Life in a Chinese Dormitory
I decided I wanted to visit Helen in China on her year abroad in approximately the second week of year 12, while she was sending off her university applications. If I'd had to guess where the visit would take place I'd have probably gone for Beijing or Shanghai (or, knowing my geography at the time, I might have guessed Brazil; I got very confused about the whereabouts and size of Brazil whilst studying at The Becket School, and have never quite lived it down). So, 4 and 1/2 years later, I'm in China with the Pittman, and it turns out my prediction was right! The Cambridge students weren't given the option of applying to Shanghai, but Beijing was on the list and Helen went for the big one, and then suggested our excursion included 2 nights in Shanghai - So I couldn't have been happier with our plans. My long stay in Beijing is nearly over as Helen and I prepare to travel to Shanghai on Sunday to begin a week of 'traveling', we're spending the weekend cramming in the rest of the Beijing 'musts'. Moreover, leaving Beijing means leaving my Youth Hostel, and leaving my dorm. So I thought I'd write a blog about life in a Chinese dorm.
Firstly, living in a dormitory a much more common way of life in China than in England - It's popular amongst university students and young professionals. With practicality at the front of the Chinese mind-set (as ever), we can consider the benefits of such living:
- Economical use of space = much cheaper living costs. I'm paying a mere 6 pounds a night for my bed; access to the kitchen, toilets, showers, a lounge and free internet access.
- Location - In the same way that residing in block of flats can give you city centre access, the Beijing Uni International Hostel is right in the thick of it (and surprisingly close to Beijing Uni!).
- Social mobility - The lounge is a hub of social gatherings. Granted, these are generally the travelers between us and not really the Chinese locals who live here long term. Indeed, when Helen and I sat out one evening and played chess in the lounge, we did briefly speak to a Westerner, but it was only small-talk and it faded pretty quickly. Also, an Asian man walked from the opposite side of the room to stand over our chess board and watch for all of 20 seconds, but I'd struggle, really, to class that as 'social mobility'.
- Friendship - In my dorm it is clear that the friendships made are very strong. Sharing such a small area of space with (in my case) 7 others will obviously lead to intimate relations with a wide range of young people... At least it would, if you could speak the language!
My biggest set back is, without a doubt, not being able to speak a word of Chinese (other than 'nihao' (hello) and 'xiexie' (thank you) - Yes I'm a very passive European visitor!). On my first night I had a nice chat with a girl called Eva; I was very impressed by her English, but not at all surprised, because the Chinese absolutely put the English to shame with the amount of commitment on average which is shown to the learning our language. England's dropping gcse language uptake, unfortunately, predicts that our 2nd language deficiency is only going to become more prominent. Language aside, I explained to Eva that I was a tourist visiting a student in Beijing and she listed a number of places she's recommend visiting; Eva works in the city and lives in the dorm full time in the same way that young professional people who don't want to live with their family anymore can move into lodgings with friends. My first introduction was over and I was quietly confident that Eva would pass on the small talk we had shared to the rest of the dorm, who seemed a lot less keen on the idea of talking to me.
The next morning I met the egg lady. Egg lady earnt her name because, when she saw me sitting on my bed in my pajamas eating biscuits for breakfast she rushed off to the kitchen and returned with 2 fresh hard boiled eggs for me. I was delighted, firstly because what self-respecting student would not take a free breakfast seriously? But also, I was able to put my well practised 'xiexie' to use. A couple of days later, it was the egg lady who introduced me to the dorm culture of wearing flip flops all the time. She did this by handing me 2 (not-matching) navy blue flip flop sandals and pointing at my bare feet. I spoke to Helen about this who confirmed her house mates insisted on flip flops too. I suppose they're a bit like slippers, but you can walk into the public toilets, showers and kitchen without being worried about dirtying your slippers. I'm still not completely sure what to point of flip flops are, because mine must be filthy by now, and I'm ultimately trailing shower water around the hostel, but I did it to keep egg lady happy.
It is on this note that I turn to listing the negatives of living in a (Chinese) dorm:
- Absolute lack of privacy - Interestingly we were talking to Sam about cheap hotels in China and he said it is a common practise for hotels to charge for rooms by the hour (ooh er!). This coincides with a number of practises: a) The Chinese like their naps, and if you live far from Beijing it's worth booking yourself a room from time to time and b) well, young people will take advantage of the rooms occasionally to take some 'me-time'.
- Clashing of bedtimes - Being the tourist in the room, I'm keeping pretty irregular hours: If we've planned a lot for the next day I'll try to be in bed by 11, 11:30, but if I've had a night out I won't arrive back until late. For these reasons I feel very uncomfortable with the 'when the last one is in bed they should turn the light off' reasoning.
- I have to keep the floor around my bed tidy.
That said, I am unable to argue the case for not using washing up liquid. I have noticed a trend for avoiding soap while washing pots and pans in the youth hostel, and it makes the food tech level 7 student within me die a little to see so many of the hostel users rinse frying pans and plates in hot water before drying them and storing them for future use. One of Helen's house mates apparently has taken the same line in their kitchen (because washing-up liquids have poisons in them). This is very different to my experiences of England - As a student I've seen some grim living set-ups, but none who take it upon themselves to not use washing-up liquid. That said, although I'm not convinced, the trend doesn't seem to have done them any harm yet, perhaps if you've built up the anti-bodies, it is possible to live without washing up liquid? In my case, I'd rather not find out the answer!