Sometimes I become lulled into thinking that I’ve got used to living in China and that I will no longer be surprised by what I see. But I was jolted out of my complacency this afternoon in Metro. I noticed a young woman in front of me at the checkout changing from slippers, new furry ones picked up in the store, back to her own ankle boots. I naively imagined that she would pay for the slippers along with her shopping. But no, once all her stuff had been put through, she gave back the slippers to the guy on the till. She’d just been wearing them to be comfortable in the shop! No one batted an eyelid.
At the weekend we renewed our acquaintance with Landlady’s Dad, who appeared on Saturday afternoon in charge of The Installation of the New Water Heaters. Two young plumbers were in attendance, one wearing ear muffs against the cold. It quickly became obvious why, as none of them made any attempt to keep the outside door closed. Every time I got up to close it, they quickly reopened it. Why would you want to heat your house? Fintan and I sat shivering on the sofa, a couple of bit players in the main drama being enacted in our flat.
Landlady’s Dad strode around, shouting into his mobile phone and occasionally at Young Plumber with Ear Muffs, now engaged in making maximum mess in our bathrooms. It didn’t occur to him to cover anything up, and soon the toilet cistern and surrounding accessories were covered in thick red dust. Once the water heaters were in place, Landlady’s Dad called me over to look at the fancy new digital remote control, covered in Chinese characters. Clearly he had no idea how to use it himself, and hilariously while Young Plumber demonstrated the temperature up and down arrows, Landlady’s Dad told me that my husband would know how to use it….. Young Plumber was quickly paid off and LD casually assured me that the old tanks now filling up our spare bathroom floor would be collected tomorrow. No one mentioned the mess.
There are little piles of post-construction debris all around our compound and out on the street and by the new mall. Often a bit of the pavement gets dug up and then no one bothers to clear up the excess cement or left over pieces of stone. We were just experiencing the same phenomenon on a domestic scale. LD picked up pieces of spare pipe, a new shower head, wire and screws and offered them to retreating Young Plumber. ‘Bu yong. Not needed,’ he shrugged.
Meanwhile, two days later Alice continues attempts to negotiate the removal of the old tanks, in between making arrangements for her recently announced and to us, unexpected, marriage. At one point she was checking out when the plumber might arrive, while posing for her wedding photos somewhere in Ningbo. I was profoundly embarrassed at the intrusion; she was completely unphased. We have been invited to a party in March that will take place after the honeymoon. Colleagues tell us that Fintan should prepare to make a speech. The actual marriage is apparently an unaccompanied visit by the couple to register and get a licence and seems already to have taken place. While we fly to India, Alice and her husband will take a honeymoon in The Maldives. Apparently Chinese people don’t need a visa to go there; someone has spotted the potential for Chinese tourists. A pity the Indian government don’t take the same view. She will return in time, as a good daughter and daughter-in-law, to spend the Chinese New Year with family.
Meanwhile, the new water heaters work extremely well and once more we are enjoying hot showers. One last surprise – unlike every other appliance in the flat, the heaters are A rated – the best for the environment. In the short term the installation caused a commotion and took us time to clear up, but in the longer term maybe it represents a chink of light in China’s environmental problems.