shanghai postcard #14: a cautionary tale concluded

I am madly in love with my new apartment. Love in this case is synonymous with repetitively adjusting the position of furniture by an inch or two, scrubbing away decades of kitchen grease from corners, and cleaning paint spatter out of grout with a putty knife. Definitely love. 

It's quiet, peaceful, and it would take a truly impressive plumbing disaster for a sewage back-up to reach the third floor (not to jinx it or anything).

The old house was cozy and sweet, and probably slowly killing us. If you follow the news, I'm sure you know that air quality is a really big deal in China right now. Shanghai is better than Beijing, but you're still living with a constant irritant to your lungs. From what I've read, a really terrible air day is about as damaging to your lungs as smoking a single cigarette.

Your lungs get used to it relatively quickly, and when you get somewhere with good air, you usually have a day or two of coughing as your lungs clear themselves out. 

I've been having that cough in our new house. That's how bad the dust was in our old place. It was coming from the floors, the exfoliating plaster from water damage, and there were several civilizations of mold growing behind the furniture. 

So what gives? It's largely an issue of build quality. Old houses here (like our last place) are pretty much one step up from camping. They weren't built with indoor plumbing, and the retrofits aren't very good. They're un-insulated masonry that radiates cold in the winter. In the summer, the walls soak up water from humid air and you have to run de-humidifiers constantly to control (note I do not say prevent) the growth of mold and mildew. 

I already miss is the intimacy of the neighborhood, but this was also a mixed bag. You hear everything happening around you when you live on a lane - one neighbor trying to teach herself opera everyday for hours, a crying baby on the other side of a wall, un-neutered cats wailing out their longing for love. Sometimes, what you hear will break your heart. One night about two months ago, I heard a nasty three-way squabble - husband, wife, and mother-in-law. The next day, my sweet neighbor lady is walking around with a black eye. 

The weird and wonderful balance of living abroad is that it's a constant, ongoing cultural experience. It's also your life, day by day. There's a tension between the two, and balancing them isn't always easy. You are also perpetually a guest in somebody else's country, and a good guest is grateful.

There's an elegantly simple science experiment used to teach kids about centrifugal force. You put a cotton ball on a spinning record player close to the center, and slowly move it out to the edge. There are a range of points where the cotton ball will sit perfectly still on the spinning record - but put it a hair's breadth too close to the edge, and it goes flying off. 

For me, the old house was too close to the edge. The experience was also deeply humbling because it puts my choices in perspective. I have the privilege to move, to leave, to change my situation - my neighbors, for the most part, don't. 

Today, I'm writing from a sunny workroom looking out on trees in a place loved and cared for by friends for three years. This space is a (mostly) known entity. I have no doubt it will reveal quirks and moods I can't imagine yet, but for today, I am in love.

And I have grout to scrub.