On the Train to Luoyang
We were to travel by overnight train in a “hard sleeper” car to Luoyang from Beijing. I was pretty excited to travel in this primitive form of transportation, feeling a little like Indiana Jones. That feeling soon passed when I realized we were going to be on this train for 12 hours with 60 other strangers, most of whom do not have the same level of public or personal hygiene or respect for personal space as we Americans do. I had to keep reminding myself to respect the cultural differences.
The hard sleeper was one car of the train, divided into 12 small compartments but no doors. Just open spaces. Each open space compartment consisted of six beds, stacked like bunks, three on each side. Each bed came stocked with a pillow and a down blanket. Between the 60 of us, we had one bathroom.
Bathrooms in China are not like American bathrooms. Chinese bathrooms have “squatters.” They are essentially holes in the floor that lead straight into the ground or sometimes a trough. Whatever your business is in there, it goes straight outside. Using the squatter on a rocking train that was shared with sixty others was sure a culture shock. I had heard about squatters, but couldn’t imagine. So, as I squatted and did my business, watching it splash out onto the passing tracks below me, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. The cramped, smelly conditions and the squatter really threw me for a loop. “Oh well,” I thought as I exited the bathroom, “This is my life now. Go to sleep and in the morning we will be in our new home.”
Twelve hours passed quickly, with sleeping through most of them. We arrived in Luoyang, our new home for the year, at 7 the next morning. A group of men from my new school were waiting with a van to help with our luggage (the foreign affairs officer had called ahead, warning them).
On our way to school, we learned our sixth floor apartment would be on the school grounds, where many of the teachers also lived. We would have three bedrooms, two bathrooms (each with American toilets!!), a kitchen and living room. We also would have a front and back balcony. It sounded like a palace and it really was!
Our Luoyang Home
We arrived after our first meal in Luoyang. Our new friends took us to a “breakfast soup” restaurant. The soup was delicious. We sat outside at small tables, built for kindergarteners it seemed and were served wonderful soup, brimming with homemade Chinese noodles, vegetables and chunks of meat (which we found out after breakfast was donkey meat). We were also introduced to “xiao bing,” a wonderful hot bread baked in a fire over coal. It would become a main staple in our diet and we were happy to eat it. At 1 yuan for 3 breads, it was a deal and a half! I should say here the exchange rate was six Chinese yuan to one American dollar. So the three xiao bing cost us about 20 cents.
The breakfast soup restaurant was less than half a mile from “home,” so we arrived quickly. Chinese building codes say that any building with more than seven stories must have an elevator. Seeing as how our building wasn’t tall enough to qualify for an elevator, we were stuck carrying our luggage up six flights of stairs.
It was tough work but all was forgotten when we stepped into our new home. Our apartment was beautiful! Clean, large and bright. We were very lucky. Most teachers live in a one room apartment. There is only room for a mattress on the floor and a table/dresser. No running water, no heat. I was almost embarrassed by the living conditions as it only reminded me of the incredible differences between Americans and the Chinese.
Over the course of the next several days, we were able to settle in, getting help from all directions. The school principal let us know that we would be able to use his car, complete with a driver, whenever we needed. While thankful, we opted to try to live as regular citizens, taking a taxi, bus or walking to the places we needed to go.
We had to have a Chinese friend with us any time we left the apartment to act as a translator for us. We wandered around our new street, Luilin Road, getting to know the shopkeepers, learning where the good and fair markets were and being introduced to the cart-owners. All this would ensure us good deals during our shopping and reassure the owners that we were “one of them.” We were there to live the Chinese way. Our translator was adamant in making sure the owners understood that we were not “visiting Americans.” It felt very nice to try to be accepted as a Chinese person. This kind of welcome and acceptance is the way the Chinese operate. We quickly learned the Chinese are extremely accepting and willing to help. They love Americans who to want to learn about their way of life and adopt it.
Our days became pretty boring after getting all our supplies: towels, utensils, pots and pans, plates, toilet paper (enough to have at home and to carry around with us since it’s not readily available in public), a few rugs and a clothesline. We needed food, laundry soap and dish soap.
We were warned that electricity comes and goes and we should not buy a lot for the refrigerator so I had planned to buy from the street vendors on a daily basis. While we were finding our food, we learned there is no refrigeration at the store. Everything is fresh and whole. The only packaged food items were things like Oreo cookies, instant noodles, chips, etc.
When we wanted to buy meat, it was suggested we go that day. I could maybe buy for one or two days in advance, but nothing more to ensure it would be fresh and to protect against loss in case the electricity cut off. Meat is cut throughout the day, on an as-needed basis. More on that at a later date.
There is no milk and pop is warm. Ice cream bars were a small option and we had flavors like pea, red bean and corn to choose from. One of my favorite activities would soon be walking up and down the aisles at the corner grocery store trying to figure out the food items. Shrimp-flavored chips, prawn-flavored corn chips, wasabi covered peas, jelly-like candies in small plastic bowls...it was all so amazing and different. Chocolate was not available, so we learned to like Oreos instead.
Shopping for rice meant I would need to be prepared to pick bugs out of the scoops of rice from the bin before putting it in my bag for purchase. Buying fruit meant I could taste it before buying as vendors would happily offer a bite of fruit before selling it. Often times, vendors would call to us as we walked down the street and offer us free fruit. Their selling point was, “If the American buys it, then others will, too!”
We were quite the celebrities in Luoyang. After only a few days, we got a routine. Things were going well. Language was still a gigantic barrier - not being able to read, speak or write the language, but we all became adept at charades or Pictionary. When there was a will, there was a way. We were on our way to fitting in and it was fun.