I was looking through an old box of belongings over the weekend that I had stored at my mother's home. In the box I found a stack of photos taken during my first time in China. Amongst the photos were these two of the apartment I lived in with my girlfriend on the southern extreme of Xi'an from about the fall of 1993 through summer 1994.
The apartment consisted of a tiny entry room and then the bedroom. It couldn't have been larger than say 8-10 m3 all together. It had electricity but no running water, no toilet, and no heat. The facilities were either communal concrete holes a couple minutes walk down the street, or a private stall in the military hospital about a 10 minute walk away. We had a space heater in the winter but it was still damned cold. The apartment was state provided housing for peasants who had been forced off of their land by the development of the city southwards. My girlfriend rented this room from one of the peasants. I believe the rent was 85 RMB per month at the time or about $11 at the exchange rate then.
When I lived in Shanghai and Beijing the last 4 years it was very common to hear foreigners in China talk about the "real China". This comes in the form of either bemoaning that Shanghai/Beijing/other big city is not the "real China" or talking about going on holiday in some godforsaken place that is the "real China". I am sure that this will be familiar to just about all lao wai living in China, I am sure I heard it at least once a week the entire time I was there.
"Real China" is codeword for "poor" although the speakers are not thinking about it that way in their minds. Instead they are envisioning a simpler (and in their minds more pleasant) life of happy peasants and maybe industrious craftsmen. Whenever I would hear this talk of the "real China" I would have a nice self-satisfied smug feeling as I could think back on my experience living in Xi'an and know that I had lived the "real China" that they are talking about. But I also remember the reality slap that I felt when one day I was forced (by a circumstance I may tell at some future time) to understand that this life was only an adventure for me, only fun for me. For everyone else around me (including my girlfriend) it was just their life, and not one they would have chosen if they had that choice. It was, and continues to be, a life with few or no options. Looking back on it now, I can only imagine how incredibly stupid those neighbors must have thought I was to choose to live in that fashion. There is nothing romantic or adventurous about living in poverty in the "real China" nor anywhere else in the world I suspect.