The other day, I was berating myself for having trouble keeping up with household tasks and chores here in China.
The last time we lived in the States, we were in a two-story house. With some help from my husband and kids, I managed all the regular household chores fairly easily. Laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking and yardwork all got done without too much thought.
Now we’re back in China, in an apartment that is smaller than that house, with no yard to take care of. And yet, it has been a challenge to keep up with all that’s required to keep us fed and clothed. I caught myself thinking, “What is wrong with me?”
I had to remind myself that the answer isn’t what is wrong with me. The answer is something we often hear about living in developing nations: “Things are just harder here. Things just take more time here.”
But how exactly does that play out?
Let’s look at getting groceries as an example. Here’s a simplified glance into what it takes for me to get food into our home in the U.S. versus in China.
Getting To the Supermarket
U.S.: Walk a few steps from my kitchen to the garage where my car is parked. Drive to grocery store. Park, usually not very far from the front doors of the store. Done.
China: Several variations, but all of them involve quite a bit of walking, sometimes nearly a mile each way. Even if I have an electric scooter parked relatively close to my apartment building, there is still a hike waiting for me after I park at the store. The parking area is about a block away from the entrance to the supermarket.
U.S.: The store features huge shopping carts, wide aisles, and some kind of unobtrusive background music. No one looks at me or cares that I am there, except for the occasional employee who asks if there’s anything I need help finding.
China: Loud music and announcements are coming out of the overhead speakers. Bullhorns (no, I am not kidding) strapped to various displays blaring the same garbled ad over and over and over and over. Employees are stationed in the hair care, laundry detergent, and dairy product aisles, waiting to pounce to convince me to buy their featured product. Other customers inspect items in my cart or try to have conversations with me because I’m a foreigner. No matter what season it is, it is usually too hot in the store. The difference between the supermarket environments doesn’t necessarily take up more time in China, but it does mean I am usually on edge and mentally drained by the end of a grocery trip.
What I Buy
U.S.: Whatever is on my list. Usually enough food to last us a week. Often this includes things like pre-washed greens for salads, canned beans, or other “convenience” foods.
China: Whatever is on my list that is also actually in stock that particular day. Since I will have to hand-carry all the bags from the store for a significant distance, I limit myself to only purchasing what I can carry. Even if I have the rest of the my family with me to serve as pack mules, there is a limit to vehicle space for the bags since we don’t have our own car. And even if those things were different, there is no way a whole week’s worth of groceries would fit in our tiny fridge and cupboards. All of this means multiple grocery trips per week. My other trips are to vegetable stalls, which are not quite the sensory-overload circus the supermarket is, but they still mean more time out of my week spent getting groceries. None of my produce is pre-washed and it takes much more effort to get it clean and edible.
U.S.: Reverse of “Getting to the Supermarket.” Hauling groceries in from the garage to the kitchen is not my favorite task, but it sure looks better than…
China: Hand carrying bags of groceries, sometimes just a block to a scooter, sometimes the whole mile home. I have gotten bruises on my arms from bags that didn’t seem too heavy at the start of the journey. In some of our previous locations, we’ve hauled the bags of groceries up multiple flights of stairs to our apartment, so I am grateful our current place has an elevator. Drop bags down, nurse wounds, take a deep breath to clear my head of the noise. One grocery trip done!
It Could be Worse
I will be the first to point out that our situation in a Chinese urban area is far easier than when we lived in a rural area. Even then, China has better infrastructure than many countries of the world. Things could be much worse, and they are a lot worse for my friends who live in tougher places. I know people who have to go up six or seven flights of stairs with itty bitty kids in addition to the groceries. I have friends who live in places where they can only shop once every 4-6 weeks. Others live where electricity is not reliable, so storing things in a fridge is impractical, making daily market trips a necessity. When landslides, protests, or war shut down roads somewhere on the delivery route, goods might never even make it to the market.
But Wait, There’s More!
And that’s just the groceries. I could go on about all the other tasks of daily life that require more effort here. Laundry takes longer with a smaller washer and no dryer. Cleaning is a beast when you live with poorly sealed windows and a construction site next door. Dishes must be done multiple times per day when there’s no dishwasher. Water and power stoppages throw monkey wrenches into plans for getting chores done. Paying bills can take hours: first getting to the right place, then standing in long lines.
I’ve written about how it once took us a week and visits to multiple stores to replace a simple light bulb. I jokingly wrote a post called “How to Make Chocolate Chip Cookies in Just Two Months!” I’m sure most expats have plenty of their own tales.
My point is not to complain or to make those of you with cars and large fridges feel bad. I certainly don’t feel bad when I’m in the U.S. and have them! I just want to say that there are often conveniences in our first world lives that are easy to take for granted. These are invisible time-savers that have made life a lot easier in the States (and other countries, I’m sure). When you move to places without reliable electricity, your own car, online bill payment, or solid infrastructure, suddenly those conveniences disappear, and a giant chunk of your time disappears with them.
That’s why it’s harder. That’s why it takes more time.
It’s important to remember this if you’re living somewhere without all the conveniences you might be used to. I know I needed the reminder. Schedule more time for groceries and chores. Leave room in your week for errands that take extra time. And don’t feel bad–that’s just the way it is.
What simple errand isn’t very simple in your host country? How do you deal with feeling less productive in your expat world?