Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Baby, it's cold inside

I’d barely stepped into the shower in my unheated 40-degree apartment (commie government central heating was turned off several weeks ago because Marx-Lenin, Mao and President Hu Jintao all say it’s officially “spring” i.e. “warm weather”) and was anticipating the warm spray when … dribble. Drip. Blip. Nada.

Turned the spigot to “cold” and the near-frozen spray rushed out, forcing me to take a trembling, hasty, hypothermia-inducing shampoo and “whore’s bath” (armpits and groin only.)

I’d paid 100 yuan for “160 tons” of the hot stuff some months ago, but the supply appeared dry. China wants desperately to be regarded as a modern nation and, according to the recent constantly sprouting billboards, is “striving earnestly” to make Beijing a “World City” by 2020.

But I gotta say: “Hey, a country that treats hot water as a precious separate commodity ain’t gonna cut it except as an overdressed jester on the world stage despite how many “taikonauts” it ejaculates into space or Olympic gold medals it harvests with underage slave prepubescent athletes. And your plumbing? Bwah!

“Five thousand years of so-called civilization, inventing gunpowder and the compass, blah-blah-blah. The Romans did plumbing right 2,000 years ago and in 2010 I’m in a nation where even the capital city public cold water taps don’t work and signs urge toilet users to throw their paper away after wiping for fear of jamming the pipes. And, by the way, when was the last time I needed a compass and gunpowder to take a hot shower or relieve myself?”

Forgive me. I digress. The next step after checking for frostbite was to insert the “water card” into the unreadable grime encrusted water meter jammed under the sink and hope to mystically recharge the supply. What was I thinking?

Phone calls were made and 40-some minutes later I’d trudged half a mile in the wind to the apartment management office located in a bunker in the most inaccessible area possible in the complex where, thanks to more phone calls for translating help from my friend, J, I learned I needed to pre-pay for more tons of hot water and to buy a new water card for reasons that even she found inexplicable.

“I argued,” J said. “I said it is not your fault. But still you must pay.” She sighed. “I do not understand.”

“I love this farking country,” I replied gritting my teeth and cursing myself for all the irrational ill will I’d once had for the Public Service utility and water company in Colorado. We’d had some occasional issues, sure, but they’d never cut off my hot water or power or urged me to spread disease by tossing used toilet paper around public restrooms.

I surrendered the equivalent of half a month’s pay for a Chinese migrant worker to a sullen girl in badly permed orange hair and a sweatshirt that said: “Ferverent, Robust!” and slouched in an overstuffed chair and waited for the apartment bureaucracy to slowly grind out a new card and water supply for building 11, entrance A, room 208.

However, back at the apartment the new card failed to generate any joy – robust or otherwise. More calls were made to patient J who was able to get a maintenance worker over who also couldn’t conjure up any hot water hoodoo and left with my new card and promise to return with yet another one.

He made good, but Card III didn’t work either and I was soberly informed that the entire water meter is “broken” and it would cost me about US$50 out of my pocket for a new one. What choice did I have? The concept of “tenant’s rights” isn’t even a dim work in progress here so I paid and a day later played under the warm spray.

After all this loathing and fears of turning into a truly Ugly American, however, I found ultimate solace when a Chinese Hong Kong friend, S, who had just relocated to Beijing, met me for lunch and began telling me about her newest apartment problem. Last week it was cockroaches. This week it sounded extremely familiar.

“I suddenly have no hot water,” she said. “And my landlord said I must pay for 200 tons of it in advance as if it is some kind of valuable resource.” I perked up. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t crazy and the more she told me the better I felt in this new chapter of the Beijing Hot Water Support Group.

S is a business writer and a hell of an investigative reporter as well and after hearing the landlord out, did some in-depth investigating of her own. Ultimately she found herself cutting a covert deal with a low level employee of Beijing’s People’s Hot Water Affairs No. 12 who sold her 600 tons – enough for her and roommates until 2015, perhaps – for the price of 400.

By S’s reckoning the landlady had inflated the price by 200 yuan – but this way the landlady was cut out of the deal, the hot water employee skimmed some water and got a cut and S got more water and saved about 400 yuan.

“The landlady is corrupt. The hot water boy is corrupt. They are all corrupt!” she said.

“Now you’re part of the corruption, too,” I reminded her, smiling

“True,” she said. “But I’m also learning how business is really done in China.” She sighed. “And now I know why Google really left China. Hackers, censorship and probably hot water problems, too.”