An American Housewife in Fuzhou

by Tatiana Luna

As I wash dishes in the sink that’s about half a foot too low for comfort I can hear music blaring from an apartment across the way, the tracklist a combination of the catchy, simple tunes of ultramodern Chinese pop and the flute and Chinese violin of streamlined traditional music.  When I look out the window there are dozens of caged-in balconies running parallel to my building with laundry swinging from various arrangements of hangers and clothespins.  As I hang up laundry clumsily on my own balcony, I can hear the sounds of China, honking traffic, children playing, a heated conversation (most conversations I overhear in Mandarin sound heated or even angry to me, and so this seems normal).  Some mornings I can hear a trumpet call signaling the start of the morning for all the navy officers in the barracks right next door.

These are just the sounds and sights from the windows and balcony of our apartment.  Walking outside of my apartment building is a whole different story.  Right now my apartment seems like a safe vantage point from which to survey and eavesdrop glimpses of the life streaming all around me in the other apartments and the small street below.  Many small aspects of life inside this apartment are slowly beginning to feel less foreign, and some aspects I might even end up preferring over the ‘American way.’  Like the compact and minimalist kitchen with counters designed for someone much shorter; it also has a two burner stove that works as well as a professional stove in the States.  But there’s no oven and no space for something like a dish rack.  And while it takes me longer to hang clothes to dry on a bamboo pole that is too high up to reach without standing on a stool or using a pole designed specifically for the purpose of retrieving and hanging hangers too high to reach, it’s pretty nice having clothes dried by the heat and breeze of Fuzhou.  This inconvenience combined with the fact that the small washing machine (which I am very thankful to have as I watch women across the way hand-washing everything) seems to destroy my underwear when I put it in with bigger clothes forces me, and I am beginning to notice most Chinese people, to wash small loads at a time, so that I almost constantly have laundry going.  It turns out this feels less cumbersome and more routine than letting clothes pile into huge mounds before having a huge laundry session.

Thus, I am discovering the small conveniences and inconveniences of a Chinese home.  I’m sure this is all mundane and boring to anyone reading.  And I suppose that is part of my point.  A bunch of little differences in the mundane aspects of everyday life for a typical Chinese person add up to a very different feel in the fabric of everyday existence.  But it turns out, mundane is still mundane.  The novelty is interesting, and I am hoping that the challenge of getting used to all these little differences will be worthwhile.  But many things, like mopping the floor and dusting, are pretty much the same, and they are mundane as hell.

Part of my challenge here in China is very similar to what it would be if I was trying to make and keep a home in America.  All I can say to most Americans and Chinese who have  the interest to ask is, “No, I don’t work.  I take care of Isabelle.”  My dilemma saying that in America was that I often felt that dreaded label of “housewife” creeping up on me.  Well, now I’m a housewife in China.  My first instinct when I imagined my experience here, I am a little embarrassed to say,  was to learn how to be a Chinese housewife.  How do Chinese women make the most efficient use of minimal resources and space?  How do they clean?  How do they cook?  How do they take care of the needs of children?  Should I try this lifestyle on for a while?

When I think along these lines, although I am interested in the answers to these questions and I am sure I will learn many of the answers, I begin to feel as boxed in as when I was picturing myself in the role of a typical American housewife.  I would like to say there is something of an academic pursuit behind these questions, but I think it has more to do with the insidious impulse to fill a prescribed role.   It is so much easier than striking my own path, either here or in China, and so much more boring.  The issue for me in acting out the role of housewife is not the household chores in themselves.  This may sound silly, but I think it is a worthwhile exercise to learn how to do menial tasks mindfully, so that none of one’s time is wasted with mindlessness. My problem is the amount of time a day one can spend on chores.  Realistically, they are endless.  I can feel quite satisfied and productive spending a day getting a long list of chores done, mindfully, of course.  But not everyday.  And making a home is much more than keeping it clean, just as raising a child is much more than feeding it, clothing it, and sending it to school.

So how do I spend my time?  How do I take advantage of the fact that if I’m not spending all day everyday doing menial chores, I have lots of time on my hands?  How can I be much more than a housewife in China or America without having an official job?  How can I make China home for both me and my child?

Here’s what I did today for a start.  After Isabelle woke up from her first nap, I strapped her on my back in the 很方边 hen fangbian (very convenient) Ergo carrier.  I set a comfortable pace walking to the grocery store, taking the volley of stares one at a time, gauging whether to smile or simply return a steady stare.  I learned last time I was in China that a smile goes a long way, but I have also realized this time around that I don’t have to smile just because I feel on display.  It’s a fine balance between reacting to self consciousness and truly trying to make a connection with someone.

As I walk past a playground surrounded by trees I stop to talk to a woman holding a baby who looks around Isabelle’s age.  She is good-natured enough to be patient with my halting and simple Mandarin and repeat herself a few times.  These are the essential elements in learning this new language and making connections with people: patience on her part, and persistence on mine.  I learn that the baby is also a girl and 4 months old.  I tell her the baby is big for 4 months old, and that Isabelle is a 9 month old girl and small for her age.  The woman denies that her baby is big and tells me that Isabelle is big, that she has big feet.  I am guessing that it is a compliment to say someones baby is big, so perhaps that’s why she denied it?  There are nuances to learn surrounding children here.

I tell her I am going to buy some food and I walk on.  A little way along a man sitting on a stool outside his little shop waves at me and asks me, “你说中国话吗?” “Ni shuo zhongguo hua ma?”  Do you speak Chinese?  “一点” “Yi Dian.”  A little, I say.  He is beaming at me.  He is also patient, and we have one of the better conversations I have had so far in the two weeks we have been here.  Like everyone, he asks where I am from.  He remembers seeing me walk by before, sometimes with a taller man. “我的丈夫”  “Wo de zhuangfu,” my husband, I tell him.  I tell him Christopher is an English teacher at Minjiang University and he nods as though he had guessed so already.  He asks how old I am, and tells me that his daughter is one year older than I am.  Then he fawns over Isabelle a little bit, and waves down a woman from the shop next door to tell her the news that I speak Chinese and that I am only 23 with a 9 month old baby.  I don’t know if I will buy pork from his pork shop where the meat seems to be hanging out in the humid heat, but I will certainly stop by often to chat with him.

At the grocery store, I look around for shrimp in the already-dead-and-on-ice section to no avail.  I ask an employee where the shrimp is and he leads me over to the very-much-alive tank section where they are floating around.  I think, what the hell, and watch as he scoops out a handful with a net and starts picking out bigger ones to put in a plastic bag.  I sauteed those suckers up tonight on high heat with onions, garlic, and soy sauce.  The taste of fresh shrimp is very different from frozen shrimp.  It may take some getting used to and some experimentation with cooking methods.

Those were my little adventures of the day.  I was only out walking and shopping for an hour and a half and I came home feeling tired and satisfied.  I am going to take a walk every day and try to do something new every day, whether it’s walking in a different direction or trying a new food.  I will  drum up the courage to talk to people everyday.  Big steps, or little steps, I will be getting somewhere in this new domain.