China 1990 Part 2

China 1990…..Part 2

How the Chinese college students lived, and how life was in general.
Being a Chinese student at a Chinese university was worse than Hell.   No, I did not experience their dorm life, and I didn’t have to.  In my young naivete, I tried though.  I’m glad the powers that be saw through my pigheadedness,  stood their ground,  and refused me the same rite of passage that every student of a Chinese university at that time had to endure.    “Ignorance is bliss” is a phrase coined just for the above occasion.

But I want to be fair. Two positive things about being a student in China in the 80’s are simple:  school was absolutely free, and the government assigned you a job.  So there was nothing akin to a competitive interview, or any pressure buildup over having a proper resume.  There was no worry about whethe one would have a job.  Within this context, the Chinese students led a carefree, happy life   However, I found the conditions to be a bit different from what I was expecting.

First the obvious.  A room the size of a large bathroom in an American house today housed 6 students, their desks(think kindergarten style), and all their luggage.  (their room was only slightly larger than that of a typical college dorm in America that housed 2 students) The desks were squeezed together in the middle of the room, side by side.    There was no AC.  There was no carpet.  The floor was cold concrete.  The insides were peeling paint.   The beds were bunkbed style, and had no boxsprings.  Actually, they were steel frames with springs attached to the frame.   Students brought their own bamboo matting, and linen.

After having met my first real Chinese friend, and having visited his dorm, I decided right away the only way I was going to learn the language would be to room with him and his classmates.   (After all, I only had one year!  I had to get crackin’!)The waiban  decided right away, that no, I was not going to do that. 

(a word about the Waiban….this is the ofc whose main task was to handle relations with foreigners.  Back than it was a very prestigious ofc to work in.  Eng dept students coveted a job with the Waiban upon graduation.   Back than of course there were no private co’s, or much in the way of competition.  Today it is still a prestigious job, to an extent.  I have a relative via marriage that works for the Shanghai waiban, and she has a BMW… we’ll leave it at that)

I would stay in my nice cozy room, and be grateful for it.   I resisted.  They dug in.  I capitulated.  Fortunately for me.   Living with the Chinese in their dorms would’ve killed me.   Their life was that rough.   In retrospect, I don’t even think my Chinese would’ve improved that much.  You see, as I couldn’t speak a damn lick of Chinese, my friends spoke English.   Their English would’ve improved far better than my Chinese.  Thus I was always hanging out with the English Language Dept.
Well, just what exactly am I bitching about?  I had several things to be thankful for.

One of the first things I noticed was that my electricity never went off.   I found a boatload of Chinese friends real quick because of that.  I was their perfect friend.  I couldn’t speak any Mandarin, and they therefore could use their English.    Better yet….they all came over to my place to play cards until the Ayi kicked them out.  (I found it and still do find it amusing how the Chinese play cards, ie they have a tendency to ‘slam’ the card down on the table when playing a hand)

 Imagine a row of 4 story tall buildings completely dark, but for candlelight.  Everywhere, in every room, there were candles.    

Not my place, buddy.    My dorm was lit up like a firecracker.  I’m sure it bred resentment. 
My tuition by the way for one year, was around $2000, but my semester room charges were a staggering $750 per semester.    I think I got the better deal there. 

The Chinese never complained about anything.  Granted their tuition was free. Me, back in college I was a constant bitcher, always writing articles to the local student paper, or the University administration.  While, in China, I never saw any of that there.  
Another thing the Chinese had to endure than was the basic lack of hygiene.    Believe it or not, the Chinese students than had no running hot water.   I had a Japanese classmate that was on his 2nd year in China, and could really speak it well.   Chinese students, usually female, would come to his room sometimes holding these plastic bags.  I thought it strange someone would visit carrying a plastic bag to visit somebody.   Turns out they wanted to shower, and these plastic bags contained all their “stuff”.   

They wanted to take advantage of our hot water.
(now I realize this being South China, North China etc  was probably different.  Surely Harbin, for ex, always had running hot water.  I don’t know.  But I do understand the region I lived in dictated some of the conditions I’m explaining now.) 

I would often when walking past the Chinese dorms see them standing outside in these long lines, esp the women, holding plastic water basins(along with those plastic bags).    Apparently once a week hot water was available for a short time, and the ladies were lining up to wash their hair.  Ignorance is bliss, and I never heard anyone complain about these hardships.    But when walking down campus, one would frequently see a female student with long wet hair.   You knew they’d just come from “the line”.

 The toilets were a mess, too.  Each floor had a dorm bathroom, but the stench was simply unbearable.    Flushing was rudimentary, and there was no light.  Of course, they were Chinese style toilets.  (a  good Chinese friend of mine has since proffered the opinion that Asian toilets are more hygienic, and as long as they have a flushing system, I tend to agree)What China needs now, and really needed than, were environmental engineers.   Building a proper sewage system, rather than the bare minimal req’d, seemed to never be a fundamental goal.  When the weather was warm, I simply had to stop going to my friends dorms.

