Sunday, November 30, 2008

Low-Tech Lifestyle

Our Roommate, Little Pan, Cooking in the Apartment Kitchen

The picture at the top of this post shows the kitchen in our apartment. As you can see, it was not stocked with amenities. We had a sink with cold water, an electric (not electronic) rice cooker, a cutting board, a cleaver, a paring knife, a wok, a soup pot, and a small gas stove with an exhaust fan overhead. We also had a small refrigerator with an even smaller ice box section. Kitchens in Taiwan today have much more in the way of hi-tech amenities, but in 1982, this was pretty modern. When it was our turn to help with meals, Lynne and I had to learn to cook all over again.

I mentioned in the last post that we had been ten days in Taiwan with its steamy August temperatures, but no one had told us what to do about our laundry. There were no washing machines at the student center or in our home. There was a strange contraption in one bathroom that looked like a laundry drum, but there was no way to fill it with water. Each bathroom had a ridged, wooden board on the back of the bath tub and several plastic buckets stacked beside the tub. There was also a brown cake of soft soap on the tub next to the board. But those items meant nothing to us.

We saw that our roommates all frequently hung their clothes out to dry on the balcony, but we were hoping for washers and dryers. I remember going to my grandma’s house as a young child and watching her hang the laundry up to dry in her backyard, but my parents had always had a dryer. Grandma even had a laundry sink with a roller wringer in her basement, and she would let me turn the crank on the wringer while she pulled the sheets through. Later, she got a dryer, too, and I don’t know what happened to the clothes wringer. That was the extent of my knowledge concerning washing without modern technology.

Lynne and I knew how to sort whites from colors, how to select water temperature, add fabric softener in the rinse cycle, and change the dials to select heavy or wash-n-wear or delicates, but that knowledge was useless without the appropriate machines. We had brought plenty of clothes because we were planning to stay for a year, but by the end of 10 days, we were just about out of clean clothes, especially since we were showering several times a day in the muggy heat.

Finally, we asked one of our English-speaking friends that last night before school started. It was an emergency because we needed clean clothes for school the next day. Boy, did we get an earful. The English speakers all descended on our apartment and all our roommates joined in the show. The whole female population of the student center apartments was going to teach the simple-minded Americans how to wash clothes.

I have to digress here, first, to describe Taiwanese bathrooms. Taiwanese buildings are made of brick and concrete. The bathrooms are tiled on all surfaces: floors, walls, even the ceilings, and they have a drain in the middle of the floor. There are no shower curtains, and I think that some of our roommates sprayed the whole room while taking their showers. The toilet paper is about the consistency of paper napkins in America, and it is stored in a covered, plastic box on the back of the toilet; you don’t flush it down the toilet, you put it into the garbage can behind the toilet. In our apartment, there was also a small bag of white powder stored inside the toilet paper box. That night we learned that the powder was laundry detergent. The ridged, wooden boards were washboards, and the strange contraption was a laundry spinner.

To do the laundry, you take a bucket and put a little bit of laundry detergent in it. Fill the bucket with water, and put your clothes to soak. Next you take a small plastic tub and fill it with water. You take a low stool and sit with your legs apart on either side of the tub. Now you set the washboard in the tub, resting it against your belly. Pick up the cake of soft soap. Spread one article of clothing on the board; rub the soap into it. Hold one end of the clothing at the top of the board with one hand while using the other hand to rub the cloth up and down against the board to work up a lather. (Don’t scrape your knuckles raw in the process.) Now splash some water on it. Rub some more. Put that article of clothing into another bucket of fresh water to rinse, and scrub your next article of clothing. Sniff the clothes frequently to be sure you have gotten them clean. Check for set-in sweat stains. Use a scrub brush on tough stains. When you have a full rinse bucket, take them out piece by piece and run fresh water over the clothes until the water runs clear. Check again for odors and stains. Repeat the processes over and over until the clothes are really clean. Then put the clothes into the spinner. Keep doing this until all ten days worth of clothes are clean. Put the plastic top on the spinner and close the lid. Turn the dial to 5 or 7. Stand back so you don’t get splashed as water pours out through the hose at the bottom. While your clothes are spinning, rinse the buckets, tub, washboard, and stool clean. Put the washboard, tub, soap, and stool away. When the timer on the spinner rings, wait for the drum to stop moving, transfer your clothes to the buckets and carry them to the balcony. Hang them out to dry on the bamboo rods suspended from the overhanging eaves. Pray that something is dry by morning so you aren’t going to school in damp clothes. Learn to make a daily habit of washing your clothes just after your shower, so you don’t have to do a whole week’s worth of laundry in front of an audience again. (We blew a fuse the next morning blow-drying our school clothes.)

By the time Lynne and I had both gotten our mountains of laundry clean to the satisfaction of our audience and had gotten everything hung up to dry, our hopes for an early bed-time were long gone. We were so sore from using muscles we didn’t know we had; “washboard abs” took on an entirely different meaning that night. The low-tech lifestyle is physically exhausting.

I found out later that the washboards were a technical improvement in my generation. Four of my five sisters-in-law (the ones born before 1970) had to get up at 4:30 am on school days and go with their mother to the stream to beat the family washing on the rocks. Even after we got a washer and dryer, my mother-in-law still didn’t trust the new-fangled contraptions to get the dirtiest clothes clean. She had my father-in-law fashion a “rock” for her out of concrete, and when she felt that neither the washer nor the washboard could get a tough stain out, she would twist and slap the clothes against her cement “stone” to clean them. That primitive, gas “camp” stove was a recent improvement, too; Joshua’s main chore as a boy was splitting kindling and keeping the fire under the big pot of rice burning evenly so it would all get cooked and nothing would be scorched. When we married in 1986, their water heater was still wood-burning.


Joannalynne said...

haha...a great post mom!
"blew a fuse blow-drying our school clothes"....haha. too funny =)

Teresa said...

You might be laughing, but we sure weren't. We really did blow a fuse, and we were supposed to be at class at 8 am. Our clothes were clammy when we put them on because we hung them up to dry after the sun went down, and it was very humid.


murat11 said...