What my neighbors are doing

In the greatest mystery since the appearance of a dead cockroach on my bathroom floor, my neighbors have been making all variety of strange noises lately.

Right now, I believe my upstairs neighbors are doing the bunny hop. Or possibly playing “whack a cockroach” very, very rhythmically. Yesterday I also heard what sounded like vigorous floor scrubbing at around midnight, and a persistent humming in the plumbing.

Today someone was using a chainsaw in the apartment block, I think in the apartment below me.

In light of Halloween, I guess it’s appropriate that my neighbors are acting weird, but it still makes me really curious.

A Familiar Feeling

When I was growing up, the house of lived in was in a desperate state of disrepair. It leaked in the rain, and windows didn’t seal, so it was quite cold almost all the time. Accordingly, when I was home I was almost always tucked under my blankets with a warm kitten on my lap.

Lately, the weather in Beijing has been cold and foggy, reminding me of San Francisco weather. Last night a sudden, violent rainstorm kicked up, and it’s still very windy here today. My downstairs neighbors’ satellite dish fell off the building and is now hanging by a wire, waving around and banging against the building with every gust. The awning outside my window (formerly above my window) looks like it may also disengage itself from the building without much more prodding from the weather. I hope the air conditioning unit from the apartment upstairs is secured more tightly than my awning and my neighbors’ satellite dish. I don’t want that thing falling through my window.

My house is cold, and I’m already hating the winter weather. The only silver lining is that I potentially get to see things fall off our building and plummet to the ground. Yay for destruction of property!

Caitlinpedia Brown and the case of…

In this installment, Caitlinpedia Brown investigates the mystery of the apparating bugs.

Caitlinpedia Brown sat on her toilet, sleepily musing about the rest of her day. Her hot water had been fixed and she felt quite content with her apartment. As she stared absently at the tiles in front of her feet, she noticed a small brown object on the floor. Having recently cleaned, her curiosity was piqued.

What’s that?” Caitlinpedia Brown thought to herself.

She got down on her knees and examined the thing up close. It was, in fact, a small, upside-down, deceased cockroach, with it’s little legs curled in the air.

Bewildered, she pulled herself up and started washing her hands. On the sink fluttered a small black fly. She considered killing it, but decided to let it go free. The fly wasn’t hurting anything, and it would likely soon decide to leave the bathroom for the great outdoors of its own volition. Caitlinpedia Brown turned off the tap and continued her musing on the mysterious dead cockroach.

She remembered that several months before, the first night she had stayed in her apartment, she had seen about four small cockroaches scatter when she turned on the lights. Those cockroaches looked much like the dead one now occupying a conspicuous spot on her bathroom floor.

She also considered that she had seen small dead cockroach bodies when moving large and disgusting cabinets in the kitchen.

But in the months she had lived in the apartment since the first night, she had not seen a single live cockroach. She had even tried halfheartedly to catch cockroaches by turning lights on suddenly and looking in corners and behind furniture. She had attacked dust balls and trash piles with vigor. She had even been careless about leaving food in the sink and cookie crumbs on the counter. But these efforts had come to nothing. She began to think she had hallucinated those first four scampering cockroaches she had seen.

She could think on no way for the dead cockroach body to have gotten in its current location without there having been a live cockroach in her apartment recently. But she still could not resolve the feeling that something was missing, and questions were unanswered.

Why did she never see live cockroaches?

Why, if there were live cockroaches, did they never go near her food?

And why, why, did it seem that the cockroach had crawled out of hiding in order to die in the middle of her floor? Why not die somewhere dark and secure?

Something was afoot. Had someone come into the apartment and deposited the little cockroach body? Were cockroaches coming in from outside, only to die from the bleach solution she used to clean the tile floors? Was it even really possible to keep a cockroach population at bay with simple bleach solution? Questions swirled in her mind all day, and she could barely keep her mind on school and work.

She eagerly went into the bathroom as soon as she got home, hoping to find some new evidence. But now, a new mystery faced her. The cockroach was as before, confirming that it was indeed very dead. The sink had changed, however. Now perched two black flies, not the innocuous one that she had let live out of the kindness of her heart.

Caitlinpedia Brown began to wonder if the dead cockroach had been a red herring. Perhaps it was the flies, and the flies only, that posed a real threat.

Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion to Caitlinpedia Brown and the Mystery of the Apparating Bugs!

