Off the Tourism Path
Hello readers. This blog post is long delayed, and I will now make a concerted effort to write with more consistency. A lot has taken place since my visit to China, and I feel it is appropriate to pick up where I promised to…with some post-China thoughts. Despite the fact we are now in October, the content for this post was scripted during the correct era – immediately upon returning from China.
During our GATE (Global Academic Travel Experience) class, all students were required to write about a cultural disconnect that they experienced while travelling in a foreign land. So, that is what I have in store for you….my disconnect…my thoughts…enjoy!
Off the Tourism Path:
One house: One bedroom. One dining area. One communal bathroom. Residing on circa 800 square feet. One house for one family.
One house plus one house plus one house plus one house plus one house plus one house equals six houses. Six houses for six families.
Six houses for six families equal one “neighborhood” within one community. That community is Hutong.
Upon arriving in Hutong, I could tell we were off our beaten tourist path in an instant. Our excursion began with a bicycle ride. No, no, no…we didn’t ride the bicycles. We were pulled in a cart by a man who was riding a bicycle, a cycle-rickshaw if you will. I can’t say for sure but my guess is this was his full-time job.
After a five-minute ride distanced from the tall buildings and swarms of thousands of people, we stepped off on a main road surrounded by small “neighborhoods”, and near the home of the family that would host us for lunch. We approached the home through an odor-ridden alleyway and entered through a modest door that caused me to duck my head. Parked in the center of white-tiled floor stood a circular table covered with plates of nuts, muffins, and tomatoes. Our meal awaited us.
The intimate, rectangular dining room couldn’t have been much bigger than my bedroom in Durham. Filled with one large mass of furniture that showcased the photos of the family of three, the room had no television, no couches, and an A/C unit centered near the top of the main wall. The opening in the back of the room led to the kitchen. The opening on the main left wall led to the home’s sole bedroom, where both the parents and their daughter dressed and slept.
Four-star and five-star hotels out of sight. Mainstream China was in front of us.
According to our tour guide, Kai, the house that hosted us for lunch represented the average standard of living for a homeowner in China. Approximately an 800 square-foot domicile, with a communal bathroom shared by neighbors (six families), and one bedroom which the entire family shared. Was this poverty? Certainly not by Chinese standards. But was this poverty compared to what we know and typically see in the United States? I would have to go with “yes”.
The noticeable disconnect in standard / style of living quickly made an impression on our group, causing one of my classmates to ask me on the journey home, could you imagine living like this?
While my answer to the questions was a quick, yes I could imagine this, the connotation and implication associated with the question sparked my curiosity. My first observation would be that for an American accustomed to a higher standard of living, it would be most natural to view the Hutong standard / style of living in a negative light. Meaning – we might be apt to classify the standard of living in communities like Hutong as “good”, or in this case “bad”, based on what we know and what we are used to. Our thought process might be something along the lines of:
I cannot imagine sharing a room with my parents. That would not be fun at all. Sure, I shared a room with my younger sibling when I was growing up, but after ten years old I was on my own. Nor could I imagine sharing a bathroom with my neighbors. Is that even sanitary?
It would be hard not having an Air-Conditioning unit in every room, multiple rooms to dine or decompress, or any additional space / land surrounding my house. Not having a buffer for when my parents yelled. And having neighbors that knew the ins and outs of my life.
While my quick response to my classmate’s questions was, yes I could imagine this, behind the curtain my mind churned:
While I will never truly understand what it means to live like the residents of Hutong, I could imagine living like this because it would be all that I would know. I might know that I was living at an average standard relative to the rest of the Chinese population, and that better and worse conditions existed, but any perception of whether this was “good” versus “bad” would probably be based on how much I liked growing up the way that I did – what I experienced, not because of what I did or did not have.
As a young, American student who attends a well-established, private university in pursuit of an MBA, I certainly view the Hutong standard / style of living as adverse compared to what I know and what I grew up with. But what is most impressionable about this experience is the notion that world citizens across all income brackets and standards / styles of living have different criteria for what makes them happy, makes them comfortable, and what they want out of their lives. I imagine that there are some Chinese residents who are very wealthy and capable of living a lavish lifestyle who choose to live in a community like Hutong because it is what they know, what they like, and what they grew up with. And there are equally Chinese residents who are much more impoverished and would give anything to live in a community like Hutong, but cannot afford to do so.
So when considering whether or not I would want to live like the residents of Hutong given what I know, I would opt out based on the thought of sharing a room with my parents alone. But given different circumstances, and understanding that what I grew up with and have experienced in my life is the anchor for how I determine my lifestyle preferences and what makes me happy, I have a sneaking suspicion my decision would change.