When I first wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer, I never imagined myself living in a city of 3 million people, with internet access in my 8th floor apartment. I thought (and hoped) I would be in a small village, somewhere far away from modern luxuries, confronting the most stereotypical Peace Corps hardships (maybe living without electricity, reliable running water, killing chickens for dinner, etc.). A year into it, living the dream in none other than Lanzhou, China, it’s clear enough that these stereotypical hardships aren’t what the whole experience is about. Even us “posh corps” city volunteers have hardships of our own. Usually different hardships, but hardships nonetheless. Perhaps if I were in a village cleaning chicken blood off my hands I’d never say this, but last night I revisited my wish to be without my modest “luxuries” because I, in fact, thought it would be easier.
Let me explain, and be warned that this is not a lesson in “less is more”. It’s actually closer to “less sucks…because your neighbors have more”. I know, I know, you shall not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, and goods- but I’m still complaining for more.
More what? More water pressure.
Ever since I moved in, the water pressure in my bathroom has been remarkably unimpressive. Sometimes I’d wait half an hour just to get a trickle of hot water from my shower. I got used to it cutting off 5 minutes later, and learned to kill time around my apartment with shampoo in my hair. Some might say this is a problem that could be fixed by my school’s handyman Mr. Ma, but I’ve been told numerous times “it’s just because you live on the 8th (and top) floor”. Forgive me, but I see a lot of buildings taller than 8 stories…do they not have water either? And why do my 8th floor neighbors never have this problem? I stopped asking, and wrote ‘running water’ on my Christmas list last winter. Surprise, surprise, but Santa didn’t deliver.
I’ve been a patient panda, getting used to the idea of allowing a possible 2 hours for every 10 minute shower. It was still humorous and going well, until I returned from Xinjiang. Now, the ghost taking my water in my sky high pipes is affecting all of my sinks- kitchen included (brushing my teeth there became the norm). But the worst part about this is that I can hear all of my neighbors’ water. I hear toilets flushing and water rushing through the pipes. Yesterday I returned covered in dust after hours of cleaning our soon-to-be English resource room at school. I waited 2 hours for water, hoping to go to sleep clean, but eventually had to give up (and threw in the towel…). I tossed and turned at midnight, not only frustrated because my feet were disgustingly dirty, but also because of the racket coming from my neighbor’s laundry machine.
Sometimes our community loses water for hours or days, but that’s to be expected. At least then, we all suffer together. Here, I’m on my own, with the means for running water, which often taunt me. From my perspective, being the only one without the convenience (and having no solution to fix it) seems less tolerable than the idea of being in a whole community of people without, who know how to deal with it. I don’t know, some PCV would probably trade my internet for their water pail. Seeing an upcoming winter of half-showers and frozen pipes though, it’s easy to say I’d rather suffer with company.
Who’s to say what’s more challenging, but my point is that just because I can find expensive Land O’Lakes cheese across the street, it does not make life cushy nor easy. Mulling over the situation again, I might be able to relate my own “less sucks because your neighbors have more” feelings to many things I see in rapidly developing, and still very poor Western China, but I won’t. And if I mention my students who must pay 3 yuan to take a shower, I really sound like a wimp. That’s totally another story, and besides, as a PCV I get a little space to whine, right? I leave it as food for thought, and this as the mere account of a dusty panda, encountering all those unforeseen challenges she signed up for.