The meanderings of a recovering ex-expat with the occasional identity crisis
Most of us are aware of the more obvious dangers that living in China might present – crossing the street and getting hit by a car, driving and getting hit by a car, walking alone at night and getting mugged or hit by a car. Death by diarrhea. But envision my lifeless body head first in a washing machine too small to even hold the contents of my stomach and now you’re getting a glimpse into how my life will probably end in China.
I’m not saying that all things made in China are crap; I’m just saying that most things made in China have a vendetta out against me. They want to frustrate and destroy me, because I expect them to work in the way that they’re supposed to. My washing machine shouldn’t be urinating all over the floor, when it should be using that water to wash my clothes. My TV shouldn’t die one day, only to suddenly resurrect itself several months later in the dead of the night with a commercial about male virility drinks.
Here are some other made-in-China things that almost killed me:
1. The Water Heater
In many parts of China, hot water is a luxury. Most public bathrooms – even the bathrooms of restaurants – don’t have running hot water. Many private homes will have hot water only in the bathrooms, but not necessarily in the kitchen. Some homes won’t have any hot water. Washing machines always run on cold water.
When I moved to China, I insisted on hot water in ALL areas of my apartment which have running water, so I purchased two mid-range water heaters. Unlike hot water tanks, which we use to in North America, the hot water heaters only heat water when you need it.
Like a tumultuous relationship with two horny twentysomethings, my Chinese water heaters vary in temperature from whatever the temperature is outside – sometimes as low as 8C (48F) in the winter – to over 80C (176F) within 60 seconds.
Water boils at 100C (212F).
Once the water hits that maximum temperature mark, the water heaters lose steam immediately: the temperatures drop back down as quickly as they came…up. The water heaters then roll over and go to sleep for a few minutes, till they’re ready for another round.
I’ve learned over the years that, in order to take a decent shower, I have to be a Chinese water heater tease. I can never let my water heaters reach their max temps, if I were to get off…with a nice, hot shower.
During my shower, I have to frequently adjust the faucet lever, moving it very slightly left or right, so that the water temperatures don’t get too hot or cold. And sometimes, if I feel that the water heater is about to shoot…to its maximum temp, I just immediately turn off the shower and wait for the water heater to calm down a bit and re-calibrate.
But sometimes the hot water heaters hold out no matter how much I coax them. Several times I’ve fallen asleep sitting on the lid of my toilet, waiting for the water to heat up. Other times I couldn’t take a shower, because the water temperature was hot enough to skin a potato and wouldn’t go down.
If only dating twentysomethings were that easy.
2. The Hot Chili Sauce
Several years ago, my Mom visited me in China and took me on a pilgrimage to find 老干媽Old Godmother’s Hot Chili Sauce. We went to every wet market, supermarket, grocery store and hole-in-the-wall storefront that sold everything from ball bearings to leaky pens and Qtips. Finally, Mom found a treasure trove of 老干媽Old Godmother’s Hot Chili Sauce and immediately purchased 6 jars.
老干媽Old Godmother’s Hot Chili Sauce is not for the faint of heart, and this Godmother is not a Fairy Godmother, but a Don Vito Corleone type of Godmother. In fact, if the Don had his own brand of chili sauce, it would be similar to 老干媽Old Godmother’s, except there would be the added ingredients of gunpowder and his victims’ blood, while 老干媽Old Godmother’s Hot Chili Sauce contained fingernail clippings and eyebrow hairs, judging by its appearance.
Mom wanted to try the sauce that night with some noodles, so I took a random jar and tried opening it. The lid felt as if it was fused with the glass jar. I soaked the lid in hot water for a few moments, then tried again. Nothing.
I tried tapping, shaking and rolling the jar, which also did nothing. I put on my rubber work gloves and tried. Then, I tried with several other jars – all with the same result. I even tried rolling the jars down the steps. Nothing.