And the guessing games begin…

This morning, after a relaxing breakfast and browse on the Internet, I decided to take a shower. I turned on the gas, turned the handle that directs hot water to the shower, and went to start running the water in the bathroom so it would heat up. I turned on the faucet and immediately knew something was terribly, terribly wrong. The water only trickled out in a pathetic, sickly way. So I tried the shower, and then the kitchen hot water faucet. All the same — no water. My cold water and toilet (thank goodness) still work for now. My laundry machine does not. I have come up with three possible reasons:

1. I didn’t pay my bills. Bills in China are a little mysterious. They don’t get mailed to you, you just seem to have to know when to go to the bank and pay. Last month I got a bill stuck to my gate for water and gas, but this month I didn’t, so I figured bills aren’t paid on a monthly system. My other foreign friends who have lived here for months said they only got one notice on their gate as well, and they seem to still have working amenities.

A few weeks ago, my phone suddenly stopped working, which after I went to the bank I discovered was because I hadn’t paid my bill. How I was supposed to know to pay in the first place remains a mystery.

2. There is construction going on and the building’s hot water got shut off. Seems likely they would do this without warning anyone.

3. My building is janky. This is pretty self-evident.

I guess I’m going to the bank today to see if that’s the problem. If not, I guess I’m calling my landlord, who will probably not be able to do much if it’s anything that’s a real problem. Great.


So after ruling out the late bills, my landlord came over and wiggled some knobs on my hotwater heater. I guess something was just a little loose or sticky or janky, because he got it working again. So for the folks out there who had big money riding on this, the winning answer was number three: my building is janky.

Oh, that conniving government

Even if you don’t know your garlic press from your pasta maker, you can probably recognize this brand as a leader in knife sales. But you may be surprised to know that Henckels does not always sell knives, at least not in Beijing.

Let me draw up a time line for you, and we can see understand this problem with more clarity.

August 8, the Beijing Olympics begin

August 9, an American tourist is stabbed in Beijing, incurring increased security measures

August 16, I move into my new apartment

August 24, Beijing Olympic games close

September 17, Beijing Paralympic games close

Like most people, I began shopping for needed household items as soon as I moved into my apartment. One of the most important things to me was to get my kitchen up and running, so I began buying all my pots, pans and the like. Unlike grocery stores in the U.S., most stores in China are more like Costco — they sell virtually everything you need for your house. So, I began what would become a long and tiresome search for a knife at Wu Mart, the giant chain grocery store near my house that sells everything from lingerie to kitchen stoves to fresh-cut fish. I cruised down the silverware and kitchen utensils aisle, looking desperately for a kitchen knife, to no avail. Thinking it was a fluke, I asked an employee, only to get a terse “no knives” answer. So a few days later, I went to Bonjour, a competing large supermarket. Again, “no knives.”

Figuring I must just not know where Chinese people buy knives, I started asking around. Most people seemed bewildered that I couldn’t find one. So, I visited several malls and went to their home wares sections, only to continually get the “no knives” response. Weeks passed, Jeff and I went traveling, and I arrived back with the Olympics over and a renewed hope in my heart that I would be able to find a knife. The shelves at Wu Mart remained empty, and the local malls had nothing for me.

This is where Henckels comes in. While out with Jeff and my parents in mid to late September, we went to the most upscale mall district in Beijing. Jeff marched me into a Henckels store, almost demanding that knives be sold. We went to the salesgirl, and I asked her whether they had any knives for sale. Her embarrassed reply was “not right now.”

I’m sorry, “not right now?” What does that mean?! Also, this is Henckels. They shouldn’t sell anything but knives! But the store shelves were devoid of anything sharp. I asked the other stores there, and got basically the same answer. Finally, I started a new strategy: “When will you be selling knives?”

“September 20th”

Now, often when something inconvenient or sort of stupid happens in Beijing, it is blamed on the Olympics. This time, it really was the Olympics’ fault. As it turns out, stores across the city were banned from selling knives. Most people never noticed, because you only need to buy kitchen knives a few years at the most. I, however, spent over a month unable to really cook anything or eat fruit that required chopping, all because the government is crazy paranoid. Let the record also show that to get into the games and all subway stations, you have to go through screening, so a knife wouldn’t get anywhere anyway. But let’s not get fooled by logic.

On September 20, I tried again to get a knife, only to get the same responses from salespeople — no knives. Annoyed, I put forward the claim that it was September 20, and I knew knives were allowed. But, the salespeople said they hadn’t gotten the official OK yet.

