The meanderings of a recovering ex-expat with the occasional identity crisis
I sometimes tell people that, if I hadn’t gotten an MBA, I would’ve gone into home construction and repair instead. A PhD in Plumbing, an Associates Certificate in Dry-Wallcology, or a Bachelors in How-the-F*ck-is-that-House-Still-Standing??
In 2000, I purchased my first house – a desperate, 1927 fixer-upper in Seattle, the only thing I could afford. The previous owner was an eccentric old lady. There was a large yellow area on the front lawn, where the old lady had once kept her windmill. And then smaller depressed areas of grass where the garden gnomes once stood. Part of the house didn’t even have a foundation: the concrete slab was just sitting on a pile of dirt, which eroded with the (frequent) rain and wet, causing the house to increasingly tilt to one side.
I took a Home Improvement Class at a community center, believing that a 6-week course would help me turn my wreck of a home into something worthy of “Better Homes & Gardens”. However, I dropped out of the course after the It’s Hammertime! class, where other students had managed to build perfectly symmetrical birdhouses, while my creation looked like it was found in a massive car wreck, with twisted nails sticking out everywhere. The instructor kept turning the birdhouse I had made over and over in his hands, as if looking for the dead bird that was impaled on one of the nails. Finally, he told me to work on my “hammering skills”; however, something in his eyes said that he was deeply sorry, but it was too late for me to get a refund on the course.
Because of my bad experience with old houses in Seattle and my home-remodeling-impairment, when I arrived in China I wanted to purchase a brand new condo, which would be free of any problems. In a country that’s constantly building new homes, getting a cheap new condo was easy. I finally chose a top-floor condo, with an expansive view of the city, a rooftop deck and a little dining patio. I imagined inviting all the friends I’d make in China to a barbeque on my rooftop deck. I envisioned sitting on my patio with a little koi waterfall pond, sipping espresso and enjoying my Sunday mornings listening to soothing, happy music. The patio and the rooftop deck were the reasons why I bought the condo.
However, when China says it’s selling you a brand new home, it means you’re just going to get four concrete walls with a concrete floor. YOU put in your own plumbing, walls, and electrical hook-ups.
This is how you purchase a new home in China: after going through the mortgage massacre, you get a deed to a property for the next 75 years or so; you’re basically leasing the property from the government till then. Nobody ever really owns a piece of China.
So, this pad that has your name on it for the next three-quarters of a century – you hire a contractor/interior designer to plan and purchase all materials and build everything for you. You spend a day or two running around looking at tile, wood flooring, and marble samples. Then toilets, sinks, toilet roll holders. Then kitchen cabinets and cabinet hardware. PVC pipes or the cheaper plastic kind? What kind of railing for the staircase? What brand of light-switches – Siemens, or the local Chinese brand? What kind of casing on the wires? Should the wiring run a direct route (cheaper), or more circuitous, but easier-to-access route (expensive). Toilets vary in price from US$15.00 to hundreds or thousands of dollars. Low-flow or industrial flush? Heated, hermetically-sealed toilet seats, with self-changing plastic on the seats? Regular or rainshower shower heads? How many bottles should the wine rack hold? How many towel hooks/racks are needed? Should the living room curtains match the chair covers? Curtains or blinds? Should there be a dimmer or just a regular off/on switch? The kitchen counters cannot be as dark as the flooring; the kitchen cabinets should be a stain-camouflage color. How many electrical outlets needed for the TV/Entertainment Center area? Will the stereo wires be built into the wall? And the wine rack again. Are 20 bottles really enough?
Towards the end of construction, the problems began. Or I should say, the problems became too BIG to ignore. A “brand new” condo in China isn’t synonymous with a “problem free” condo. But in China, any problems are first met with feigned ignorance till a) they go away; b) people forget about or give up on them; or, c) the problems become so huge you can no longer sweep them under the rug.
