The Magi Of Shenzhen (An Expat Christmas No. 6)

An Expat ChristmasIt’s still Christmas in some parts of the world. BJC’s “An Expat Christmas” series continues, in which foreigners in China write about the holiday experience from their respective cities. Here, Justin Mitchell recalls one fretful Christmas in Shenzhen, and the people who made it all better.

By Justin Mitchell

I have spent enough Christmases in China that hearing “Mamacita, Donde Esta Santa Claus?” and the barking Jingle Bells dogs pumped at 110 amps in late October in a Shenzhen wet market no longer phases or even makes me wonder WTF?

Few have been especially memorable except one that I’ll call the Gift of the Magi.

It was a classic deep and dark December in Shenzhen – wuss weather compared to anything Beijing dishes out so coldly and cruelly, yet enough chill and attendant “fog” in the air that it felt like you could spoon chucks outta the muck and spit them out.

I was having a classic foreigner vs. local-downstairs-neighbor-and-property-agent clash as my circa 1993 “Flying Swallow” washing machine was leaking water directly into my aggrieved neighbor’s apartment. She spoke fluent English, which I initially thought was an advantage as my eight- or 10-word Chinese vocabulary doesn’t cut it even when it comes to reliable cab rides. But nooo… it backfired big time on me.

Attempts at negotiations led nowhere as I was “obviously” at fault because I flushed toilet paper instead of tossing it into a waste basket where it would become a cockroach and sanitation-free amusement park that the Atlanta Center for Disease Control would’ve killed to study.

Though it was obvious to me that bad plumbing in the kitchen where the washing machine churning out its aqua evil was the culprit, all Chinese eyes were on the toilet paper disposal. Nearly 2,000 kuai in compensation to the neighbor became as useless as the used TP, and the situation escalated to the point that she began calling me at 5:30 am to complain about a load of wash I’d done at 8 pm the previous night.

My fuse blew and I responded with what I thought were witty, culturally cutting text messages. “I curse you for eight generations!” She threatened to sue. My pithy response was “Chinese law is bullshit. Like your tofu apartments. I am doing a load of laundry now so I won’t smell like a zhu tou (pig face) like you. Deal with it.”

She threatened more legal action and took steps to have me fired from my state-owned media group where I toiled as a “foreign expert polisher.” Not a small threat, actually, as there was precedent when former naughty laowais had suddenly had their contracts and visas cut loose for “disturbing the social order” following a bar fight that had nothing to do with their otherwise professional duties.

She informed me that she had saved all my rude messages that had hurt the feelings of Chinese people, most especially herself, and said she’d begun trying to contact my employer.

Enter the classic deus ex machina.

Through random circumstances I’d become friends with a notable Chinese female composer, pianist and conductor whose father was a well known, distinguished multilingual professor and editor of a respected Guangzhou university literary publication. I’d never met him, and my relationship with his daughter – who calls composers such as Tan Dun “little brother” due to being close classmates back in the day – was entirely chaste.

But we enjoyed one another’s company and a few days before Christmas I spilled out my house rent blues to her over dinner.

She offered to call my rabid neighbor and property agent as a mediator. She did so and then I learned she’d played the cultural card, plus an inventive twist of high fiction.

After establishing her academic/musical credentials with the neighbor she mentioned her father, whom she described as a “good friend” of mine, so good, in fact, that I had once offered to donate blood to him for a serious operation.

This time the bitch caved. She knew the father’s reputation and was stunned to hear that an evil, foul-mouthed, ass-wiping and flushing foreigner would do such a thing.

Well, maybe I would, but it never happened.

Nonetheless it came to pass on Christmas Day that the Magi appeared: my composer pal, a property agent, and some schmuck in a bad suit and company lanyard hanging from his neck. The schmuck left quickly, but the two women held up more than half the sky that day. I possess the hardware and plumbing skills of a half-wit dingo, but they were diligent.

The composer — originally from Guangzhou — had grown up in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution where she was both able to still play violin and study music, but had also learned basic skills that the American tool guy takes for granted.

They spent nearly seven hours calling in plumbers and doing their own calculations, squatting in my kitchen muck til finally the washing machine ran like the Flying Swallow it was meant to be, no muss, no fuss, no drainage.

I imagined my composer on a podium or sitting at a piano in formalwear as she labored under my sink and felt both ashamed and grateful. It was like watching the likes of Leonard Bernstein fixing my garbage disposal.

But I can think of no better Christmas present or past, here, there or anywhere.

God bless them, everyone.

    15 Responses to “The Magi Of Shenzhen (An Expat Christmas No. 6)”

    1. P.

      Cursing out your landlord (and referring to her as a bitch), chuckling while an esteemed composer fixes your plumbing—an inability to speak Chinese while expecting solutions to fall into your lap. You sound like the typical smug expat asshole. Not witty or well-written, just a prick with no filter and an inability to self-edit.