Some things were beyond explanation .   One was the lack of a working lightbulb on each floor, in the stairwell.  Is it that difficult to change a lightbulb?    I would say it’s a bit unsafe to not have one.   Pitch black when either walking up or down the stairs.  Of course, the Chinese never complained.   Their education was free, right?  Each floor also had a monitor.  

Trash Disposal

The biggest problem with the dorms was the disposal of litter.  Apparently, trash bags did not exist.  Everything was instead, apple cores, chopsticks, etc, swept into a corner by a peasant worker.  There it would stay, in an open pile, til the local ayi would find time to move it to a larger pile.   Open piles of garbage were everywhere.   Usu swept into a corner in the stairwell.   This habit of not using trash bags is probably the biggest reason why vermin were so common.     No one seemed to notice the irony of having a peasant manage the disposal of garbage.  (I know this sounds harsh, but it’s a simple fact that standards of cleanliness in the countryside are less formal than in the city.)
This is still a very glaring problem, and in my view one of the simplest issues to fix.  Don’t go cheap on the garbage bags.  It is still a huge problem today, and is evident everywhere.   Garbage bags are now coming more into vogue. 

The cafeteria

Lunch and dinner time on campus were the happiest times of the day.   Traffic was one way, and the hordes all were going in the same direction, ie the yummy cafeteria.  Now….referring to my time as a student in America, everyone tends to complain about campus food, and I as a student, did as well.   However, after living in China as a student, I will simply never denigrate American campus food again, or belittle it whatsoever.   For the umpteenth time, in 1990 America, we simply ate like Kings compared to the poor miserable Chinese. 

On campus, our cafeteria was a one price, all you can eat buffet.  We had cake everyday, our choice of softdrinks, and a few times a semester we were given the choice of either grilling our own steak outside or eating the cafĂ© steak.  We had salad.  I could go back for refills.  We could have seconds of anything we wanted.   As I may have a Chinese audience, I should also say that all untensils were provided.   I think the price I paid per meal was $4.50.  All I did was swipe a card.   Yet the food got old, and I simply tired of it. 

Now, I’m in China, 8000 miles away from my steak, and I’m starving to death.   Long lines would form for meals.   I found out right away that on Chinese campuses everything was segregated.    Chinese students, foreign students, foreign teachers and Chinese teachers all had their own cafeteria’s and living quarters.  No one was mixed.   Well, my cafeteria wasn’t open, yet, and the waiban graciously decided that instead of my starving to death,  they would give me these “coupons”.  These were pink and blue plastic tickets, that the Chinese students used to buy their lunch.  They were subsidized.   Ration tickets.  You would give the ticket to the server.  You could eat as much as you wanted, as long as you had the tickets to spare.  The problem was I didn’t know which to use, and I couldn’t speak a damn word, and all I could do was point.   The ticket dictated the amount one would get, and the measure word was liang.  But, again….I couldn’t read the tickets.

Well, I for better and for worse(eventually the latter, I now know), quite often just watched my Chinese friends behavior and mimicked what they did.  That is….if the student didn’t think he wasn’t getting what the coupon called for in weight, he would yell for more, which I found often worked.   I worked too hard to fit in.    It worked for me maybe 50% of the time.   Problem was there were often pebbles in the rice.  Students would show me sometimes their chipped teeth, and tell me to be careful.    In order to eat at the cafeteria, a person needed two things: a bowl and your own pair of chopsticks.   
Many just brought a spoon.

Upon knowing I would have to bring a bowl, which I figured I’d need anyway, I went out and got a nice looking porcelain bowl, not knowing what I was getting myself into.  As soon as I walked into the Chinese cafeteria, this massive auditorium with aluminum bench seats, everyone stared at me for two reasons;  I was the only laowai in the place(where’d he come from?) and my bowl.  Everyone had a simple Tupperware bowl. 

 Without trying to, I immediately fit nicely into everyone’s preconceived notions that foreigners were wealthy.     The food was greasy.   Yes, I think I did find a pebble or two in my rice, but not many.    Sitting down with the Chinese was a bit awkward because I didn’t know anybody.  Eventually a few that spoke English waved me over, and we’d chat. What I kept hearing again and again was that “you know, China is a poor country”, or “China is a backward country”. 

This took a little getting used, too, because I’d never heard other people talk about their country in such terms.   Especially in the United States.

Once I sat down, I found it revolting that everyone spit their bones out onto either the table, or the floor.  Indeed, the meal was mostly rice, and veggies…. and bone.  There was hardly any meat available.  I could feel a great weight loss coming on.(indeed, I think I bottomed out at 130 or so…..6 ft tall.) 

There were no soft drinks, no ice, no napkins, and sure as hell didn’t have any cake.   It was you, your bowl, and the server.    Again, the lack hot water came into play.   After dinner, we would literally go to the trough, turn on a trickle of water from a faucet and wash our bowls in cold water.   A great way to cut through the grease.

