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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....
Friday, September 30, 2022
Washing Clothes in China
I remember lying in bed wondering if there was any place in this city where I could buy a Panasonic washing machine. I had just rented an apartment that had a separate laundry room.
In answer to my desire, a friend of mine told me that a local international school was having a sale. KIA (Kunming International Academy) has quite a turnover of teachers—probably more now because of COVID, so the school was selling off their household furniture. The apartment I had just rented was pretty cheap because it had no furniture in it, which is not common in China. So I welcomed the news. We went out there, and I found very good bed, a desk, two bedside cabinets, an excellent refrigerator, and, last but not least, a Panasonic washing machine! God is good.
The thing was not new, of course, but it was in mint condition. I did have to buy hose and clamp, but otherwise, it was ready to start using. But I had no idea which buttons to push and why. So I took a picture of the console and sent it to a church friend who is getting her Ph.D in Australia. She sent it back appropriately marked. Pretty easy, actually. You can just ignore all that other stuff. It does it automatically.
Vagabond that I am, I had not had a washing machine in my house for thirty-five years. In America, I always used laundromats. When I came to Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics as a database instructor in the Software College in 2004, I lived in the foreign teachers’ dormitory. There was a floor lady on the fourteenth floor where the foreign teachers lived, who was there during the day, and there were two washing machines in her office. So that was almost as good as having my own machine.
When I left Beihang University after six years and moved out to the village in the western hills where I lived until I moved to Kunming, I rented a little hovel that had no room for a washing machine. That place was pretty tiny. Fortunately, a friend of mine told me about a laundromat at the Geosciences university that I could use for a price. So I carried my laundry into town in a basket every month (more or less) and washed it in one or two or three of their machines.
One of my neighbors in the village tried to show me how to wash my clothes by hand. I did not learn quickly. I noticed that she would sometimes rub two parts of a garment together. Why? Washing machines don’t do that. If you are wondering how to wash your clothes by hand, I’ll tell you what to do: Sneak up to a washing machine when it is in operation and open the lid just enough to see what is going on in their without tripping the automatic shutoff. Whatever you see, do that and you’re good. You don’t need to do all that other stuff. Anyway, I did not wash my own clothes very often, but once in awhile I might wash a garment of two.
I had lived in that little village for ten years when I moved across the country to Kunming in May of 2020. I lived in a small Chinese hotel for five months until I got my own place. So I washed my clothes by hand in the sink most of the time, although they did have a cheap washing machine there that I could use. After I found an apartment, I continued to wash my clothes by hand, because my place had two big sinks, but no separate laundry room. But when I moved to the place where I am living now, I decided it was time for me to have a washing machine, and I guess God agreed, because I got one almost immediately.
This washing machine is not large by American standards, but it’s way good enough for me. But it’s amazing how quickly you get spoiled when you have your own washing machine. As I said, I lived in that little village in the westren hills of Beijing for ten years. Since I had to put my dirty clothes in my laundry basket ad take it into town on the bus, I was always having these arguments with myself about whether or not a particular garment was really dirty enough to warrent being washed. Now I throw stuff in the washing machine all the time that isn’t really that filthy.
I should say a thing about dryers in China. There aren’t any. I have never seen a dryer in China. But you cannot enter a house or apartment anywhere in China without finding a clothes line in the back room. When I say “room,” I use the word loosely. It’s usually a porch or balcony. In Beijing such a balcony will be closed in. But in the south of China you will see both. The line I had in my little hovel in rural Beijing just had a bar across the room near the ceiling. My apartment now has a cable system that allows me to crank one side at a time down to hang clothes or remove clothes and then crank it back up to the ceiling. Maybe a big American family would prefer a dryer, but for me, the Chinese system is so much less trouble.
But if you can wash clothes by hand, is a washing machine necessary? For Chinese people, not really. Most Chinese people can get on quite well without a washing machine. In fact, people in the countryside of China who have grown up washing clothes by hand don’t trust washing machines. If you read the book Mao’s Last Dancer, he talks about how his parents came to visit him and they were happy as a lark washing their clothes with a garden hose. If you have ever been to the countryside of China, that won’t surprise you at all. To someone from the countryside of China, running water is like having a washing machine. But doesn’t everyone have running water? Nope. Back in 2004 I went to a little village in Shanxi Province where the people lived in Yaodong (earth caves) dug out of the side of the mountain. They had a little well I their yard, so they had water. But it wasn’t running water.
Here is a washer woman from Langmusi, a little village up on the Tibetan Plateau I used to go to in the summertime:
You can see from this picture that country people in China will do anything to find running water. Once they have that, the rest is easy.
So what is the advantage of washing clothes by hand?
Chinese people’s answer: You can’t trust washing machines. They won’t get your clothes clean.
My answer: You get to listen to interesting podcasts that you don’t usually have time for. Stuff you subscribe to because you think it’s good, but that you never get around to listening to. There is another advantage: You really get an idea how much soap is appropriate, because lf you use to much detergent, you have to rinse your clothes lots of times.
I personally think that the biggest advantage Chinese people enjoy because of their ability to wash their clothes by hand is that they can travel lightly. Chinese young people usually carry not that many outfits and wash them at night. Americans carry everything they are going to need for their whole vacation and wash everything when they get home. I am kinda in between. I usually carry enough so that I have enough to wear until I can find a youth hostel that has a washing machine—hopefully once a week or so. So I don’t travel quite as lightly as Chinese people. But less than most Americans. When I travel in the mountains of western China, people are like, “You have such a big backpack!” But when I go to America, people are like, “Where’s your luggage?” I think it's going to be changing, though. More and more we are going to see the younger generation using washing machines and forgetting all about washing clothes by hand.