Life in a Beijing Hutong: Initial Impressions

We recently signed a one year lease on a local hutong home called a ping’an. A hutong is a cultural community of homes in the traditional style, single-level and with minimal amenities. We decided that if we were going to live in China we should experience life like a local, and thus we moved into a hutong.

Our first impressions are complex. We find that nearly everything in the ping’an is broken. The landlord assures us these will be fixed or replaced soon. We’re not bothered by this as we expect things to take more time in the hutongs.

Second, we find the Chinese style bathroom to be something we expect will take some time to get used to. The bathroom is a tiled room about the size of a closet. It has a sink, western toilet and ceramic mop bucket under the sink. The sink has no pipe, but drains free-fall into the ceramic bucket underneath which then drains into a hole in the floor. The shower is simple a showerhead on the wall, with no doors or compartment. This means that whenever you shower the entire bathroom gets soaking wet. A drain in the middle of the floor empties the shower water. Since the whole room is the shower, you can’t store anything in the bathroom, and even putting the toilet paper somewhere dry has become impossible. We’re trying to come up with a smart method to deal with this style bathroom. My idea—a wooden sauna floor so the water drains under it yet you and walk in without getting your shoes wet and tracking water throughout the house. The temporary solution—slippers for the bathroom only that you put on anytime you go in. We’ll come up with something to make this workable and enjoyable!

Living in the hutong means living in close, close proximity to a lot of people. Although we haven’t formally met our neighbors, everyone knows foreigners live here. Case and point, when I came home from the teahouse this morning where I do my internet stuff, the police were at the ping’an telling me my neighbors reported that I had failed to register as a foreigner living there. (You have 24 hours to register with the police as a foreigner living or staying in China, I had about 3 hours left on this clock when the police arrived). They were extremely polite and I told them I’d register that day, which I did. However, I think its amusing that so many people already know we are here and keep an eye on us. This can be a good thing, once we prove we are not here to be loud, annoying or disrespectful. Also, the lady who reported us was 90 something years old, and you know how old ladies need drama!

The last thing I’ll mention as an initial observation is the amount of noise you hear in the hutongs. First, animal noises. I like all of these, including the pigeons, the cats and dogs people have as pets that run around the alleys, and even the sounds of some creature at night making a nest somewhere on the roof. Being close to nature, even minimally like this, is much nicer than the total lack of wildlife in the apartment complexes. The human noise in the hutong is extreme. People on bikes go up and down the alleys throughout the day yelling things like “mechanic available!” or “trash collection!” or “handyman!” or “housecleaning service!” I think this is great, but since it is all day long, I wonder if several months from now I’ll still find it quaint and fun. Several times a day a group of old men and women walk by and I hear bits and pieces of local gossip. If my Chinese was better, this would be really cool. I hope it improves so I can eavesdrop more efficiently. They play go and Chinese checkers outside the house sitting on little stools and gossiping, which is, so far, my favorite part of the neighborhood life.

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