Feeling at home

We are staying at our friends’ house for a few days. They are out of town so we have taken them up on their offer to stay in their apartment in gated complex where many of Guangzhou’s ex-pats live. I have been considering the experience a bit of participant observation into the ex-pat lifestyle – and the chance to lounge around a bit.

Here are a few observations:
1. We are accustomed to being in our tiny apartment where you are always within a few feet of each other. In this large apartment not only are we unable to see one another, we frequently lose each other. I will be in one room and hear the children calling for me – way off in the distance. I call back but they don’t seem to be able to hear me. What will we do when we return home to 2 stories?
2. There is a Western grocery store here in the complex so we go over there to get ingredients for dinner. We are getting a little homesick for the Chinese food we usually eat. This is especially true since the grocery store is small so we find ourselves pretty much confined to tortillas and refried beans and pasta – not many of the things we would typically buy back in the States, from what we remember, anyway. Those meals are nice but they don’t trump spicy home-style tofu, egg and spring onion bing, and noodles.
3. I am sure that if I was here longer, I might get a better sense of the lay of the land outside of the complex, but from what I can tell this complex is mostly surrounded by park land and other gated complexes. There is no mass transit and it feels a bit isolating to me – probably the reason why I opt for a walkable life when I have the chance – not just places to walk, but things to walk to.
4. There really is nothing like a soft and pillowy sofa at the end of the day and nothing like an area rug for playing on the floor.

It seems to me that a big difference between the average Chinese and American life-styles is the nature of the home. Chinese apartments are typically smaller, inhabited by more people (e.g. 3 generations instead of 2), and lacking some elements considered crucial to most American homes – a large (or any refrigerator), central heating, soft furniture, carpeting and throw pillows, clothes dryer and oven. However, it seems to me that Chinese folks spend much less time in their homes – spending more hours at work, shopping daily at the traditional market for fresh meat and produce or eating meals out at restaurants and canteens, participating in morning and evening group exercise in the parks, spending weekend hours in green spaces picnicking and playing badminton with family. Americans on the other hand, live in larger and larger houses where they have all the “necessities” and then some (e.g. a tv in every room, gargantuan refrigerators and cupboards full of months worth of pre-made and processed foods with shelf lives suited to widely-spaced supermarket trips). There is no need to leave and, given the fact there one cannot get anywhere without getting into the car, for many (the old, the young, the households lacking wheels for each resident) there is not opportunity to do so.

So, what came first the big/little home or the lifestyle that suits it? Is the American home a palace or a prison? Is the Chinese residence a home or merely a place for sleep after a day spent in the company of others. If so, do Chinese experience “home” in the sense of place associated with family, comfort and belonging?

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