As is the case in many developing countries, in China, tap water is not safe for general consumption. Before I moved here, it was the first time in my life—aside from a brief family vacation in Puerto Rico—that I had to envision going through life without being able to drink the water. I imagined lugging a miniature reverse-osmosis water filter to China to hook up to my kitchen sink and brushing my teeth with rainwater. My old housemate Brendan, when he was living abroad in Taiwan, told me that he took precautions both to boil water and then run it through a Brita filter before he deemed it safe enough to drink. In reality, though, the situation here is a lot tamer than I anticipated. We have a snazzy water cooler in our living room with a split hot/cool water valve system, and when we finish each 20-liter reusable container, we simply call to have a new one delivered right to our door.
I realize the privilege that comes with being able to drink tap water, and yet ironically, in some of the only places in the world where that's a viable option—America and Japan, among them—it is becoming more and more unusual. People have become so afraid of the safety of tap water that it is gradually being phased out by the bottled water industry. By contrast, in China the fear of tap water is not irrational—whereas Indian locals actually do drink the water, no one in China drinks straight from the tap. Rather, all of the water is irradiated or boiled, making the only water served at restaurants scalding hot. It also means that in order to have drinking water, students must carry large hot water thermoses to water-filling stations on campus and wait until the water is cool enough to drink. There is a danger that comes with a society used to handling boiled water, evidenced by the burn marks and scars on many of the people.
A long line of spigots at a hot water filling station on campus.
But aside from drinking water, water culture in Taigu is a complexity in and of itself. For one thing, it's hard to tell whether or not the black water that seeps into our washing machines actually gets our clothes any cleaner. For another, the water in our houses turns off at 11pm every night. That means no showers, no washing hands, and no brushing teeth. In spite of the annoyance, what's worse is that the schedule is incredibly inconsistent—sometimes the water shuts off as early as 9pm or stays on all night. Every turn of the faucet makes for a thrilling adventure—at times it's business as usual, but every third or forth twist, it'll surprise you.
The shower is equally as finicky. I pray for those rare times when I can take a shower completely uninterrupted by the gargling sounds of the pipe gaskets, a prolonged shock of coldness, or the water intermittently turning off for minutes at a time. I like to compare my shower-head to a spitting dragon—every now and then it likes to sputter and hiss at you with a concentrated blast of scalding hot water. The quality of the showers also varies based on the time of day—with the water pressure deviating from a healthy stream to barely a trickle. But the worst and scariest by far are those times at night—past the water cut-off curfew, with no shops open and no water left in the cooler—where we literally find ourselves without any means to drinking water. It's yet another reason, I'm learning, not to take even the most basic things in life for granted.