Daily Life in China

I thought I’d tell you a little bit about day-to-day life here in China.

First off, work. Brian really loves his job and the company he works for. He teaches students over the age of 18, so business people and college students, and has lots of different kinds of classes, from one-on-one encounters, to traditional classroom settings, to informal get-togethers (like a chat over coffee, culture talks, movie nights, and parties). The thing we like best about his job, besides the pay, which is very good for China, is that he has the opportunity to move up in the company, and once he does that, we could really go anywhere in the world where they have centers, which right now is 27 countries in Asia, Europe and South America. We’ll see how this year goes first, of course. The only bad thing about Brian’s job is that he has varying hours throughout the week, and they are all evenings and weekends. This is what his schedule looks like: Wednesday-Friday, 1-9; Saturday-Sunday, 10-6; and every other week, it’s actually Tuesday-Wednesday, 5:30-9, so that he only has a full weekend every other week.

April (I suppose I should just give up the pretense about this being a “family” blog, since I use the world “I” all the time, and never give anyone else a chance to talk) has a job tutoring a 10-year-old girl in her home, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from 9:30-11:30. It is just about the most relaxing job I could imagine. Her father took her out of school for the rest of the school year to give her a break (which I think is wonderful, considering how hard kids in China have to work all the time), and he’ll be taking the whole family (himself, wife, and daughter) for a few months to Thailand, then the Maldives, then I think Greece. They had just returned from a trip to Saipan over Christmas. He speaks some English, certainly better than most Chinese that I’ve met who speak English, and he is very kind. I was placed with them through an English Center right next to our apartment building, and given completely wrong information about them–they said the girl was 14 (she’s 10), the dad wanted some English lessons too, as he goes to America sometimes (he has never been to America and has no desire to go), they wanted me every day for six months (that’s clearly not possible if they’re going to Thailand in 2 months). But it really couldn’t be more perfect. She reads and pronounces well, but her oral English isn’t very good, which is common in China, where they focus heavily on the reading and don’t often have native English speakers teaching. So I am supposed to be there helping her with her oral English. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I’m following a book the center sent, and I think we have a nice time. It’s so quiet and relaxing, and the mom always sets out a tray of snacks, and the girl is very intelligent and does everything that is expected of her. Her house is a 10 minute walk from my apartment (the walk itself is very short, I’m sure, but you have to account for long waits for elevators and waiting for traffic lights). The pay is 100¥ an hour, and while I know I could possibly get more if I worked for myself, I am happy to be placed with a nice family by a center rather than having to find someone for myself.

Now for a different kind of work. I was under some kind of illusion that housekeeping would be easier in China than it was in the US, with a smaller living space, but my goodness this house gets filthy so fast. It’s like the filthiness that is China just seeps in through the walls. In America, I could get by mopping my floor once a month (yes, the horror!), but now, I really should be mopping every day. I have included a picture to show you what my feet look like after going around barefoot when I mopped two days before (and this is with running the electric sweeper over the floors several times a day). Also, the walls, which are painted a very very pale yellow, are too obviously filthy now from the touch of little hands that get dirty from the same dirt that is on my feet in the picture. Which brings up another fact, that the children are also more disgusting now than when we lived in the US. We have baths almost daily, a far cry from the once or twice a week baths back home. For 150¥ a week we could have someone come 3 times a week to clean the house, and, though I never thought I’d be one of THOSE people, I think we’re going to give it a try. Maybe it will help me be a better mom. One can always hope. We would have her clean the floors every time she was here, wash the walls and the leather couch (which is probably a different color now than when we moved in), the bathrooms and the windows. That will make the daily tasks of picking up toys, washing dishes and doing laundry hopefully seem a lot less burdensome, and maybe give me some time to enjoy my children without guilt. Speaking of laundry, I do a load a day, just like I did in the US, in our washer/dryer, but I do not dry the clothes in said appliance because it takes 2 1/2 hours to complete a drying cycle (and I can’t imagine how many units of electricity), which is understandable when you realize that it has no vent. So I hang the clothing on hangers on a nice bar that is mounted in the ceiling in front of our bedroom window. I actually really like this chore, but getting it done before the clothes start to smell funny (which happens really fast) is still tricky.

Can you believe I'm showing you this? Nasty!

Speaking of electricity, everything in China is paid for before you use it. You pay in the form of top-up cards, like pay-as-you-go phones in the US. We supposedly have paid for enough water for almost a whole year (1800¥), toilet and “drinking” water each, though the water is not drinkable, it just refers to the water that runs through our sinks and shower. As for actual drinking water, right now Nai Nai fills up our water jugs in her apartment, with a special filter she has, and brings it to us. We go through about 1.5 liters a day, and if we were to buy jugs of water, it would be 30¥ for 4 4-liter jugs. The telephone, Internet and cell-phone are all connected as well, and paid for with a top-up card. Supposedly it’s 150¥  a month for Internet, though we still haven’t run out and we filled up almost 6 weeks ago. Our home phone is paid for by the landlord, and, while we pay for the cell phone, it’s free for us to call between the home and cell, so we’ll probably almost never need to fill up. The electric box is outside our door, and when the electricity is getting low, it starts to flash, and when it gets really really low, a number will appear letting you know how many units you have left. I am not sure, but I think we may use about 10 a day, and I think that the units cost about 1¥ for two. We can pay for all of these things either at the convenience store downstairs or at the grocery store connected to the market where I buy food.

