Monday, December 13, 2010

It is Worse Than I Thought!

My Little Chinese Mommy was sick and could not come to class one day. Not that she is more important that any other student, but because I ran into Lilly while getting some breakfast off campus after class and Lilly invited me to their dorm to visit, I went to the dorm.

I have been curious about dorm life since I got here. Some students had told me about the conditions in the dorms: 6 students to a room, no climate control, no hot water – even for bathing. No privacy. No luxuries such as washing machines or even a Laundromat on campus. Each student washes his or her clothes by hand. No dryers either, by the way: I can give actual testimony of that because I see the laundry hanging from the dorm windows.

My friends, I was shocked and appalled! To say it was worse than I thought is like saying it is a bit cold in Iceland.

The floors are concrete, uneven and unadorned by any finish, paint or rug. The walls are institutional green halfway up and the rest of the way, they are a fading yellow. The ceiling is painted white and that paint is peeling in large, threatening chunks. It looked like, at any minute, a sheet of paint and a layer of concrete might fall on my head.

And that was just the lobby. I tried to hide my shock as Lilly asked permission of the dorm mother for me to go upstairs and visit. The dorm mother granted said permission and I signed the log. We headed toward the stairs.

To the left of the staircase stands a hot water dispenser, with some large thermos bottles on the floor nearby. The floor is wet here and the hot water dispenser drips water from its calcified spout. Of course by staircase I am being generous. It was not a staircase as you and I might identify it – with balustrades and grace and promise leading upward. It was formed concrete, unpainted and uninviting. No hand rail. We went upstairs.

On the second floor Lilly turned right and walked on ahead. I stopped in dumbfounded amazement.

Have you seen the History Channel’s presentation of Alcatraz Prison? The prison that, at one time, housed such infamous criminals as The Birdman and Al Capone? Did you get the same eerie sensation as the camera walked down the deserted hall, marked by cell doors on each side, that there was some sense of prevailing doom within those walls?

This hallway looks exactly like a prison hall in Alcatraz. The same formerly bright green paint on the lower half, the same cream color on the top half. The green paint is peeling and large patches of dank concrete peek through. The floor looks even more uneven than does the lobby floor for here the light is dimmer and the pockets of moisture stand out in stark relief.

Only every third overhead light works, lending an even gloomier cast to this dismal hallway. And, the lights are low intensity neon that lend a bluish, B-movie look to everything. Every 10 feet or so on each side of the corridor is a pale yellow metal door, held closed by a sliding hasp. Within the door, mounted at eye level is a blocked, barred window.

Lilly urges me on, startling me out of my shock. She knocks on the 4th door on the right: Janny’s room. A hollow ringing echoes up and down the hallway as her knuckles rap. Presumably a voice from inside welcomes us in; Lilly opens the door and stands back for me to enter.

In a space smaller the bedroom in my apartment are 6 bunks, arranged 3 to a side. One lower bunk, two top bunks and one desk with 3 stools in front of it. One desk for 3 students. The bunk overhanging the desk can only be accessed by climbing the only available ladder and climbing onto the bunk that abuts it.

The bunks themselves consist of a metal frame and a wooden pallet covered by a thin mattress. Maybe even not so much a mattress as a pad. They are narrower than a twin-sized bed, and shorter. Each bunk has mosquito netting around it, lending them the illusion of individual space. There is an electrical outlet for each bunk, presumably to plug in a heating pad. One girl on the lower bunk, Linda, had her computer plugged in. The other five bunk’s outlets have nothing plugged in them.

The floor continues its motif of drab, uneven concrete and the walls, what are visible of them, are plastered white. The ceiling is also white. At the end of the room is a sliding glass door that leads to the common bathroom. A tiled vanity houses various cosmetics; presumably everybody stores their health and beauty aids with no regard as to who owns what. A small, tiled enclosure leads to what I suspect is the privy. That I can tell there is no shower, and no door on the privy. Beyond the bathroom area is a window leading to the great outdoors.

My Chinese Mommy was so moved that I came to visit her. She and the other students in the room told me, in awed tones, that no teacher had ever visited their dorm before. They were honored that I did and wanted to make the most of the occasion, offering me a stool at the desk, playing some music for me, showing me who’s bunk was whose, and who had more books. They offered me food from their pitiful stash: an orange, a drink, a snack cake. They pulled out little art projects they had done and were going to hang in their room. They had already adorned every available inch of wall space and most of the ceiling with ribbons, posters, magazine cutouts and pictures of home, presumably to make the room more hospitable.

Lilly then asked if I wanted to see her room. How could I refuse?

I visited 4 dorm rooms that day. In each room I was more humbled. These girls (and presumably the boys too) live in atrocious conditions. They have fewer comforts than prisoners in America, and yet they are not mean or dispirited about it. They have less privacy than military personnel but they do not complain. They have less personal space than an elementary school child but they think nothing of it. They bear their living conditions with such grace and cheer that I…

I am ashamed of myself for ever having looked around my apartment and whined and puled. Compared to how these kids live, I live in a mansion! I have hot water and climate control and more space and comfort than I actually need while, over my head and all over campus, kids tell each other good night in whispers because they don’t need to yell across any space.

What a wake up call! I’m grateful for my tile, and for my laminate flooring. I’m grateful for my excess of space and my supply of appliances. I’m grateful for my fully outfitted bathroom and for my full sized kitchen. I’m grateful for the generous space I occupy with no sharing involved. I’m grateful for my furniture and for my privacy.

No wonder these kids like to drop in on me and visit.

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