So, finally on Sept. 28 or so, I finally found a knife at an upscale store. It was more expensive than any knife I’ve ever owned — over 200 kuai, or about $40 USD — but I decided to just get the dang thing.

A few days ago — as in early October — Wu Mart started selling knife sets with cutting boards and honers for 35 kuai. I was rather upset considering that the cheap knives were put back on the market way later than the expensive ones, but bought the set anyway since it was useful, and I had this nagging compulsion to stock up on knives.

Beijing bureacracy really does something to your psyche sometimes.

I guess the lesson is: the government can stop you from cutting up veggies for dinner, but it won’t go out of it’s way to prevent you getting kidney stones at breakfast. What a safe Olympics!

Home sweet home

I’ve spent a lot of time fixing up and cleaning my apartment lately, so I thought I’d fill you in. I know many readers found it shockingly disgusting, so I thought I’d set your minds at ease.

A few weeks ago, my parents came to visit and true to form, my dad helped me to get rid of an unwanted house guest. He scraped all the black grease off of my pipes, lizard and all, into a bowl. After a few days of deliberation, I decided to throw the bowl out instead of try to de-lizard and de-grease it. Now every time I go into the kitchen, I have to admit that I admire my pipes and their lack of lizard.

My mom and Jeff cleaned out my balcony mudroom, which permanently turned a pair of formerly blue washcloths grey. I don’t mind touching surfaces in there anymore, and my clothes line willingly holds the weight of wet clothing. Huzzah!

My kitchen is getting homier and homier. I bought a spice rack and have been dutifully filling it with spices and surrounding it with a meager collection of Chinese sauces. I also have a new teapot that doesn’t leave strange flakes in the water, an oven mitt and several cutting boards. I have even cooked several meals in the apartment with some success!

Best of all, my kitchen no longer has quite as foul a weird smell, as I spent several days ridding the kitchen floor of years’ of old food and oil spills. When I got the apartment, I assumed the tile had come up in some of the corners, revealing the dirty cement beneath. As it turned out, the dirtiness was actually an inch-thick layer of gunk on top of the tile. Now that I’ve rid the kitchen floor of those patches over a period of several days’ work, the place is much nicer. Jeff also was nice enough to completely clean the grease off of one of my large kitchen cabinets.

Since some of the counter tops weren’t really salvageable, I put a nice thick plastic mat over them so I can still set food on them without being grossed out. I also got a nice little dish rack.

Obviously the kitchen was my top priority, but I also spent some time getting the bathroom in order, because it also had some peculiar smells. It took some elbow grease, an extra-strength toilet bowl cleaner and some chemically dubious drain de-clogger, but now it’s quite nice. I even got a fancy toilet scrubber with it’s own ducky bucket — a huge improvement over the previous oddly colored naked scrubby brush left on the floor by previous tenants.

Jeff also built me a nice shoe rack, so my entryway now looks very inviting and organized. He made it out of a plank and two speakers, all of which was left by some previous tenant, so it’s both attractive and free! I also bought a rainbow umbrella, which really livens the place up.

Yesterday I bought a floorlamp to keep the place nice and bright at night. Most lights in China are pretty dim, and being a 120-watt kind of girl, it’s been a little dreary living in a dimmer environ. It may not look like much, but it makes a world of difference.

Now, I just have to get my “living room” area (the other side of my bedroom) set up, and the apartment will be just right!

Caitlin is a silly girl

The other day, Caitlin and I were cleaning her apartment, working our way through her dirty kitchen.  I was cleaning the stove diligently, and she was cleaning the pipes.  Well, that lasted a few seconds.

She let out a shriek and leaped off the stool, nearly curling up into the fetal position.  I bet she would have if the floor weren’t so dirty.  She pointed at the pipe and made me look.  I found this:

Of course, that picture didn’t come easily.  She wanted it to blog, but she didn’t want to have to look at the thing.  I wanted her to blog about it, but I didn’t want to have to clean my horrendously greasy hands to take a picture, then get them all greasy again.  She refused to take the picture, eventually leading to a heap of shuddering fright and depression curled up on the bed.

A little while later, I took the photo.

EDIT: Caitlin’s friend Sam just saw it and said, “I can’t believe something came into your kitchen and died because it was so dirty.”

Apartment of Horrors: The Bad and Ugly

My landlord has had the apartment for ten years, and it pretty much seems like it hasn’t been cleaned in all that time. A lot of my free time has been spent making the place clean and liveable, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. So aside from the dirt and the washing machine flooding, there are a few things I’m not so happy about.