Problem: my brand new condo was leaking. A. Lot. In the living room, water was seeping from beneath the wood floors, causing them to buckle. On the ceiling of the second floor there were large water stains in the master bedroom and the study. On the walls of the living room, water was condensing in droplets. When it rained, water would drip from the window frames. And my downstairs neighbors, the Lins, complained that water from my beloved koi waterfall pond patio was seeping into their master bedroom, which was directly underneath.
As the pipes in Chinese condos usually run through the floors, my contractor first dug up the living room floor revealing…nothing. The pipes were not leaking; nobody could locate the source of the seepage, which was starting to creep up from the baseboard to the walls. The living room carnage remained for more than half a year, while my contractor argued with the builder over whose fault it was for something both had no clue about.
The windows and walls took two years to fix. Oh, but the ceilings! Over the next four years, six contractors came to fix eight different leaks on my ceiling, as a result of my rooftop deck leaking. I never got around to the BBQs, as the rooftop deck was always being repaired (and I made no friends in China, only enemies). It became like a Whack the Mole game. Once one leak was fixed, another one would pop up. The leaks were so bad and so numerous, that the builder resorted to “new technology” – a machine they’d purchased during a state-of-the-art Plumbing Convention in Guangzhou. Gelatinous goo was shot into strategically-placed holes in my ceilings. The goo was to expand and stop water from seeping through, but instead mixed with the water, so when it rained big strands of snot hung from my ceilings.
And my downstairs neighbors – the Lins. I’d only met Mrs. Lin twice, after waking her up from her nap with the construction noise. Each time she wore her tired pink Hello Kitty pajamas and curlers to rant about the noise and the water damage to her master bedroom. And each time, she was led away by her apologetic husband, who was missing a few front teeth.
I’d never seen their water damage personally, but my Mother, my contractor and the Condo Association have said that the master bedroom should be a bio-hazard zone, due to the amount of mold on the walls and in the air. The wooden door frame was separating from the wall and parts of the wall were so wet with water that chunks of plaster were coming off.
As a testament to Chinese patience, I had at first managed to keep the Lins at bay for over a year through irrational Communist Chinese logic (ie. Deflecting/misplacing blame, while playing the sympathy card) – How can you be certain the water is coming from MY patio? What about the neighbors next door above you? And look at my place, I’m practically living in an aquarium myself! I’m unmarried, no man in the house and have to take care of two old parents. Now with all this water, no man will have me. Who will HELP ME?
But gradually, what was left of my condo oasis – the gurgling zen pond, the espresso (the coffee got moldy), the soothing music (the bookshelf stereo broke) – were taken away from me. The pond was emptied, dissembled, and the koi fish given away. This didn’t stop the leaking, so all the pipes on the patio were disconnected. That didn’t do the trick either, so the patio was completely torn up, re-waterproofed and put back together. Nope. Another contractor came along and did the same thing all over again. Nada. Finally, it was decided that the guest bathroom adjoining the patio was seeping water through the shower, underneath the patio, then downstairs to the Lins’, so the shower stall was torn up, waterproofed then put back together.
As my contractors were waterproofing the shower, they noticed water seeping from my neighbor next door onto my patio. While my efforts did reduce the Lins’ water seepage, it wasn’t till my next-door neighbor fixed his leak that the Lins were finally water-free. And it took only 5 years.
I’m writing this post sitting on my living room sofa with the missing backrest, while staring at my dark TV with the blown picture tube, and listening to the bookshelf stereo that will play only one CD at varying volumes. (Can’t get the stereo to eject the CD and volume setting is busted.) My place is sweltering, because the air conditioner isn’t cold enough. Later, I will put on my slippers with the missing soles and cross my uneven, weather-beaten wood floors to pull out a room-temperature seltzer from my so-called fridge.
Some people might wring some learning out of my experience. Like, don’t buy condos in China, or anything made in China. But for me, the lesson’s painfully clear:
Nobody ever owns a piece of China; it owns you.
My smelly, lopsided, gnome-infested house in Seattle never looked so good.