Tuesday, September 09, 2008

This Old House

I grew up in a middle class, Midwestern family. My parents owned every home I lived in, and they solved all of their own problems. We painted our houses ourselves - inside and out. We fixed cracks in the wall, replaced doors with windows, installed ceiling fans. As I grew up, it seemed to me that anything a house needs can be done by its owner.

When Dave and I bought our own house, I learned that some tasks are more difficult than my parents made it seem. We struggled with replacing drywall and building retaining walls. We asked my parents for help.

When L-- was born, we began a new project. Together with my parents - the home project king and queen - we purchased an 100 year old house and took on a full renovation. In this project, I had confirmed my earlier assumptions. Very few problems in a house require a specific skill. Most problems require a bit of research and patience, the willingness to learn and to try again.

Then we moved back into the world of renting. And renting in China, where quality is not assumed in anything and labor is cheap.

We have faced many problems that I know how to fix myself, and I often end up offering instruction to the workers. In the new home, many small problems have arisen which I know how to fix. Unfortunately, I don't seem to know how to communicate them.

The drains in our bathtubs ran quite slowly. That is, a few hours to empty a bath, an hour to empty a quick shower. It was not only difficult to keep our bathroom clean with this problem, but also difficult to manage multiple showers in the morning.

I explained the problem to our agent. He seemed unconcerned.
I explained the problem to our landlord's agent. He seemed unconcerned.

I explained the problem to the workmen sent to our apartment. I explained through a translator that the drain worked too slowly. He ran water in the tub, and then listened. You hear that noise? he said. That's the sound of water draining. Everything is working okay.

He was serious.

I tried to explain the problem again. He became quite animated. Through my near fluency in charades, I gather he said that For a problem as large as that, we would have to take the entire tub apart. I can't reach the drain unless I lift out the bathtub. And can you see here? This bathtub is attached to the wall. Plus, it is quite heavy. If she wants this done, she will have to speak to her landlord about it. This is a very big job. The last lines were what my translator shared.

So, by the end of the week, our bathtub had standing water. We called the midnight maintenance number, and they sent a worker. He unscrewed the drain, cleaned out an amazing amount of hair, and now everything runs smoothly.

Even better is the problem with the washer. We have not yet figured out the washer. Seemingly set on the same cycle, it will run for possibly 30 minutes and possibly 8 hours. Finally, on Friday afternoon it decided that we had been messing with it long enough. It locked us out. We can not open the door.

I called our agent. He was out of town - returning Sunday.

I called the maintenance number. They had no idea how to fix it, and left with sympathetic smiles on their faces.

I waited until Sunday, for our agent. He never showed.

I waited until Monday, for our landlord. He never showed.

I made a number of rather angry phone calls this morning (very rarely productive in China) and now people have been working on my washer since 2:15. For over 2 hours. He believes he can fix the machine. It is currently in many pieces, all over the balcony floor.

I fear that if they fix the machine, it will work no better than before. I suggested simply purchasing a new one. The woman (I have no idea who she is, but she speaks minimal English) seemed surprised at the thought. Just because it hasn't worked for 4 days? Just because it is a bit difficult? Just because the first 2 maintenance people could not repair it? That is enough to give up? Labor costs run low in China. In the U.S., labor costs on an appliance run over $100 an hour. A new washer runs around $500. In U.S. labor time, we've already easily surpassed the cost of a new machine - this one's totalled. Unfortunately, it may be days before we reach that point here.

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