The fumes were like nothing I have ever experienced. My stomach churned, my head pounded, and I was scared I was going to faint or die from the odor. I finished up my duties as fast as I could and ran out, covering my mouth and nose.

I was not walking the floor of a chemical plant inhaling toxic waste. I was in the bathroom of my friends’ home. Nearly a decade and a half later, my nose still burns and my eyebrows twitch when I think of the revolting smell wafting from that bathroom.

My friends Winnie and Karen were young twentysomethings when they invited me to their home to spend the night and to see how everyday urban Chinese lived in the late 1990s. I was so excited because at that time, Chinese did not invite many foreigners over for a visit—let alone overnight—probably out of fear of neighbors talking or embarrassment from being too poor.

Until then I had visited maybe a dozen homes in China, but I had never slept over at one. Most of the people I had visited were professors or government officials. It always seemed they had approval to invite me over. Even officials’ homes were insanely tiny and cramped, more like walk-in closets than homes, really. The rooms were dark, and every last piece of space up to the ceiling was filled with boxes. I wanted to see how most urban Chinese lived, in the ramshackle buildings that dotted the landscape.

Winnie and Karen were everyday Chinese people, working as clerks ...

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