This is what our electric box looks like where we insert the little stick to add electricity. This is what it's like when you have almost no electricity left.

One thing I just don’t understand about China is why it has to be so dirty. People will hock up massive loogies all around you. It’s like a chorus in surround sound when you walk outside. I’ve even had someone do it right by my foot in the elevator. I find myself having to exercise my brain rather strenuously, forcing it to not think about what I have just heard, smelled or seen. Little children will pee and poop on the side of the road, which is very handy when you have a toddler, but kind of gross, and something I don’t think I’ll ever take advantage of, aside from possibly letting the boys pee on trees at the park if necessity dictates. Grown men can also urinate publicly, and of course, no one picks up their dogs’ poops. The ground is really just disgusting. What is even worse is that, although the inside of our apartment is nice, the hallway and even the elevator are not off-limits when it comes to dog poop and pee. Almost every day there is massive dog poop in the middle of the hall, and a puddle of pee by the wall. Come on, people!

I have no idea what the sign actually says, but I can read the pictures, which is more than it seems most of the people in my building can do.

The walls and elevators are covered with graffiti, which is really just advertising, including lots of phone numbers. The stairwells are unspeakably awful, and no one uses them. I dread the day we have to evacuate the building for some reason. There is a large garbage can in each floor’s stairwell, and that is where we throw our garbage. I have a mortal dread of this place, so I step one foot into the stairwell, aim the garbage bag as well as I can, and then run for it before the bag even hits the garbage can, because the movement of the bag makes the motion sensing light turn on, and that makes the roaches scatter, and I don’t want any of them scattering at me. We have made a Raid barricade in our apartment, so I have only seen one in our house and it was already dying from the poison by the time it limped past me. Both inside and outside, there is litter everywhere. People seem to be employed to sweep it up and dispose of it, as I see them outside often with their very inefficient homemade brooms, but no one pays anyone to get rid of the dog poop.

This is the terrifying stairwell that houses the garbage can and the roaches.

There is no wastefulness in China. People recycle by selling their plastic, metal and cardboard boxes to people who sit on the side of the road collecting such things. I have no idea how to do it, and I’m not sure I want to try, so for the meantime, I have a massive stash of cardboard building up, and I will probably eventually just break down and throw it in the garbage and let someone else benefit from my cowardice. Oh,a nd people in China smoke like chimneys. Apparently the message hasn’t gotten out that it’s bad for you. People even smoke in elevators. I heard some statistic that 60% of Chinese doctors smoke. I don’t see how we’ll avoid lung cancer, with the secondhand smoke and the pollution working against us.

Everywhere we need to go, for the most part, is in walking distance. Brian rides the bus to work, for 2¥ a trip, and sometimes takes a taxi when he’s running late for 12¥ a trip. I take a taxi to Metro once a month for 24¥, and we’ve twice taken a taxi to another district to meet up with some fellow expats. It is really nice to be able to walk wherever we need to go, and especially nice for me to have Brian walking with me, he who would drive to the Post Office in Waconia on a beautiful day. It can get pretty cold, but not nearly as cold as MN, so never too cold to walk. Riding in a taxi, or any other vehicle, can be terrifying. Of course there are no car seats for children (which really is understandable, since if you don’t own a car, you won’t be lugging a car seat everywhere you go). When we ride in a taxi, Piper sits on one side of the backseat, and I sit on the other, with a boy between us and one on my lap, because Piper is the only one I trust not to unlock the car door and open, though I still have visions of her falling out while we’re moving. It is nice to hold a child in your lap in the car, but terrifying, too, in the most chaotic traffic I’ve ever seen in my life. There are three basic traffic rules in China: (1) Don’t hit people; (2) Don’t hit other cars; (3) Don’t hit personal property. Red lights mean you might start thinking about stopping soon. Do not walk signs mean zigzag between moving cars, and sometimes stop on a line in the middle of the road if the traffic is too thick. And most of all, lay on the horn every 10 seconds. Chinese drivers should never have been introduced to the horn. They use it constantly. They use it when someone swerves in front of them, stops in front of them, doesn’t move when the light changes (even if there is a crowd of people in front of the offending car). They use it to say, I’m coming up on your left or right, or, “I see you thinking about crossing the road, even though you’re five feet from where I’ll be in half a second,” and if there has not been a good reason to honk over space of 20 seconds, then they honk the horn just to stay on top of things. Most of the honking that happens has no effect whatever on the outcome. Chinese traffic is the strangest chaos I’ve ever seen, and all the cars still seem to work together to avoid disaster. I am just glad I do not have to participate. My Chinese friend Zhao has taken us for a ride a few times, and she is truly a bad driver. The worst was when she was driving down the very middle of the road, with the dashed line right down the middle of her car, going half the speed limit and talking on her cell phone. I have learned never to comment on something outside the window or she will swerve over to the side of the road and stop very abruptly.

