Rough Quarters

We arrived in Xi’an in August, 1981. The weather was overcast nearly every day for our first month there. Without a sunrise and sunset, it was difficult to get oriented; my sense of direction was messed up.

I hadn’t known what to expect, coming to Asia. I’d only been outside North America once, visiting Italy in March, 1981, to meet Gauss’s relatives there. I was fine with staying in no-frills European pensions with a bathroom down the hall, but was completely unprepared for China’s gray concrete architecture and haphazard wiring.


Washing jeans on a washboard in our rough cement tub in our rough cement bathroom.


Our kitchen was a plain cement box with a cement sink and cold running water. Washing in an enameled metal basin. The two giant red Thermoses contain boiled water for drinking.


Gauss in our living room. Painted wood floors. Exposed pipes. BUT…we had radiators, which meant heat from November first until March first, a rare privilege reserved for the foreign teachers. Not visible: the spittoon that came standard with the apartment.

Improving Atmosphere

The next morning I was awakened early by the sound of the national anthem played over speakers throughout the neighborhood. To my surprise, I felt a little better. The floor was not skittering with dirty, disgusting things. Gauss had plugged the hole in the bathroom floor with a wad of paper.

“If we keep the drains closed, we can probably keep the roaches away,” he said.

I wasn’t entirely convinced.

We went downstairs to the common dining room where the two chefs had cooked a Western style breakfast: eggs fried in a very ample amount of oil; cold, dry toast; and a glass of warm, reconstituted sweetened condensed milk.

One of the first-floor apartments was reserved for visiting personnel, and the other contained common rooms for all the residents: a kitchen with two enormous woks, a dining room that seated eight, a room with a TV and a couple of armchairs, and a storage room. The four upstairs units were for the Foreign Experts—that would be us, and three other English teachers.

A bright spot that morning was meeting the first of those teachers, a nice older English lady named Margaret. She was so English she was almost a caricature of herself. She had bad teeth and an underbite and wore sensible oxfords, a dowdy printed frock and a baggy beige sweater. She measured things in “wee bits” and “spots” and many things to her were “really quite lovely”. Classes hadn’t begun yet, so she invited us up to her apartment a couple of hours later for mid morning coffee. She was “really quite nice,” we thought.

Lunch in the dining room was Chinese style: stir-fried pork and vegetables and decent rice, a big improvement over breakfast. The Chinese customarily take an afternoon nap, so everything shut down after the meal. About 2:30, a young woman named Xiao Luo (“Little Luo”) came by to show us around the university. She was sunny and animated but spoke no English so I had no direct communication with her. Her appearance and demeanor were of a cheerful small-town girl, tidy and straightforward, plainly dressed with simply cut hair. Vanity was discouraged in The People’s Republic in 1981.

Our apartment was on-campus, as was the housing for all University employees and students, so the walk to the main area of classroom buildings was only a couple of blocks. We left the walled area of faculty and staff apartment buildings, crossed an empty road, and passed through a gate in another wall that surrounded the classrooms. The buildings dated from the 1950’s and many were done in grim Soviet style: slab-sided, gray, and ugly.

The grounds of the university seemed nice at first glance. A large pond filled with lotus framed the front entrance of the central library. There were trees and shrubs but hardly a blade of grass. Incongruously, large rose bushes studded with pink blossoms flourished in the dusty ground next to the sidewalks. It began to drizzle, and the dust quickly formed a film of mud, coating the paved streets.

“Here is our campus swimming pool!” Xiao Luo exclaimed proudly to Gauss in Chinese, gesturing with her arm as we rounded a corner. “It is Olympic size.”

While we were still back in the States, the university had sent us a brochure picturing that very pool filled with crystal-blue water and happy swimmers. I had the habit of swimming a mile a few times a week, so I was encouraged when I saw the photos. But the water in the real thing was green and opaque, and it scared me a little to think of what was growing in there. I would need to get my daily exercise some other way.

As Xiao Luo walked us back, cyclists turned and stared at us as though we were on display at a zoo. I worried that they might fall off their bikes or have a collision. We came to a handful of small stores at a cross street just a block beyond our apartment building.

Typical store interior, 1981. Photo © Kent Orgain.

The first store was dark and it was difficult to see the merchandise. Once my eyes adjusted, I could see that there was little to choose from. Some cast-iron kettles and couple of metal dining chairs, their blue paint already chipped, sat in the middle of the large room. It reminded me of the general store in my grandparents’ tiny town in southern Illinois in the 1950s. Nearly all the items were displayed behind the counter: a few skeins of brown yarn; canned goods, carefully stacked, but dusty; plastic handled toothbrushes—some of the only colorful items in the store—and simple stationery items like scissors and paper.

