ticket to wash: grad life at the CATCM

3.30.05 (dubyruby)

(Since this is technically a public forum, I have abbreviated the names of the people I mention here to conceal their identities from the maybe three people who will ever read this)

Talk about needing a union—the grad students at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine (CATCM), it is universally agreed, live in conditions well below the Beijing standard. ZJ has told me more than once that she was amazed and appalled to discover how poor the living conditions were when she arrived, especially compared to her undergraduate school in Harbin (icy city in the far northeast). There, they had good, reliable Internet access, a telephone in every room, and only three to four students per room. Here, you can forget about the Internet. The students live eight to a small, decrepit room, their belongings piled on wooden pallets above their beds, one person’s bed separated from the next by a sheet draped over a wire. The building has no insulation to help with either the noise or the cold. ZLB and the pregnant roommate (I have never been told her name; she was introduced to me as the huaiyun tongwu, the pregnant roommate) joke that they are so physically close they feel like sisters sharing a bed. And JZH says when a cell phone rings in the room next door, she thinks it’s hers—it sounds like it’s right under her ear.

The stipend is 300 RMB a month, plus free housing, such as it is. That’s less than $40. Beijing is cheaper than Philly, but not THAT much cheaper. An average meal at the school cafeteria runs me about 5 yuan (60 cents). Multiply that by 2 meals a day (lunch and dinner), 30 days, and voila! You’ve spent your entire stipend. No breakfast. No dinners out. No new books or pens or clothes. And, uh, no showering. That’s right: to wash yourself you have to buy a ticket to the work unit’s communal shower, 1.5 RMB a pop (about 20 cents). So some days you might have to decide between green vegetables and clean skin. The other night JZH, ZLB, and the pregnant roommate were having a lively conversation at dinner about their recent attempts to purchase something—the creative ruses they’d tried, why they’d failed. I understood everything except the most important part: what the darn thing was. What coveted object could be worth all this guile and effort? A ticket to wash, they explained: the shower facilities at nearby work units are cheaper and cleaner, so life is just a little better if you can get tickets there. But to do so you have to convince the bureaucrat at the other shower facility that you have some legitimate connection to that work unit—you are so-and-so’s classmate, or so-and-so’s student, etc.

Everyone agrees, even ZLB in her cheerful, patient way, that the grads here get no respect. The explanation I’ve heard is that since the CATCM is a research institute and not a university—that is, there are no undergraduates—students are really an afterthought. I’m not entirely satisfied with that explanation, because the CATCM doesn’t feel to me like a place that cares much about research either. Maybe it’s because I haven’t attended classes here, as I have at the University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, or maybe it’s because I haven’t had that much interaction with the professors here, as I have at the Institute for the History of Natural Sciences, but from what I’ve seen, the CATCM is no ivory tower of cogitation. Most of the action here seems to take place in the acupuncture division of the campus, which is contiguous with the foreign visitors’ building (where I, oddly enough, do not live). The population in this part of campus seems to be pretty transient. There are westerners (mostly Germans) here for short-term acupuncture classes, lots of Chinese visitors doing ?, and busloads upon busloads of Koreans who seem to be medical tourists of some sort.

The other busy place on campus is the big white building, the drugs division. This is where the laboratories are, I believe. As far as I can tell, much of the CATCM’s work centers on scientifically testing and developing Chinese drugs for the market. In any case, most of the grads and professors here research medicine proper, and not history, and they do what scientists in America do. Last week when I talked to ZJ, a regular (medicine, not history) grad, she was busy writing up a report for the government agency that had funded her lab’s research on SARS. So it may be that the “focus on research” explanation is accurate, after all, but it’s mostly scientific and not historical research.

Recently ZLB and I were discussing her friend and laoxiang (person from her native province) LY, who finished her master’s degree in historical studies here but then switched to medical research for her doctorate. ZLB observed, “You really have to be a particular kind of person to want to continue doing history,” when the future prospects are so comparatively few and the current living conditions are so poor. “Are you that kind of person?” I asked. “Yes, I guess I am,” she smiled serenely. And I guess I am, too. But it’s all relative: I can tell you that if I had to buy tickets to a communal shower, I’d have been out of this grad school game ages ago.