I realized, as I was looking back over recent posts, that I haven’t written much about China lately. There are a couple of reasons for that. It feels like I’ve already told you everything there is to tell some days. I hardly bat an eye today at the things I used to raise an eyebrow at when I first arrived — the spitting, the wandering goats, the hanging meat in markets, the diaperless toddlers. Or, I might not smile as wide when I experience some of the things I like about Haiyang — the flat bikeable and runnable country roads, the cheap massages, the travel opportunities. On the days when nothing at all happens, it feels like life here is just too damn boring to tell you about. Then there are the days that just, well, suck. I try to keep those days to myself, but sometimes I can’t.
Last Friday, an email arrived in my inbox informing me that our apartment would be inspected and that “each and every [furniture] item” provided by the owner would be looked at. Of course, I wasn’t the only one who received this email. All the expats did. We get emails like this all the time. They serve one purpose: to remind us that we are guests here. It’s as if we were of the untrustworthy, uninvited variety when, really, we are here helping them achieve their goal of building a power plant. (Okay, I may not be helping much with that, but Iggy and all the other engineers sure are.)
The owners — the state-owned company that is building the power plant and that owns our expert/expat village — don’t seem to understand that the relationship between themselves and us is mutually beneficial. They don’t often go the extra mile to respect our culture, even if we place a big emphasis on respecting Chinese culture. Last year, we made sure to serve Chinese food during a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the American companies. We were told it would be rude not to. God forbid we try to share one of our most celebrated holidays with our Chinese co-workers and friends and serve only American staples.
Compromise is the name of the game and it should be. But it’s not always. We’ve been told in the past that Fourth of July barbeques can’t be held and fireworks can’t be set off. This year, Halloween decorations placed on some of the expat apartment windows had to be taken down. On Christmas Eve last year, we were informed of a planned power outage that would occur on Christmas Day. You can imagine how well that went over.
I don’t say much when these minor cultural collisions happen. I don’t have to because so many other expats do. Quite loudly. To be honest, I don’t really care. Sure, it’s annoying, but what can I do? I am a guest here, plain and simple. I don’t expect to be catered to. If I did, I would’ve stayed back in the U.S. in my nice familiar, comfortable cultural bubble. So, when I was told that Iggy and I had to live with the mold and leaky sinks, windows, and ceilings in our apartment, I did my best to accept it. When the water supply gets cut off for a day or the internet is down for a couple, Iggy and I might bitch to each other, but we don’t freak out about it. It’s part of life here. We get it. We sigh and move on.
It’s taken two years but this email about the furniture inspection struck a nerve. I lost my cool, which meant I sent a curt email back and refused to let the owner’s people into our apartment. What does the owner think we do to the faux Ikea furniture they’ve provided us with? Scratch it? Burn it? Paint it? Our apartment walls don’t have paint in some areas because it had to be scraped off due to reoccurring mold. The tiles in our shower are about to fall down. Our two-year old teeny-tiny owner-provided oven broke two weeks ago and I was told that I had to fix or replace it myself. I did. Given these larger issues, it’s unbelievable that they care so much about their cheaply made, cheaply bought particle board furniture.
A Chinese friend told me that this type of inspection is normal. It’s done in school dorms and offices every year. Maybe so, but we’ve been here for two years and this is the first time it has happened. This inspection, this new policy, feels like an invasion of privacy whereas others have felt like petty attempts to control us. There was one on designated scooter parking (we can’t park our scooters in the empty parking spaces behind our apartments) and another on walking dogs (it’s not allowed within the village grounds). These are but a few examples and I’m sure there will be others in the future. We’re living in our own version of Animal Farm here, but it’s not the all-controlling pig, Napoleon, issuing the orders from behind closed doors, it’s the all-powerful state employer.
It would be nice if the owner extended a little courtesy to its foreign guests by trying to understand us as much as we try to understand them. Since this is most likely not going to happen, I’ll do the only thing I can: vent my frustration on the sucky days. After all, I’m just a guest whose tepid welcome officially wears out in two years when Iggy’s contract ends.