Friday, December 5, 2008

Life in a Sardine Tin

Pictures in the Living Room

One of the hardest things for us to get accustomed to was the population density. The picture to the left shows half the women in our home. You can see a little three-year old perched on the top of the sofa. Her father also lived in the apartment, but he was at work when the photo was taken. The only outsiders in the picture are two English-speakers for translation and an old lady from church who is about to take us all out for a banquet-style lunch.

Our apartment took up the entire side of the third floor in our building. There were a total of four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a large living room and a small kitchen. The family of three lived in the large bedroom at the end of the hall. They had a small balcony off their room where they hung their laundry up to dry. Their room was pretty much filled by a huge bed, and they all three slept together in it. Their clothes and belongings were in boxes and piles around the edges of the room. The mom and little girl spent a lot of time shut up in their room when all of us were at home.

The two bathrooms were off the hall between the living room and the largest bedroom. They were exactly across from each other. The one to the left was larger and held the laundry spinner. The one to the right was smaller. Both had bathtubs, but the bathtub in the room on the left was much larger than the one on the right. The floors to the bathrooms were raised above the level of the rest of the apartment, and they had tiled lips that you stepped over, so water on the floor didn’t run out into the rest of the apartment. As I mentioned in the post about low-tech living, there were drain holes in the middle of the floor of each bathroom. The bathtubs had flexible shower heads attached to the faucets, and you could stand in the tub or in the middle of the floor to shower. A number of our roommates seemed to believe that showers belonged outside the tubs, and they left every corner of the bathroom dripping with water.

Lynne and I had a very small room next to the right bathroom at the beginning of the hall. It was long and narrow with windows at the far end. It was crowded by American standards, but we had more room than anyone else in the apartment. There were two slightly larger rooms just off the living room. These rooms each had two metal bunk beds and four desks. They also had small armoires in one corner. The girls did not have enough room for all their clothes, so they would go home with each change of weather to exchange clothing. In one room, they could not fit in chairs to go with two of the desks, so the girls on the bottom bunks had their desks right near the ends of their bed and sat on their beds to work at their desks. These rooms had windows along the outside walls, and the windows looked out on the balcony that wrapped around the corner from the living room to the end of the second bedroom. This was the laundry drying area for us girls. There were hooks in the roof of the balcony holding two rows of bamboo canes on which we hung our laundry out to dry.

The kitchen was a tiny room off the opposite side of the living room from the bedrooms. A small refrigerator stood against the far wall. There was a small sink immediately next to the door and cabinets with a metal counter on the top between the sink and the two-burner gas stove that you can see in the picture with my last post. A maximum of two people could fit in the kitchen at one time. We cooked dinner for thirteen there every night after the student center stopped its food service during the hepatitis B outbreak.

The living room had a piano in the corner between the sliding glass door to the balcony and the door into the kitchen. A small dining table with three chairs was pushed against the wall between the kitchen door and the front door. The electric rice cooker was on the dining table because there was no room for it in the kitchen. The rest of the living room was filled with a leather couch and arm chair set and a long coffee table between them.

So we had a total of thirteen people in one four bedroom apartment. It worked surprisingly well. We had a cleaning schedule and did chores in pairs. Nobody really got into fights or anything. Everyone tolerated everyone else and life was great. If you needed space, you just went out. Lynne spent a lot of time in the teachers’ lounge at NTNU when she needed space. That left me in our room alone. At the time, I didn’t know how the girls who were four to a room did it. I learned that lesson during my third year when I was living in a converted office space with twelve women and a family of five, but that was much later in the story. I think a lot of survival at close quarters came down to giving others psychological space and learning to maintain interior walls. Even though we did almost everything as a group, I came out of that year with only two real friends. It is much harder to hurt or be hurt, if the relationship remains on a superficial level and you never open up.

From now on I plan to post on the dates of the month that are multiples of 5. So there will be new material on the blog on the 5th, the 10th, the 15th, the 20th, the 25th, and the 30th of every month.


Joannalynne said...

what does it mean "to be hurt or be hurt"?

Teresa said...

It says "hurt (as in hurt others) or be hurt ( as in others hurting you)". So if you keep a psychological space and stay in a superficial relationship you don't get your feelings hurt or hurt other people's feelings as much.

Hope your Latin final goes well tomorrow, Jo.


Joannalynne said...

thanks for the explanation.
I did not know that you only had two friends. I had a similar experience when I was in Taiwan. I did not get close to people until almost 8 months after I had been there. Even then, I only really opened up completely to a few people. I think there is a definite cultural impediment to getting past the superficial layer in Taiwan though. Don't you?

Teresa said...

Yes, definitely. I think they open up more with family members, but even in the family there are layers and barriers. It's something that is ingrained from an early age because they are trained not to have a "big mouth" or not to "say too much." Your dad's favorite proverb is "Do as much as possible, say as little as possible." Your grandmother used to nag your uncle with that proverb when he was in junior high and high school. I guess your dad learned it from her. I heard some old people in the church say they thought Americans were so open that everything was 2 feet above the ground. It all shows on our faces, so we don't protect ourselves. Chinese try to bury at least half of what they're thinking. They say Koreans and Japanese bury 70 to 80 per cent, and they think that's too secretive, but they think you should keep a lot of things to yourself. You have to keep a "poker face". I guess that's where we Americans get the stereotype of the "inscrutable Asian."

murat11 said...

I can schmooze with the best, but I definitely have my need for privacy and quiet. I was struck by your comments about developing and maintaining interior space, in the midst of such concentrations of people around you, but also how the concentration of people was by no means a guarantee of developing intimate relationships.

I think I would have needed to escape outdoors. Would that have been possible, or would that have been considered insulting to all the hosts and helpers around you?

Teresa said...

Hi Murat,

That's a good question. Lynne definitely escaped to the teacher's prep room every afternoon and evening. That was fine because she was working. The streets were pretty crowded too, as were the parks, and pretty much every place that was easily accessible. The population density is just so much higher than in the US, especially in the city of Taipei and its suburbs. I did enjoy walking through the alleys near my home and in the school campus grounds, but there were people and noises. I think that in some of the smaller cities to the South like Taichung or Hsinchu, there are better opportunities for getting away to a truly natural setting with few people.