortunately I am a little short on advice for a situation like that. Maybe turn inward and try to relax your mind. Find peace in simply doing nothing. Tom

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Tom, great idea, slowing down, meditation and inner peace. I’ll keep those in mind. Once back to Ohio in Jan, I’ll probably love Ohio more. US is still a great country, and there are a lot of wonderful things that are part of our daily lives.

  3. Caroline says:

    Wow Helen! I will never complain when I go back home and only have access to one bathroom for the entire family.
    I never had to worry about running water so it’s hard to imagine having to get accustomed to it for an extended period of time. You must also miss your husband by now? Is there anyway you could go back home for a few weeks?

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Caroline, yeah, living in north America, we feel having one bathroom for the whole family is a stretch. Here, bathroom is really a luxury. We each could become more flexible under the circumstances, and the adaptability is probably the skill everyone has. I’m doing fine, and try to make the most from this experience.

      Thanks a lot for the input. I don’t plan the short trip back to Ohio, and will join my family in Ohio in Jan. Reconnecting with my mom, family and friends here is cool. I might also reach out to my dad’s siblings and friends, get to know more about my dad’s life, and write it down. In the long run, I might want to write a memoir about my dad, just a thought.

  4. Joe says:

    Thanks for sharing. That’s a huge change from Ohio. I lived in a rural area for a few years when I was young. I didn’t remember much of it, though. We didn’t have running water and had these big clay pots to store rain water. I don’t remember much about the shower back then. Probably didn’t wash much in the winter. 🙂
    Take care and enjoy the relaxing pace of life for a while.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Thank you, Joe. Yeah, the rural area looks so different. The life here is a little bit easier in the summer, as the solar hot water works, and I could take a shower at home. I could also use the hand-pump well anytime. Winter is more challenging. There is only one indoor water tap, and it’s installed at the top of the big clay pot. The clay pot is the only place we can get water from. During the limited water-supply time, we got to make sure the clay pot is refilled. Probably, after this 3+ month stay, I could become more patient, that would be nice.

  5. Dragon Gal says:

    Hi Helen, Thanks for the update. I have been wondering how you and your mother are doing in China. This was such an interesting post and I have so many feelings about it. First of all, I appreciate all of the details you gave about the school. As a former teacher, this was so eye opening for me. While having less students is always nice, 4 is too little to do fun activities like group work and games. Second, it’s always so awkward when people ask such personal questions!! It’s like that a lot for me too. Third, your post about the lack of water, automatic washers, a dryer, and grass reminded me just how spoiled I am. Take care Helen. I hope you write more about your time in China.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi DGal, thank you, my mom and I are doing fine. My mom is slowly walking out of the shock, accepting the fact, and getting adjusted.

      Yeah, having 4 students could be very hard to students and teachers. It just doesn’t feel normal.

      Here there is no concept of privacy. People could ask any questions. To the westerners, some could be very intrusive. Here are examples: “Is your kid married?” “Does he have a girlfriend?” “Make sure your kid lives close to you, so you can be taken care of when getting old.” Bad advice. It seems they mind everyone else’s business except their own.

      America is a beautiful country, and still is.

  6. Gaby says:

    Lol, those invasive questions bring back memories of my Chinese grandmother who used to ask people what their occupations were and then proceed to opine on whether they made a good salary or not. Very embarrassing for the rest of our family who are totally immersed in American culture and consider questions about what a person makes to be rude. But the thing is, she was never mean about it…she was just ignorant and uneducated. It’s a very noticeable difference in cultures!

    The leaves are turning here in Columbus! That’s so great that you can still listen to the classical music station from over there! Its great that you can be there for your family but it sounds like it will feel wonderful to be back home in the States, as well. Safe travels:)

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Gaby, thank you. Yeah, it’s a different culture. The strangers on the streets barely know my name (they know my parents), but they ask me how much I make, how old I am, and why I’m not dyeing the gray hair . It sounds so funny to me.

      Good to hear the leaves are turning in Columbus. My favorite spot to see the leaves is Lake Logan. Next year, I’ll go there. Yeah, it’s sweet to be able to tune in our local station. I’ll be home in Jan, not too far away.

  7. GYM says:

    Wow this is so cool, thanks for sharing a glimpse into village life. I can’t believe there are only 4 students in the school!

    Chinese people are so nosy LOL they always ask about very direct questions related to salary, cost of living and other stuff. That’s really nice that you are staying with your mom for 3 months. The village life sounds like a very slow-paced lifestyle!

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi GYM, I feel bad for those 4 students. They deserve a normal school life.

      Yeah, the people here love to talk about money, kind of obsession. The words “How much” could almost replace our “Hi”. The life is super slow, and I’ll get through these 3 months slowly. This long stay is more about my mom, make sure she gets used to the new life. I guess it’s not about me, though I feel uncomfortable many times.

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