An evening of competitive games and endless snacking had come to a close. Three groups of freshmen roommates were putting on their coats and boots and heading home. Several stayed back to help me rearrange my furniture from the group circle for twelve to the living room for one. The door closed and I made a cup of tea, cracked open the Oreo packet someone had left and flopped down into my most comfortable chair. It was a fun night—but I was happily tired. So ready for this quiet moment.
Suddenly I heard footsteps coming up the stairs and familiar voices calling out my name. My students. When I opened the door, a boy asked about a forgotten red scarf. As he retrieved it from behind my comfy spot, he caught sight of my cup and cookies on the small table. If a face can show pity, his was oozing with it. “Oh, Teacher Barbara, you’re just one now.”
My students in a hospitality and tourism school had come to the city for training that would hopefully lead to jobs in the travel industry. I learned very quickly they had no desire to talk about their present living situations. Their textbook had a chapter on homes with specific rooms and furnishings. No one seemed interested. I pressed on. Later I learned through other expats that most of them lived in apartments that had been divided many times. A room was designated by a curtain on each side of a bed, a shelf, and a chair. Too late for them, I changed that lesson plan.
For an exercise in using adjectives, my students wrote of a dream home. Their responses ran from high rise condos in a huge city to the one room of their grandparents in the countryside. One young man wrote that he wasn’t sure of the structure he wanted but he knew it would include a garden; “I think you say yard in your country. I just want somewhere I can go that’s not inside.”
My English majors of many years ago lived in dorm rooms with 4-6 sets of bunkbeds. When I visited, the girls would invite me to have coffee at the table that ran down the middle of the room. Soon a few would pull back the curtain hanging over each bed to reveal their “nests” as they called them. A tiny bookshelf at the end of the bed, a flashlight on a hook, and pictures taped to the wall.
Many years later I would visit my colleagues’ homes. Though my entire apartment would fit inside some of their living rooms, the space was generally shared with others. Parents, grandparents, aunts, cousins studying in local grad schools, and maybe even a nanny from the countryside each had their corners.
Lest you think I am now going to add my own story to theirs you would be mistaken. One of the biggest ways I have stuck out in Asia is my home. It is all mine. Though I have been asked, “Who else lives here?” “Are you lonely?” there seems to be an understanding that, of course, I would have my own place. That’s how “we” live. This was an assumption no matter if the employer was providing my apartment or helping me find a long-term guest house.
Yes, times are changing and dorms rooms abound with only two residents. Thirty-somethings start careers in big cities with just one roommate and occasionally on their own. Sharing space does not guarantee a loving multi—generational household. Some parents and grandparents do not want to leave their small towns, even to join younger, more affluent family members.
As I begin my life in my fourth Asian country I am welcomed by new neighbors and colleagues. I have already met local sisters and brothers with whom we share a heavenly Father and a peace not found in any current news. Nevertheless, as in all the previous cities and towns, I have yet to meet anyone living alone.
In the myriad of articles on our present world situation my eyes recently stopped on one sentence introducing a collection of stories.
Readers tell us what it’s like to almost never be home alone.
Yes, many are making this discovery. Let’s just not forget that this new reality for some—what “we now know”—is already well known by most of the world.
Image credit: Arend Kuester via Flickr.
Barbara Kindschi has had the privilege and challenge of teaching English in six cities in China and now Myanmar and Laos. Undergrads, professors, hotel employees, monks, and beauty pageant contestants have sat in her classroom. All have been both her students and teachers. View Full Bio
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