It’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.