Well, as you could imagine, China back than was one rock and rolling place(not).   Having come from the college scene, with live bands, and plenty of atmosphere, I hit a desert in China.   There was simply nothing to do.   The girls were too nice, and the music non existent.   I quickly learned how to go to the local shop and sit on the benches like everyone else and drink pineapple beer and eat peanuts to pass the time.   My main focus was to learn Chinese anyway.   I learned to play badminton.   I quickly found how competitive some folks were the sport, to my amusement.   Ping pong?  I was useless, but I was captivated, again, with how seriously my friends took the game.   Actually, I’ve never seen my friends as intense, as when they played ping pong.  

There was no KTV on campus.  No music.  Little romance.  But there was one thing that everyone looked forward to, at the end of the week:

 Movie night!

Once a week on Saturday night, there would be a procession of folks with their desk chairs walking towards the tennis court.   Of course, I had no idea what was up, but after seeing a horde of people carrying their desk chairs from their dorm room, all in one direction, I of course wanted to find out.  I never would’ve guessed it was  a movie.  A movie was always played against the side of the building.  
Students would bring their chairs and sit on the tennis courts and the surrounding area.  We had English movies, Chinese films, etc.  The American films were quite poor in quality.   Usually very violent.   Grade C films.  I’m sure the intent was to show the negative side of American culture(it succeeded), and to put China in more of a positive light.  


There was Chinese brandy, which I drank with coke, but honestly speaking, none of my friends knew how to drink, and I was thus quite often a lonely drinker as a result.  Pineapple beer, really a type of soft drink actually, simply made me want to piss.   From this vantage point, I found the Chinese quite boring.  But once again, I was bemused with how they could so enjoy the simple pleasures in life, sitting around a picnic bench, with their peanuts and pineapple beer, so content and happy. 
Alcohol plays much more of a role in Chinese society today than it did than.  That is, it is far more accessible today.  I’m sure alcohol also has a bigger role on campus today, as well.


The biggest problem with life on campus in China in 1990 was an extreme dearth of intellectual stimulation.  There was no internet.  No blogging. No Time publications available to read.   China banned everything.  Keep in mind this was a foreign language university.   Learning a foreign language was the core competency of the institution.  Obviously, being able to read foreign publications would help this.  To the library’s credit there were classics available.  But there were scarcely any books available less than 100 years old.   

Believe it or not, only graduate students were allowed entrance to the English portion of the library!  I once had a Chinese graduate student walk up to me and tell me leave.   I think it was the first time he had a foreigner tell him to politely fuck off. 

So what did I do?  Simple…..I made a beeline to the USA consulate.  Or maybe it was the Ofc of Information?  I don’t recall.  They had all the reading materials a guy could ask for.  I would stay there all day.   They would be curious as to who I was, but tolerated me and never asked me to leave.  I read the NYT, etc, in an air conditioned room.   Those guys really had it nice.   They had ice and everything.   I eventually got to know some of the diplomats.    They were all pretty courteous.    I guess we had this “we’re all in this together mentality”.

I eventually found myself having to go to a 5 star hotel to buy the things I wanted to read.   I would buy Time and the South China Morning Post.   However, I had to use FEC.  I’ll explain this later perhaps in a future post.   FEC was a currency reserved just for foreigners to use.   In 1990 it was illegal for foreigners to use RMB.(it wasn’t enforced, trust me).     Probably starving for mental exercise was my biggest challenge while there.   But I don’t know how the Chinese learning English could take it? (Again, ignorance is bliss)   All they had was the China Daily, and…..


One thing I learned quickly was to listen to the Voice of America.  It’s influence was pretty big back than.   One of my most valuable companions once I’d ran out of books was the VOA.   I had a simple radio with an antenna snapped in half.   I especially listened to it a lot during the Gulf War.  You could say it didn’t have any competition.   There was a Chinese version, and an English version.   Of course it was banned.   But those Chinese aggressive enough to improve their English listened to it all the time.   They would walk the campus listening to the English version, with the transistor radio to their ear. 

The more adventurous types would listen to Taiwan radio at night.   They would turn it down low, I mean really low, and listen to it.  I couldn’t understand a thing of course, but it’s always exciting when you think you are doing something you shouldn’t be doing.    I felt this a lot in China back than.   Now that I can speak the language, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between the Taiwan and the Mainland Chinese accents.   To this day, I like to make fun of the Taiwanese accent.  It’s a real lazy form of Mandarin. 

Cantonese love their TV.    The Cantonese reputation for not adhering to authority is well deserved.    Satellite dishes were banned at the time, and periodically in Guangzhou they would have crackdowns, but long story short, everyone in the city had a dish.  This was the best way to watch HKG TV.  

Watching HKG TV was all the more fun, because Chinese were not able to travel to Hong Kong than.   My campus was only an hour from the border, but to the Mainland Chinese, it may as well have been another planet. 

Hong Kong residents would sometimes come to the campus, to take advantage of the cheap housing.   They always had lots of visitors.  One pretty girl actually had a HKG boyfriend.  She was rather proud of it, too.  Than he broke up with her.   Whenever I went to HKG, my ayi would always rib me.   She honestly felt in her heart she’d never have the opportunity to go.   My classmates and teachers were all jealous, too.  (boy have times changed)


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