The concepts of manners and personal hygiene are viewed very differently in China. In my two years in the country, I saw people clipping their toenails at their restaurant table, grown men defecating by the side of the road, a pretty violent brawl between two old men on a bus and virtually everybody smoking everywhere all the time. Luckily, it’s always possible to retreat to your apartment for a break from the ceaseless assault on the senses. Unless, of course, you invite China into your home.
When I was looking for my second apartment in Shanghai, I was getting a lot of similar advice. Everyone I talked to recommended I find a place that was a few years old—if it’s much older than that, everything will be broken, but if the place is brand-new, nothing will work either.
Thanks to the generally shoddy construction work, new buildings are riddled with little screw-ups and whoever moves in first, will have to repair the numerous mistakes made by the migrant construction crews. If you move in after a few years, everything in the apartment should work more or less as it’s supposed to. Wait too long, though and the poorly executed repairs quickly give in to the extreme abuse and things once again begin to malfunction.
I was not privileged to any of this information when I got my first apartment. It was ancient and, while everything worked, none of it worked correctly—everything was slightly off. None of the windows closed completely, the toilet only flushed after the correct (and complicated) combination of jiggles, the sink leaked, and on and on and on. I’m guessing nothing in the kitchen worked either, but I barely even set foot in that room. Eating out is so cheap in China, that I didn’t cook a single meal in two years in the country.
Most of the issues in the apartment weren’t a big deal, but the leak in the sink kept getting worse by the day. Eventually I gave in and called a repairman. We made an appointment and he surprised me by actually showing up on the correct day. Naturally, it was nowhere near the agreed-upon time. He rang the doorbell, I opened the door and he barged in. Not a word was said.
Obviously, he didn’t for a second consider taking off his shoes either. Not that that would have made a difference—his feet were every bit as filthy and beat up as his plastic flip-flops. At least he wasn’t leaving footprints on my floor. Not on the way in anyway; he did leave a pretty good set on his way out.
I showed him where the sink was leaking and he seemed to understand—he got right to work. I went into my bedroom and left him to it. Less than a minute later I started smelling cigarette smoke. I went to check up on him and, sure enough, he was happily puffing away and ashing directly on my floor.
Considerate as he was, he soon took care of those ashes…by covering them with dust and some kind of black stuff that exploded from my wall the second he drilled into it. Then he added some more cigarette ash on top of that. He turned the whole mixture into a black paste when he tested the work he had performed on the sink so far—work that included removing the leaky portion of pipe, but did not include replacing it with anything. To his credit, he didn’t look surprised at all when the water drained through the open hole and ended up all over the floor. Instead he gave me a satisfied look that said, “yup, that’s what I was expecting would happen….”
I left him alone again. Even if I had wanted to say something, I knew he wouldn’t even understand what I was trying to get at. Not only did he not consider what he was doing rude at all, I bet he was thinking to himself how rude it was of me to not have offered him a cigarette.
At some point during the repairs, he got a phone call. While talking, I could hear him pacing around in the hallway outside the bathroom. When I checked up on him again, I saw that he had taken off his flip-flops after all and was pacing around my hallway in his bare feet. Since those feet had just been in the bathroom, soaking in my new black floor covering, I now had black footprints all over my hallway.
After a few more cigarettes, he finally called me over to show me his handiwork. As I was examining the new section of pipe he had installed, he wiped it clean with a dirty rag to make sure it sparkled. Never mind the black floor, hundreds of black fingerprints all over the bathroom and the footprints in my hallway—I could see myself in the pipe!
Clearly happy with his work, he said goodbye and left—left my apartment and left the mess. As I was cleaning up the black paste on my floor, I noticed he had left something else: a bloody, infected toenail. And not just a piece of a toenail, but the whole thing, colored black and dark red and a brownish yellow. On a positive note, my bright, shiny new pipe didn’t leak again…for almost a full two weeks.