I don’t think the stove vent grease catcher has ever been cleaned. Yes, that’s about 12 cubic inches of grease. mmmm….

Before Jeff arrived, I went a little crazy getting ready for his birthday celebration. I bought a ton of pastries and fruit and was really excited to have them for his birthday. When I got home, I put them in the logical place — a drawer with pictures of fruit and veggies on it. Apparently in China, that means it’s the freezer, so a few days later all the fruit was pretty much ruined. Boo.

This is the worst of all. A few days ago while cleaning the kitchen, I decided to tackle the layer of grease that has coated all the pipes and levers in the kitchen. I have to turn the gas on and off when I want to cook or have hot water, and it was getting old that my fingers would get coated in sticky black grease every time. Just as I was really getting into it, I discovered this on a nearby pipe and let out a shriek. Please only click on it if you’re sure you want to know. It’s not for the faint of heart, or those who have eaten recently.

So I freaked out, because obviously that is worse than cockroaches. I hopped around the kitchen for a while going “ew ew ew” and then begged Jeff to take care of it. After a discussion that ended in him threatening to throw the thing at me, I ran into my bedroom and proceeded to hide under the covers for a while.

It’s been a few days, and we still haven’t disposed of it, although I have faith that Jeff will do that soon. Every time I turn the gas on I have to avert my eyes so I don’t see it perched up there just six inches away from my hand.

In sum:

1. things will get better after I get everything more or less clean.

2. bleach is a wonderful thing.

3. Cockroaches aren’t so bad. Plus ever since the first night I haven’t seen any more of them, so I guess they must hate foreigners.

Apartment of Horrors: The Good and Neutral

My neighborhood is really cute. It’s made up of tiny alleyways filled with tasty, questionable food and colorful retired people. This is the alley right outside my apartment.

Here is a picture of the largish street that runs through the neighborhood. There are a lot of restaurants, small shops and hotels along the street.

Another really wonderful thing about my apartment is that it not only has air conditioning, but it actually keeps the apartment comfortable without any annoying problems!

My apartment has nice views of trees. Also, it has a nice mudroom for hanging clothes that gathers a lot of heat and dries my clothes really quickly. It has contains a cactus that came free with the place. Sweet!

Here is the layout of my apartment, as best I can capture it on film. Since Jeff has been here, I haven’t had time to clean the place up too much, so I was delaying sending out pictures. But I’m sure you’re all curious, so I decided just to bear the embarrassment and let you see the mess.

The kitchen:

The stove (no microwave or oven):

The front hall, which contains my fridge and washing machine:

My bedroom, with a grand total of three desks:

Apartment of horrors: Moving Day

Last week I finally moved into my apartment, and hilarity ensued. ICYC, it’s the one all the way at the far end, second from the top.

The first day I moved in, I cleverly enticed my friends Dave and Ellenor into helping me move my things into the apartment. Having bought way too many books before moving, I immediately regretted living in a sixth-floor walk-up. My landlord came over and helped me get my locks switched, after which he showed me how to use the laundry machine. Then I went shopping with my friend for cleaning supplies, as my apartment looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in about ten years.

Some time while I was out, I got a text message from my landlord that translates to “I haven’t been living in the apartment continuously, so please don’t flush the toilet before going out, so as to avoid a water disaster in your apartment.” Needless to say I was a little put off.

When I finally returned home, it was well after dark. I’m pretty independent, so the idea of living alone hasn’t bothered me much, but I have to admit I was a little creeped out to spend my first night alone in a new place. It didn’t help matters when I opened the door, groped around for the light cord, finally got the lights on and saw little cockroaches scattering under the fridge.

On a side note, the toilet still has not flooded the apartment, but the laundry machine usually does.

Terribly spooked by my roaches, I turned all the lights on in the apartment, ran to my bed, turned the TV on and cowered in the middle where I figured roaches wouldn’t get me. Now, one delightful thing about renting in China is that electricity is pre-paid. Of course, my landlord hadn’t prepaid very much for me. Just as I was beginning to feel more secure about the roach situation, and was enjoying the Olympic gymnasts soothing flips on TV, all my power suddenly went out.

Now I was really upset. Afraid of the bugs, I slid into my sleeping bag for protection and listened to my ipod, but really didn’t sleep most of the night on account of the paranoia and lack of air conditioning. The next morning I took a cold shower before going out to purchase electricity.

It was a rough start to what has been tempestuous relationship.