Friday, June 11, 2010


We have a lovely wooden table and chairs on our rooftop terrace here in Shanghai. We bought it last summer, made of unfinished wood. They are very well made, and quite comfortable. We bought it with money provided by the landlord to furnish the place, and so we will have to leave them behind when we move.

Upon moving them into our house, I began a search for water sealer. I've built enough decks to know that any wooden furniture to be left in the weather needs to be water sealed annually.

I searched and searched, but to no avail. Finally, Wendy informed me that Chinese people do not use wooden furniture like this, at least not outside. She had never heard of water sealer and doubted that I would find it here. So, our lovely chairs look a dull grey and the table is full of dark stains because it absorbs every milk spill and popsicle drip. And we know that Chinese people have no general knowledge about outdoor wooden objects.

So, this week we are having repairs made to the rooftop terrace. It is a lovely wooden deck with raised planters surrounding it. Trees lean over the deck on one side, and a taller building shades it from the other so that it only receives full sun during the heat of the day. Well designed, but not so well built, 40-50% of the panels on the deck are not screwed to the cross-beams below. Certainly this makes it easier to access the roof - it also makes it easier to pop up a section of the deck when you stand on the edge of the panel. And it should go without saying that none of the wood has been water-sealed. So, repairs were certainly necessary.

Step 1 in the repairs - the gardener came to the house last week and told Wendy that nothing could be done to fix these problems.
Step 2 in the repairs - I told our manager that one board desparately needed to be replaced, and he sent the gardener out again.
Step 3 in the repairs - the gardener came to the house again, and Wendy explained that many of the boards were rotten or broken
Step 4 in the repairs - 10 planks of unfinished wood appear before our front door, blocking the front path, around 7am on Wednesday morning
Step 5 in the repairs - Wendy moves all of the wood to the deck before she leaves for the day, so we can fully access our front door and they won't be stolen
Step 6 in the repairs - 4:00 in the afternoon, the gardener arrives. With three children napping, and no one to translate I ask him to return at 10:00 the following (Thurs.) morning.
Step 7 in the repairs - This morning (2 days later), two new men show up to work on the roof. They begin work, under Wendy's supervision. Within 10 minutes, Wendy comes downstairs and heads toward the door. I ask her where she's going:

Wendy: I am going to talk to the bike repairman in the lane. I think maybe he has some old inner tubes we can have.
Lynne: Why?
Wendy: Because the wood they brought is to small. When it is nailed down, the deck floor is uneven. So I thought we could ask the man for the bike tubes, and put them underneath the boards so they will be higher.
Lynne: Clever, Wendy. But I think it is a bad idea. If the wood is the wrong size, they need to buy new wood.
Wendy (seems surprised): Oh, so maybe I should call the landlord.
Lynne: Yeah, probably. It is not my house, so I can not tell them not to. But if I were the landlord, I would be very angry!

Wendy calls the gardener, who refuses to give her the landlord's phone number, because I bought the wood at a market very far away. I don't want to return! It is too much trouble!

The gardener calls the landlord, and calls back. As it turns out, the landlord thinks jury-rigging is the way to go, and I sat quietly while they made temporary the boards. Later this afternoon, I learned that 2x4s are the board of choice because anything thinner will bend and eventually break under the weight of an adult.

This jury-rigging is a very common practice in China. Whereas America has a DIY culture, China has a jury-rigging culture. They take the same skills and cleverness, and one is no less work than the other. Jury-rigging just costs more money in the long run, less in the short run. Wendy confirmed this. When I told her I have built a deck before, and Americans expect a deck to last 15 years, she was amazed. So long! I gave her my jury-rigging theory, and she agreed right away. After all, she said, how would people make any money if their products lasted very long?

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