Let’s face it, growing up in a first world country is a pretty cushy life for most kids. You’re warm in the winter and cool in the summer. On Saturday mornings the TV is on with your favorite cartoons, the milk in your cereal bowl is nice and cold, and your mother lets you play with your toys in the living room while she prepares lunch. In the background you hear the sound of the clothes dryer spinning with a slight metallic “clanking” sound, no doubt from some loose change left in the pocket of your Levi’s bluejeans.
Fast forward to present day central China on a Tuesday morning. Wake up, kiss the wife, roll out of bed, find my slippers, bump into the wardrobe (Ouch!!! Must remember to move that today), and I’m almost at the washroom door when I hear my wife’s voice from behind me say, “Oh, there’s no water today.”
“What??? How can that be?” I said.
“It’s Tuesday,” she replied.
It takes me a moment to process her answer, “Yes??? So???”
“So there was an announcement last night that there’s no water today.”
“And you didn’t tell me until now because?” I asked with all the sarcasm I could muster.
Her expressionless face stared back at me. “OK,” I said, “what time will it come back on?”
“I don’t know. The announcement only said no water today.”
Well, well…let me think…”Oh, it’s OK, we have the water cooler.” Every apartment in China has a water cooler like you find in a western office.
“The bottle is empty,”
“Alright, alright,” my brain is scrambling now to organize a plan, “You call and order another bottle, and then I can heat up some water on the stove to shave.”
My wife yawned and stretched as she sleepily replied, “Today there’s no gas.”
“It wasn’t in the announcement, but there is no gas today. A friend from the gas department called my aunt who told my mom to cook some dishes last night because today there would be no gas. Mom will bring us some food later.”
I can feel the confusion starting to take hold in my brain, like a mountain climber without enough oxygen, as I struggle to make sense of my environment and form a plan. Knowing better, but unable to resist, I ask a question. “And why didn’t we heat some water, fill the thermos bottle, and cook some dishes last night?”
“I told you, Mom is going to bring us some food later.”
“Yes, I understand that, but we could have prepared some food ourselves,” My wife stared back at me with a look of mild confusion and pity for my lack of understanding for such a simple matter. “OK, no water and no gas.” Let me think, let me think…”I can shave in cold water, that’s no problem,” thankfully it’s not the middle of winter, “and I can brush my teeth and um, well, what about the toilet?”
“Use the bucket.”
“The bucket with the ladle in the washroom. Use it to pour water in the toilet to flush”
“Really??? I thought that was something for the cleaning lady to use?”
“Now you know it’s purpose.”
As my wife called the water cooler shop to schedule a delivery we learned that every apartment in Laifeng had already called them this morning, and so our delivery was not expected for several hours. Luckily it turned out that there was a small amount of water still in the cooler, and in due course I manage to wash, shave, brush my teeth (in a scene reminiscent of an old war movie when army soldiers used their helmets as water basins) and perform all of life’s other little necessities without the miracle of water from the tap.
At lunchtime mom did come over and brought stir fried pork and peppers, shuan lao bo, which is a kind of pickled radish, some fried tofu (with more peppers) and rice. She also brought a hot plate with a kettle so we could heat water for tea.
For the rest of the day I took great pride in my ability to conserve resources along with the rest of Laifeng. It’s not so bad really. Sure, as an American I’m used to all of life’s little conveniences, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot adapt, overcome and even thrive in the face of change. This is a fast growing country, and especially in the countryside the pace of change can be startling. It’s only to be expected that there will be a few growing pains along the way.
Around 5pm Tina stuck her head in my office. “The water arrived.”
“Yes”, I said, “I heard the delivery man earlier.” Why was she telling me this? We made tea at lunchtime from the new water cooler bottle. Did she not remember?
With that she left, not bothering to close the door behind her. Grrrr, I like to keep it closed to keep out the noise and more importantly the mosquitos. After pounding out a few more sentences, and as I got up to close the door, I thought I heard a familiar sound in the distance. “Could it be? Water!!!” I dashed to the kitchen, only to find Tina starting to wash the lunchtime dishes. She looked at me as if I was holding a dead cat.
“The water’s on?!?!?!”
“Yes.” The confused look on her face only confused me more.
“Well why didn’t you tell me???”
“When???” I now racked my brain to figure out how I had missed such an important piece of news.
“I said ‘The water arrived.’”
“WHAT??? I thought you meant the water bottle had arrived!!!” Once again I was confronted by the hard cold fact that we were a husband and wife separated by a common language.
As I stood there in the kitchen with Tina it became apparent as we looked at each other that even though she had turned the kitchen sink faucet off the sound of running water was still present. Then I remembered!!! Earlier that morning, in an effort to collect every last drop from the lines, I had opened all the taps one by one and traveled around the apartment with kitchen pot in hand. Now the sound of running water was echoing throughout the apartment. Tina went one way, I went the other and quickly calm was restored.
With forced rationing quickly becoming a distant memory my first thought was to have a shower, but it occurred to me that without gas it would be a cold shower. Now I haven’t had one of those for a long time, and I saw no reason to start now. However within the hour even that obstacle to greater hygiene was removed as natural gas also began again flowing through the pipes of our apartment. Quickly Tina sprang into action and began cooking dinner, just in case this restoration of service was only temporary. For me the wonderful sound of the instant hot water machine’s ignitors pinging away, followed by the “woosh” as the gas was lit, was music to my ears, and soon thereafter 40 degree centigrade water began flowing from my shower. Ahhh, like magic.
The next morning as I awoke and laid in my bed a grin came over my face, as I considered a return to my normal routine. Hot water may be a luxury to many but for this American it’s almost a necessity. I found my slippers, bumped into the wardrobe, (Ouch!!! Must remember to move that today) and made my way to the washroom.
Click Click Click.
From behind me Tina’s words rang out, “Oh, there’s no electricity today…”