Observing my monthly ritual this morning, I prepared my home-made Sun-In in the little bowl I always use. It’s very simple and I feel very mother-earth when making this hair highlighting concoction; a few spoonfuls of baking soda (nature’s bounteous fruit NaHCO3) mixed with a little bit of hydrogen peroxide to make a paste. 200ml of hydrogen peroxide is 5p from the chemist, usually used as a mild cleaning agent or to treat wounds. Baking soda is about 60p for a bag, and this little kit will last about 8 months. Simply mix together and paste on where desired. Leave for about an hour, trying not to move too much lest a flurry of flakey white powder dust your shoulders like a bad dandruff day. Wash off, shampoo and condition as normal. It’s so cheap and the results are really effective, but when I’m wondering why I’m bald in 20 years time someone kindly refer me back to this post.
So, an hour came and an hour went, and a trail of flakey white powder tracked my movements around my room like a set of badger holes in the woods. I went into the kitchen and grabbed the shower head, ready to hose off the crusting concoction to reveal the golden locks beneath. Nothing. I turned the handle again, but not a single drop emerged. I turned the cold water tap at the sink, but it just made a churning noise, and, worried about what it was going to spew up, I quickly turned it off. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence, and so I’ve learned that whatever’s up with the pipes, leaving the tap on generate water will eventually produce a violently brown liquid that stays with you mentally long after you’ve bleached away all trace of it. Usually, normal operations are restored after a few hours so it’s not a problem, but when you’ve been liberal with the raw chemicals you’re somewhat up against the clock.
After the initial frustration comes the faint recollection of the notice on the door that your eyes glided past as you were fumbling for your keys to get out of the rain yesterday. Perhaps one of the most important words to learn when living in China is the word for ‘water’ – 水 (shuǐ). Usually I’ll scan the notice, and if I see 水, I know I’ll be having a festival wash at some point that week. But yesterday I was too busy juggling keys with bags of shopping and still on a high about it finally being lychee season in the fruit shop that I didn’t pay any attention. So, this morning, deciding it was a better idea to use my precious drinking water to wash my hair than wait and potentially bring forward the inevitable balding process to May 2015, I set about filling a pot with drinking water and putting it on to boil. It’s not a big deal, but the vital differences between tap water and drinking water is so clearly delineated in my mind now that I feel I’m about to wash my hair in some precious elixir of the gods. I’ll use tap water to shower, to wash dishes, and even to cook with providing whatever’s cooking will boil for at least 10 minutes. But the 18L vats of water I order and pay for are the only thing I’ll drink. The triumph of calling the water company and communicating in Chinese that I need them to replace it every week or so only adds to the pedestal on which this precious liquid stands.
Long story short, I poured the heated water in the sink, got a measuring jug involved and washed my hair. I won’t miss the water situation, but actually there’s something novel about doing things old-school. Heating water over fire tickles our basic carnal instinct, and connects us with a time long before 60 second kettles or 30 minute power showers. In the middle of a storm last week, the electricity went out across large parts of the campus. I was looking forward to settling down to an evening away from my desk, no WiFi, making tea on the hob, a good book in hand (they had Kindles in the middle ages…), candles dotted around the room, thrilling quick dives into the fridge to stop the cold from escaping. After an hour, though, the electricity was back, and with a heavy heart I turned on the laptop and resumed my research on late Victorian comedies of manners.
As I’d settled down in my comfy chair though, I’d been transported back to a time when I was about 13 years old. It was a Thursday night, about 9pm. My friend had given me a lift back from Guides, and I darted through the bullets of rain, up the mossy drive and through the side gate to my grandparents’ house. I took off my shoes, water dripping from my coat all over the kitchen floor, and was greeted by Luke the dog. The electricity had gone out in the storm, and I could smell the log fire burning in the living room before I saw it. Grandma had made hot chocolate for my brothers and sister, and I joined them. Grandad was telling the boys some of his army stories, which were possibly too wild for my sister and Grandma, who were sat on the other sofa looking at photographs by the crackling firelight. There was a bit of a party atmosphere, and we were allowed to stay up later than usual. It wasn’t the absence of electricity that made it a special occasion, but more that we were stripped back to basics. We spent the evening altogether as opposed to spread about, our varied preferences of after-dinner TV being what they were. When my electricity went out last week, this memory came back to me as clear as day. It’s funny how the absence of the internet can actually bring us closer to our memories. Sometimes it’s surprising to recall that there was a life before facebook, memories and experiences that are only documented in your mind and measured by how they made you feel, not how many likes it received.
Anyway, this warm fuzzy tangent began with suspended water. My lifestyle has been somewhat adapted to fit the scenery, and I quite like it. I make a big pan of chicken stew every couple of weeks, and without cornflour to thicken it, I strip the chicken off the bones, then throw them back into the pot to thicken it. I buy fruit and vegetables every day off the sellers in the street. I buy eggs freshly laid, covered in poop and feathers (heaven knows what ordeal the poor hens go through). I walk places. I make my own hair dye because the stuff on the shelves here is all designed for black hair. I wash my floor with a cloth on my hands and knees. The other day I bought a Rubix cube, quenching the thirst for some form of procrastination that doesn’t involve make-up tutorial videos. It’s probably easier for me to see the novel side of having no running water than, say, someone who has never had running water. Being raised in one of the richest countries in the world, I live in a bubble of such excess that I resort to cultural appropriation to feel mildly human again, all the while safe in the knowledge I can retreat to my real world of modern conveniences when I start to get dirt under my fingernails.
Anyway, my life of mildly reduced convenience is rapidly coming to an end, a fact that I have severely mixed feelings about. I want to write a post every week from now on, partly to piece together my scattered thoughts but also because I won’t have much to write home about when this is all over, so we’ll see what other nonsense I can find to write about before then.