shanghai postcard #13: a cautionary tale

shanghai postcard #13: a cautionary tale

I’m sitting in my office, diffuse sun streaming in through vintage sculptured glass windows, listening to birds sing.

There’s an inch of raw sewage filling the downstairs bathroom, and I don’t care. 

I am ignoring it with determination because there's a door between me and it, and it's a perfect parting gift for our landlords (just for the record, we have informed them that it's there).

We're moving. Ten months into a three-year lease. Out of (despite its issues) the coolest place we’ve ever lived in China.

Two weeks ago, it was freezing cold and my hair was wet, and so I tried to turn on the downstairs heating/cooling unit. There was a loud popping noise, a smell of burning plastic, and then something that looked like the black smoke monster from Lost emerged from the wall socket.

It is in this moment I realize we’ve been living without a household fire extinguisher for five years.

I turned off the heater, turned off the circuit at the breaker box, and cleared out the smoke.

The landlord was notified, and the property management company sent over the king of “mei ban fa” (“mei ban fa” is a wonderfully useful phrase in Chinese, usually translated as “this problem has no solution”).

The handyman in question has been called to the house several times to address our sewage back-up problem. He comes in, looks at the problem, shrugs, lights up a cigarette in the middle of the living room, says “mei ban fa,” and leaves.

He actually did something this time! He took apart the plug from the heater, looked at the wiring inside the socket, and pronounced it “bu dui” – incorrect.

In short, the heater pulls enough amperage that it should be on its own circuit, and that circuit should be grounded.

It turns out that whoever ran the wiring in the house when it was renovated didn’t ground anything, and the wires are just loose in the walls. Way to save time and materials! They just put on three-prong wall plates and called it good.

Oh, and did I mention the water heater for the shower is in-line and could (at least theoretically) electrocute a person in the shower if there’s an electrical fault?

The landlords said they would only pay to fix it after they’d seen the problem – and they couldn’t come see it for a week.

Dear Husband, an excellent local fixer, and a master electrician met with them (I was out of the house because my rage would help nobody). The landlords were all sweetness and agreed that we had to leave so they could fix the problem. We didn’t have to pay rent for the last month, they would return our deposit, they are so sorry.

Five days later, they emailed us threatening “negative consequences” if we don’t pay the rent immediately. Oh, and they’ve hired a lawyer, are keeping our deposit, and want additional money from us.

This is kind of a big deal because there are no tenant protections for foreigners. They can lock you out of the house and seize your belongings, and if you go to court, you have to surrender your passport for the duration of the case.

Right on cue, the sewer line backs up again. It’s been raining for the last couple of days, and more water is seeping into the walls causing the plaster to bubble and flake.

There’s no doubt that we have to go.

I just hope it's to a better place where there's a fire extinguisher, and sewage stays flushed.