It was inconceivable that none of the six jars of 老干媽Old Godmother’s Hot Chili Sauce jars could be opened after half an hour of trying. I was starting to believe that 老干媽Old Godmother had something personal against me and was highlighting my stupidity, because there was a trick to opening these jars that I’d obviously missed. In fact, all of the labels on the jars had fallen off with the water soaking and the contents inside were more visible than ever, mocking me.
To prove that I wasn’t a colossal failure and that it was 老干媽Old Godmother’s fault, I started searching my cupboards for other jars with twist lids, so that I could open them. I had a jar of imported Italian capers which expired three years prior – opened, without problems. Roasted red peppers I’d brought from the States – opened in ten seconds. Olives – no brainer. Asparagus – piece of cake.
But each time I’d build up my confidence by opening a jar of something else, 老干媽Old Godmother would shoot me down by refusing to budge. When Mom finally returned from shopping, she found me asleep on the sofa in a fetal position, surrounded by unopened jars of 老干媽Old Godmother’s Hot Chili Sauce and their soggy, wet labels.
That night we dined on olives, asparagus and roasted peppers. 老干媽Old Godmother’s Hot Chili Sauce was never mentioned again.
3. The Sweater
When the temps of South China went down,
Susan went out on the town.
Bought herself a sweater,
Which smelled worse than bad leather,
And made her look like a fat, pink clown.
My first winter in Southern China was a surprise. While temperatures soar past 30C (86F) in the summers, winters can be bone chillingly cold, sometimes with lows of 8C (47F), made worse by the dampness. Southern Chinese houses don’t typically have heaters, so when the first cold spell hit, I ran to the nearest clothing shop looking for thick, warm sweaters.
The biggest clothing store in the industrial town I lived in at the time only carried sweaters in one size – a size that was suitable for a dachshund. But the saleslady assured me that the sweater would fit. So I purchased one white crew neck and one pink turtleneck sweater made from a strange wool/acrylic/silly putty blend – both with the labels DYNK. (Dink?)
As most shops won’t allow patrons to try on clothing in the store, I went home and tried on both sweaters. They fit rather well, but smelled like they’ve been dipped in diesel. The white sweater was eczema. I scratched like a baboon with crabs. The sweater’s material was also coming off in little white balls.
The next day, I had a meeting with an important client and decided to wear the pink turtleneck sweater. To mask the crude oil smell, I sprayed on some perfume. I smelled like Coco Chanel lounging on the deck of the oil tanker, Oriental Nicety (formerly known as the Exxon Valdez).
What had started out as a normal-looking sweater at the start of the meeting, metamorphosed into a ten-headed, two-tailed monster. Sitting in the enclosed meeting room, the gasoline smell became even more noticeable. For some reason, the left sleeve, which was the same length as the right at the start of the meeting, was a good three inches longer by mid-morning. The material had the elasticity of chewing gum and was stretching out in the weirdest way in big lumps and folds. Before lunch, I noticed the seam on my right shoulder had come apart and my white undershirt was visible. Within four hours, I looked like I had gained ten pounds.
When lunchtime came, I let my assistant take the clients to lunch – a big, BIG faux pas, but I need to regroup on the sweater thing. Judging from the knowing looks in my clients’ eyes, they probably figured by my smell that I was going to join a lunchtime protest of radical Falun Gong followers, who were going to immolate themselves.
After spending the lunch hour going to several local stores, I still couldn’t find a suitable sweater replacement: the sweaters were either too small or too ugly. And all of the running and moving around had caused my sweater to stretch out even further. I eventually spent the afternoon in the stifling meeting room wearing my winter coat, claiming to be freezing.
I have not purchased another item of clothing in China since.
In case you don’t believe any of the shit that happens to me in China, I want to illustrate to you the environment I’m living in with the following toys that are made in China for the Chinese – You Can Shave the Baby and anatomically-odd dolls.
I’m not sure why the baby’s hair is red; maybe as a way to better Sino-Ginger diplomacy?
Keep in mind, these toys are sold in stores in China:
Question of the day: What are YOUR experiences with made-in-China products?