“You must ask the clerk if you want something,” Xiao Luo told Gauss in Chinese.

We bought a black umbrella, two aluminum boxes for storing food items (a hedge against the roaches, still fresh in my mind) and a couple of rolls of mauve-colored toilet tissue the texture of crepe paper streamers we used at home for party decorations. The alternative brand was a big pack of gray stuff sprinkled with Chinese characters intact enough to be read.

We entered a fresh food market across the street. It, too, was dimly lit but even more sparsely stocked, empty except for two sad-looking bunches of onions. Even in this land where there was barely enough to eat—nothing extra—it seemed that nobody deemed them fit for consumption. Another tiny storefront housed an electronics repair business, and a bicycle repair facility operated in the drizzle on the sidewalk outside its door.

There was little temptation to buy, and shopping here looked like an unpleasant experience. I doubted that we would be cooking for ourselves. Buying food seemed to be a lot of trouble, and so would setting up a kitchen. Besides, the presence of food would only encourage our 6-legged friends. Gauss and I reasoned that it would probably be best to pay our three yuan (75 cents) a day to have the cooks take care of that aspect of housekeeping.

We walked back to our apartment, and Xiao Luo bid us goodbye. As Gauss and I climbed the bare concrete steps with our purchases, it occurred to me that I was beginning to adjust to this gray building on this gray campus. Deciding to use the cooks’ services was a way to cope with the situation. Lunch had been good and I was looking forward to dinner. My fury at Gauss for bringing me here began to subside.

Exhausted after hours of interpreting, Gauss lay down for a nap and I went in to the study to write. Without warning, the front door opened, and in shuffled a smiling Lao Zhang, the caretaker. Holding an old-fashioned atomizer in front of him, he squeezed the little fabric-covered bulb as he made the rounds of our apartment, misting it with a sickening-sweet scent. He explained that when it rains, the doors are closed and it gets stuffy. He was improving our atmosphere.

Quiet City

August, 1981

I was surprised as the plane began to descend. I saw no cues that we were anywhere near a city: no street lights in sight, no ribbon highways of white headlights and red tail lights, no neon signs. Shouldn’t we be in the city of Xi’an? What was going on? Only when we got within feet of the ground could I see a string of lights casting a weak glow on the runway. It was 9:00 p.m.

After landing, we walked out into cool, misty air and then into a building that made me think of a small-town armory, bare and lit with naked fluorescent tubes. Like other “nice” places we’d seen during our first week in China, the airport looked like a worn out version of a pretty place, with high ceilings, fancy moldings and unused decorative light fixtures. It was furnished with crinkly brown vinyl sofas. Papers, apple cores and other refuse littered the floor. Chairman Mao smiled down from a prominent place. We had finally arrived in the city that would be our home for the next year.

A posse consisting of the university president, a driver, and two handlers from the Foreign Affairs office had driven out in a single car to greet us. Counting Gauss and me—and the handler dispatched to Guangzhou to fetch us—we now totaled seven. Incredibly, since we were going to one of China’s leading technical universities, nobody had considered the logistics. There was not enough room in the vehicle to take us back to the campus. At this time of night, and this far from town, there were no taxis. We would have to make the trip in installments.

Gauss and I waited for another hour in the shabby terminal with half our luggage until the car returned with only a driver and one handler. We had left Minnesota weeks ago, driven across the United States, flown across the Pacific, and spent several days in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. The day’s flight from southern China had been delayed several hours, and by now we were dead tired and ready to finally be getting to our new “home.”

Crammed in the thickly upholstered back seat of a tubby little car reminiscent of a relic from my childhood, we bumped down the pitch-black streets with the headlights off. The driver periodically flashed them on for a second or two as if to get a quick mental picture of what was ahead, and then shut them off again. We were too tired to ask why, and in any event, we had seen much that puzzled us. There were more questions to ask than there was time to answer them. We seemed to be driving through a ghost town: the roads were devoid of pedestrians and any other vehicles, and we were unable to see beyond the ten-foot walls that lined the boulevard. I was too puzzled to find this alarming or worrisome. Instead, I gulped in snatches of visual information when I could.

Occasionally in the distance, I saw a single bulb casting a circle of light in the middle of an intersection, the adjacent streets swallowed by the darkness. Our car took several turns, the last one through an opening in one of the high walls. Finally I could see low brick apartment buildings, a few windows glowing dimly. The car slowed to a crawl and pulled up onto the dirt behind one of them.