When I first moved to China, I met someone who was considering buying an apartment in a brand new high rise building with a beautiful view over the bay. She was disappointed, she said, because the only apartment she could afford was on the 30th floor, rather than the one on the 3rd floor which she’d wanted to buy.
I was flabbergasted at this. You’ve got a 30th floor apartment with a fantastic view over the water, and you’re disappointed that it’s not on the third floor where the view isn’t nearly as good? What are you thinking of? Her answer was: “What happens when the elevators break down?”
And again, I did a double-take. You’re buying a brand new luxury apartment. What is this “elevators break down” of which you speak?
Now I understand. This is China.
Granted, my apartment is not a luxury apartment, but it’s run by the kith and kin of people who run the luxury ones. None of them are to be trusted.
Tonight we were going out with the dogs, and the second elevator in our building, the one that has been working double-time while the other one was on a ten-week sabbatical, was not working. The light was blinking on the sixth floor. I knew that this did not bode well.
I told my wife, who as of tomorrow will be seven months pregnant, that she shouldn’t go down 15 floors with me, because we’re going to end up walking back up again.
No worries, she said, in effect. Surely it’ll be fixed by the time we come home. I argued with her. But she wanted to walk, so she walked. Mama rules.
Normal people really don’t want to walk up or down a staircase anywhere in China. It’s disgusting.
China is a filthy place, in general. Everyone in China is a generation or two off a farm where they fertilized their fields by spreading their own “night soil” over them every morning, and that “night soil” was collected from the hole in the ground into which every family member spent their effluence.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, and it’s really no fault of their own if they haven’t fully absorbed foreign standards of public hygiene. They didn’t have the luxury until quite recently, and the concept still hasn’t spread.
Even people who take good care of their interior space, once they walk out into the hallway will hawk and spit, drop their trash wherever they feel like it, and let their dogs pee.
(On our way down, tonight, I actually had to correct a dog right in front of us who was lifting his leg every half a floor. His twenty-something owners sort of laughed, but they stopped letting him do it once I shouted loudly enough. It took two sharp corrections — and I’m not sure if I was correcting the dog, or the owners.)
No one ever mops the floors or cleans the walls.
Men whose wives won’t allow them to smoke inside the apartment, routinely smoke in stairwells.
The stairwell is vile. It’s barely above a cesspit.
You really don’t want to climb down, and you especially don’t want to climb back up again,. Fifteen floors of a dark, dank, stinky stairway. I didn’t want my wife to do it, especially not with Roman in there.
So as we were standing out there in the hallway, before we'd made the decision to climb downstairs, Ma Lei said “You go home. I’ll walk the dogs.”
Are you kidding me? There was no way on earth I was going to let her risk having to carry those two heavy little creatures along with her pregnant belly up fifteen floors of filth.
I wanted to send her back home, but that was a battle I couldn’t win. Mama wants to walk, Mama walks. The four of us walked downstairs together.
It was in fact a beautiful evening, and we had a lovely walk around the complex. When we’d finished one lap, we sat for a while on a nice little bench in front of our apartment building. Then we walked again for a little while.
When we returned to our building, “surely” the elevator had not been fixed. It was still blinking “6,” so we went back out and sat again for a while.
It was actually very romantic, perhaps the more so because we were both looking at a giant climb ahead of us.
At some point, Ma Lei remembered that there’s a security office with cameras all over the complex (a thing she reminds me of every time I go to smack her butt or otherwise toy with her on the elevators). So she went in and knocked on the door, to see what the elevator cams had to say.
As Chinese always do when they are on the defensive, the security guy sounded aggressive, or borderline hostile. When you hear a Chinese low-level employee talk, it almost always sounds as though he’s fighting with someone. He wasn’t talking about anything that was actually his fault, but he was surely heading off anyone else blaming him for it. I believe they call it “deflecting.”
We knew it wasn't his fault. Ma Lei even said "I know it's not your fault," more than once. Yet he railed on about how it wasn't his fault. It must suck to be someone whose culture presupposes his guilt long before there's any evidence of it.
The message was that yes, the elevator is out of order. No, it’s not going to be fixed tonight. It will surely be fixed by tomorrow morning.
In my American opinion, he could have conveyed the same message in a way that didn’t sound as though it were Ma Lei’s personal fault that the elevator was not working. But perhaps in China he’s just too used to people blaming him for what’s not his fault, so he’s got to deflect the blame.
Anyway, we’d gotten the message. We gave up and climbed the damned stairs.
On the fourth floor of our building, someone has abandoned a nasty old yellow-and-chrome couch that looks like a prop from the set if someone had made a Jetsons movie in the seventies. Ma Lei stopped for a break there, and the two dogs had probably reached the max of their climbing ability, so I scooped them up and trudged them up the other 11 floors while she rested. To my marginal credit, it was only when I reached the 13th floor that I lost my breath a little and had to take a quick break.
Ma Lei isn’t in terrible shape, herself, and sat there for not too many minutes.
She saw two twenty-something young men who’d bought a large mattress, struggling to haul it to the 10th floor. That would suck way worse than carrying two doglets or one fetus.
What motivated her to get moving was when she heard someone climbing the stairs below her, cursing even worse than I do at the incompetence of our building management, and threatening even worse horrors than my threat of hiring a lawyer. (Mine is toothless, anyway, since there is no functioning court system in this country.)
Ma Lei thought this woman must be talking to a friend on her cell phone, but no. Just as I am prone to do, she was cursing into space at the evils of Chinese management. It happened to be our pudgy, forty-something next-door neighbor, so Ma Lei got up and kept company with her on their way up the stairs.
We’ve been told that the long-errant elevator is going to be working within two days, and tonight we were told that its healthier brother will be back on the job tomorrow morning. I hope it’s true.
It just occurred to Ma Lei a moment ago, tomorrow morning is going to be interesting. It’s a Sunday, but there are plenty of people who have to go to work. Without a single elevator working, they’re going to be climbing down the stairs like ants down a tree trunk.