A version of this story was published as part of monthly series that ran in the Warrensburg, MO The Daily Star Journal from Oct. 2000 through May 2001.
Uncertainty In Moving From Proverty
Before we came to Beijing, Otto, our contact person assured us we would be housed in the new International Conference Center (ICC). Before we arrived, he told us that the new building might not be ready for a few days to allow paint fumes to escape. On arriving, it was obvious that the new building was weeks away from occupancy.
I advised Otto that he might want to be more concerned with the credibility of his messages. He seemed to take my advice seriously. He, then, conceded that it could be two months before we moved.
Otto obviously had ability to complement his native Tibetan charm and obvious ambition. I wasn't surprised when he was promoted to Director of the ICC.
On October 14, Sara returned from her power walk with the biggest smile. She had keys to the new flat. It did not have hot water, phone, gas, refrigerator, or washer even then; so, we still could not live there, but we could start moving in our stuff.
That night, our neighbor, a young diplomat from Singapore who was also anxious to move, and we walked up to Big Burger to celebrate and then returned to simply sit and marvel at the niceness of the new place. Of course, we were amused at ourselves because the apartment was very ordinary by States' standard.
For China, the quarters were unbelievably nice. It had on/off switches on the walls and there were multiple lights in the living room and there was a bathtub with its own drain separate from that of the sink and an American-Standard toilet and a direct hook up for the washer and a sink and half in the kitchen and counter space and shelf space and a 40" Panasonic TV and a bed with box springs and, as hard as it is to believe, for China, a toilet-paper holder!
So, for the last time, I took our four big suitcases down from a small storage area near the ceiling of our bedroom and moved them to the new apartment. They still contained our winter clothes. I was glad to have access to long sleeves because, like weather in Missouri, it had turned chilly quickly.
Time moved slowly after getting the keys. The cold winds filtered through the drafty old place. The bed seemed increasingly hard; the shower/toilet stall seemed increasingly dirty and the shower head because so clogged as to require daily cleaning. Finally, we managed to get the head replaced, three days before we moved.
That same day, Sara came with the " now we can go... watch out!" news: The new building had no hot water! Like a true Missourian, I had to see for myself.
Having been shown, I was standing on the steps to the new building weighing the options (cold showers Vs totally cold living environment) when Otto walked up. He wore his charming boyish smile.
He assured me that we did have hot water and proceeded to escort me back to our apartment and instructed me on how modern faucets have hot on one side and cold on the other.
I stood there, not knowing how best to respond, as he held his hand under the tepid water telling me that it was hot. I was grateful that my communication training had provided me with so many options for handling complex situations. I regretted that the training did not prepare me better to select the appropriate option.
I turned away without saying anything and then looked back at him in disbelief. He returned my stare and after a moment said harshly, "You have to be more patient."
Poor people do in poor ways. The poor must hustle, maneuver and sometimes distort to improve their lot. Otto's struggle reminded me of my sharecropper heritage; but, perhaps not enough. There are ways, distortions, that, I believe, are too poor even for the poor. But, perhaps I simply didn't understand the complexities of Otto's poverty.
What I did know walking silently back, with him, down the hall was that we would never be friends.