Saturday, March 04, 2006

experience of two years ago part 2: issues with water -- use of the word "shit" -- denouement

Of course, I am writing this because just such an event happened to me. It was towards the end of my stay in Shanghai, I believe sometime in April, and it happened on one of those half-cloudy days, where there never seems to be any actual day but just dusk from morning til night. I was busy at the time preparing a lecture for the university--not a lesson for my students, but a major lecture open to the entire university community--and was trying to do a load of laundry while I worked. Although my landlady had warned me when I first moved in that my laundry machine had leakage problems, I had never noticed and never bothered to pay much attention. Yet when I went back into the room to take out my clothes, I saw that a great soapy puddle, about two inches deep, had formed over the entirety of the floor. Thinking quickly and, therefore, idiotically, I rushed into the kitchen, grabbed a coffee mug, and tried scopping all the excess water into the sink. In the meantime, water slowly seaped through the floor to my neighbors' apartment, dripping onto their bed and staining their ceiling and walls so that it looked as if an aggressive, shit-colored mold was invading their apartment.
Within minutes my neighbors were pounding on my door so loudly and violently that I thought that they were, in fact the secret police, come to arrest me for offending my class' sense of patriotism the day before by telling them that the school bathrooms were far more revolting than those in Japan (I had never been to Japan). Upon hearing this commotion out my door it was my natural and manly inclination to want to hide under my bed and then afterwards place the blame squarely on the shoulders of my Chinese roommate who was, at the time, not even home. Yet, sadly, some awful force compelled me to open the door and deal with my irate neighbors face to face, like a complete wuss. As usual, being honest and acting responsibly seemed to be useful only for making people yell at me even more.
I walked through my living room as one might towards a flogging (assuming, of course, that one did not desire to be flogged). After opening the door I was confronted with a visage of rage, mascara, and middle age and behind that visage was another, this one only slightly more masculine, and completely lacking any signs of mascara. The wife was standing there with her finger poised and at attention, ready to shove it in my direction and accuse me of the awfulness of which I knew I was guilty. Her expression seemed to be saying "The issue with the water is making me quite displeased. If I had a rigid enough spoon I would gouge out your eyes. Do you eat rice? I've heard that Americans don't eat any rice?"

But what she actually said was: unintelligible. My Chinese was awful back then. I understood something about things being wet downstairs. When I offered to giver her money to go home and shut up and pretend nothing ever happened, she said that she was very uncomfortable with the idea. As she was yelling at me her husband asked for my landlady's number and I gave it to him. Still pointing at me the wife forced her way into my apartment and looked around, then made a b-line for the room with the washing machine where, upon entering, she let out a gasp that indicated that she could hardly believe there was still so much ready to moisten their apartment. She grabeed a bucket (what genius!) and began scooping up water while I grabbed my mug, as there was only one bucket in the apartment. For a while we worked together in comraderie paling away the water and I even thought, for a brief moment, that perhaps I could call this motherly old Chinese woman 'mother,' and she could call me Lewis. But eventually she started yelling again.

At this point, when the yelling was renewed and I was ready to toss my neighbor out the window, my landlady arrived with her husband. Now, my landlady had expressed great trepidation at ever allowing a foreigner into one of her apartments. She made it very clear when I first moved in that she did not trust me, saying to my translator: "I do not trust him." The look on her face as she walked in was not as murderous as my nieghbor's, but it was much more disturbing and certainly showed that she was now certain of her initial estimation of me. All the contempt that she could hold within her seemed to be focused in her eyes and, when she glared at me, it seemed as if she was attempting to strip strip me down and flog me.

Yet she was not satisfied by simply shaming me with her eyes. She, too, began yelling at me and without stopping moved around my apartment and investigated it thoroughly (she had not yet even seen the flooded room), noting all aspects of my habitation that screamed of my personal filth and need to have a woman living me with me. She even yelled at me about my privacy curtain (note: you will never understand, and I can never adequately explain). Finally she made her way into the washing room, displaying a brave and determined countenance, as if she were a rescue worker about to investigate the scene of a great natural calamity.

It was obvious that she was mad. I was terrified. I heard someone mention the police. It was obvious that I needed someone who spoke far better Chinese than I, so I called my chinese friend, Wu, who showed up fifteen minutes later with his girlfriend. Now there were many couples in the room. Everyone was with someone except me. How sad and lonely I felt and for a while I thought about my first crush, Emily Perry, and then I thought about dinner because it was getting late. I quickly recovered and then asked my friend to please just allow me to give them money pay for the damages and make them go away and stop yelling. What followed was about an hour and a half more of debate and wrangling despite the fact that, I think, they were ready to accept my payment the minute I suggested it; however, to them no doubt the drama of the situation had not been adequately played out, I was trying to make a two act play out of one that really needed three, and they were determined to see it through to its deserved and necessary length. Finally, finally, finally, they accepted my donation and left, but not without first threatening that I might have to pay them the cost of a new air conditioner. It was an effective threat, because at this point all I wanted was this awful experience to be over. Eventually my landlady decided to leave too, but gave me a contemptuous look as she walked out the door, implying, I believe, that she was planning to soon return to tell me about how I needed a woman in my apartment because my dirty socks were scattered all about the floor.

I was thoroughly exhausted at this point. I thanked my friend and his girlfiriend and then after they left I lay down on my bed. It was now evening and the mosquitos that had snuck in during the day hovered all around me, their buzzing muffled by the whir of my air conditioner and the yelling of children just outside, a set of noises that, as I began to fall asleep, flowed together and became indistinguishable, a relentless, alien murmur following me and my thoughts into unconsciousness.

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