This is miscellaneous, but a wonderful (though strange) thing about China is that you can buy most prescription drugs over the counter with no prescription. So far, it has paid off once when I was surer than I’ve ever been that Teddy had an ear infection, and was given a Zithromax powder to mix myself, with instructions only in Chinese, but he’s still alive! (I did first have to figure out how to write “allergic to amoxicillin in Chinese.) I was also able to acquire a steroid pack for a stress rash that I’ve had a few times before in the US. I showed them what I’d written down in Chinese and they just handed it to me. And so cheap, too. I think about 40¥ for the Zithromax and 30¥ for the SoluMedrol. Now if they only had magical happy pills for moms, I’d be all set.

Also, when we go out, we need to be sure not to keep any kind of valuables in our pockets, and I need to keep my purse zipped and across my chest, not just over one shoulder. If I fail to do this, a Chinese person will kindly remind me that I must. Even Chinese people don’t trust other Chinese people. So many Chinese people have told me that I need to be careful who I talk to, and that I basically need to be within two feet of my children at all times. That last is just impossible, and I will settle for being able to see all of them at once when we’re at the park. Today, Teddy was about twenty feet from me in one direction, Toby 20 feet in another, and Piper was maybe 50-60 feet away sitting on a park bench.  A Chinese grandma said something to me and motioned that Piper was too far away, and I made a move toward Piper, to tell her to come back to me, and instantly, the grandma pointed to Teddy, who was 20 feet behind me, indicating that I somehow also needed to be as close to him as possible. There is just no pleasing some people. I am happy to report that I did bring all three children home from the park today. I am also, on a different note, proud that they are all still alive and asleep in their beds after their hijinks tonight.

I met a lovely, lovely Chinese woman in the park today who spoke almost perfect English. I am so glad I dropped the glove that caused her to run up and introduce herself to me. We talked for a long time, and I could have cried I was so happy to have a real conversation with someone. She told me first thing that I should be careful what I tell to strangers and I quickly assured her that all I know how to say is, “I’m American. The boys are twins. Piper is their big sister. The boys are two years and nine months old, and Piper is four years old. Oh, and I can hear you but I don’t understand you.” She told me that our building is a bad building (something we’ve been told by several people, but unfortunately, we’re in a year lease, and it’s what happens when you come a new country with no real help, and no framework for choosing a place to live). She also told me a lot of stories about kidnappings in China, but did finish by saying, “I suppose your children wouldn’t get taken because they look so different,” and I agreed, saying I had read in an article that my children would be safer than Chinese children just because they look so different, and it’s not cool to hurt foreigners in China (I mean, what Chinese person is going to think that the kidnapper lugging away my blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy is just taking his son out for a walk?).

Ask any questions you have and I will make a new post and answer as many of them as I can.



  1. When my parents went to China several years ago, they came home with great stories about the crazy driving, the horns, and the filth. They would not even walk in their rooms without sandals on, not even taking a shower without their feet being clad in something.
    As for a housekeeper, my cousin who has lived in China says most foreigners do bring in housekeepers. It’s almost expected. And it helps. Even missionaries I stayed with in Thailand employed cleaners. So, I don’t think you need to feel bad about that. Look at it as a one way to take a little stress out of your life.
    And I never thought about it, but yes, your kids probably are quite safe, since they are blond and blue eyed. 🙂

  2. Don’t know if you are still in China as I just realise this post is 2 years old, but even if you are not, it’s a good idea to have trays in the lobby of your house for your outside shoes, and then wear slippers on the inside. I’ve never been inside a Japanese home, but I read that they go even further by having bathroom slippers meant only for the bathroom!

    A rug in the lobby helps traps dust from crossing the threshold from doorway to the rest of the house, with that, I don’t have to sweep beyond the immediate area so often!

    When I get home, I wash my hands, then I change into home clothes and hang my used outdoor pants or skirts or long jackets in a specific place if I want wear it again, I don’t mix it with home clothes or fresh cleaned clothes.

    Your children are relatively safer for not looking Asian – they will stand out too much if used as street beggars (children are kidnapped for use in begging gangs, sometimes crippled for more money) or for families without children – but there are still perverts in China, as with anywhere. The REASON it’s safer to be foreigners in China is because you have connection to the outside, and the Chinese police don’t want trouble – but if they think it’s quieter to say you make it up, to not pursuit your case, then you are doomed.

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