    2. P.

      At the risk of sounding naïve—and at the risk of deviating from my criticisms of the above essay—we are all guests in China. And because the country is still adjusting to this influx of outsiders after generations of seclusion, that makes us all informal foreign ambassadors operating during a super-sensitive period of China’s development in which the smallest details can sway public opinion against the Outsiders.

      That doesn’t mean that we’re obligated to maintain a sense of angelic innocence for time eternal, but it does mean that we should approach problems calmly and rationally and take the upper hand in this ongoing delicate ballet.

      Sometimes that means falling on your sword while thinking about the long-term picture—a China that is less hostile to foreigners.

      Most expats, I assume, are aware of how easily won-over most folks can be. How many times, for example, have we shared a drink with an old 哥们 who says something like, “You’re American? Great! I met an American once and he was very good. I like Americans.”

      “You’re from Germany? Germany is very good! I met a German once and he was good at drinking. I like Germans.”

      Simplified logic, to be sure, but that’s how many folks think—and this includes landlords and everyone else, from restaurant workers to cops.

      I’ve also met the same amount of people who can’t get over just one negative interaction that they’ve had with a foreign national—Russian, French, Nigerian, whoever—after years and years.

      It just takes one interaction to cement a stereotype—or as Chairman Mao would say, “one spark to start a prairie fire.”

      On an anecdotal level, I’ve dealt with innumerable problems with landlords over the years precisely because of people like the author: they don’t rent apartments to foreigners because of past problems, for example, or they demand extra service fees because they don’t want to deal with the shit that trickles down.

      In this case, literally, because the author didn’t pick up on PRC 101 on his first day in the country—paper goes in the trash. Everyone knows that. Never met anyone who didn’t.

      So now, this woman probably has a major hate-on for foreigners and spreads the poison at any chance that she gets. I’ve seen it before and it will keep happening with every act of obnoxious, entitled behavior: Whether it be navigating a communication mishap with curses or skipping out on a restaurant bill, the irresponsibility leads to a hardening of anti-foreigner sentiment over time and leads to more pervasive and accepted discrimination.

      All of that being said, when I read personal essays penned by halfwits gloating about their obnoxious behavior, I can’t help but call them out. Sorry. But these are the assholes who make China a worse-off place for everyone—fellow expats and locals alike.

        • Jonathan Alpart

          Not appropriate? Actually, I would normally agree with what P. said 100% had he not written about the wrong guy.

          Justin is the last person I would call a “halfwit” or “asshole” expat. He was just exaggerating a humorous anecdote for the entertainment value.

          • RhZ

            Yeah I regretted the ‘not appropriate’. I don’t know why I wrote that.

            What I wanted to say is, pls save the holier-than-thou attitude. Its a freaking story. You (P, not Jonathan) look like a total noob with your ‘oh, we are all cultural ambassadors, if the Chinese are bigots towards foreigners its all the fault of people like you’.

            We only know what the writer gives us. Maybe he was or is a total prick, I don’t know him from Adam. But on the other hand maybe not. The problem with his washer would be the landlord’s problem, why is the landlord not the asshole here?

            Its just so stereotypical, oh, you are the bad kind of lao wai who gives the rest of us a bad name. And thats a very bs argument.

            • P.

              “We only know what the author gives us.”

              Exactly. Judging from the story, he came off as a nitwit. However, now that the author has responded and shown himself to be a stand-up guy, a guy who clearly doesn’t resemble the character depicted in the story, I walk back my criticisms—not that author requires my validation, obviously.

              But I still stand by my assertion that we’ll all ambassadors, as high-minded and pretentious as they may sound.

    3. Re: I sat

      Yep, this definitely was the worst Christmas story so far on here. A real downer, like a big turd on the otherwise innocent little stories posted here. It’s not just the cursing and insulting, or the walking around like a smug bastard because you happen to know someone up high (to be fair, that is actually pretty native but not something you want to live by, now do you?). It is the audacity to do all this and then to post this as if it were some sort of achievement. Achievement unlocked! 50G – Typical smug laowai!

    4. Justin Mitchell

      Hey, people can’t we just get along? I appreciate the comments, good, bad and otherwise, and I admit I have my full shaire of shortcomings, too many to mention, but “smug bastard” and walking out on meals or abusing my foreigner status to get over is not in my play book. This was a sincere, perhaps poorly wrtitten attempt about one Xmas in China and how despite cultural and plumbing problems it turned out to be very special.
      That’s my story and Im sticking to it. BTW, the pissed off neighbor and I are now on good speaking terms and I have sincerely apologized for my insults. She kindly accepted my apology, the washing machine works and all is well. Silent nights, holy nights.Thanks for reading and Happy New Year,

      • Re: I sat

        Wouldn’t have killed to put that in the original article. Usually that’s part of the story’s arc. Without that info it’s too negative an article. Happy New Year to you too, a year without plumbing issues hopefully.


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