When Culture Stops Being an Excuse

I love my life in Suzhou. I’ve made some incredible friends and adopted some awesome cats. I’m working at a great school in a well-run department where I am respected and valued. I have opportunity for growth here in Suzhou, both professionally and personally and I’ve even been able to focus more on my health here, going to the gym and being more careful with my diet. I’ll be 30 soon and I need to stay healthy so that my 30s are as rockin’ as my 20s were. Still, today I’m not feeling much love for the Venice of Asia. Perhaps it’s the smoggy weather or maybe I didn’t sleep very, but China is getting on my nerves today!

This morning Dave and I met a friend for breakfast, and as is often the case with Michael, we got into a discussion about what it’s like living in China. Michael’s still on his first year here and he is still noticing some of the things that Dave and I have learned to ignore and his perspective on life here always reminds me of the things that foreigners live with on a day to day basis out here in the orient.

culture shock
A Frequent theme in my blog

And all things considered, there really isn’t very much that we need to worry about. China is safe and the people here are kind and friendly, the countryside in this country is diverse and stunningly beautiful and the expat community is quite large so it’s easy to make friends in Suzhou. But, as is the case anywhere, China (and Suzhou) has its problems…

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I’ve been going to the gym. I’ve been pretty good about going 3 days per week and although I haven’t lost much in the way of weight (I think I’m building muscle), I’m becoming noticeably more toned and I’ve been slimming down. I’m very proud of the way I’ve been looking lately and I feel good about doing something positive for a body that has treated me pretty well so far in my 29 years. But I’ve gotta say…as much as I love working out and feeling energized, it is EXTREMELY difficult to love Chinese gyms!! Where should I start?.

 

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I discovered, while writing this blog post, that Powerhouse is a chain outside of just China.

The Equipment: Although there are about 20 treadmills at Power House, they only have 6 eliptical machines, 1 stair master, 10 bikes and some weight side to side machines that kind of make you feel like you’re skating. Now, I have no problems with the treadmills…there are more than enough and they are in good shape…but I also don’t use treadmills very often because they kill my knees. So that leaves 20 cardio machines that I CAN use…except 8 or 9 of them are almost always broken. The ones that AREN’T broken are such poor quality that they always feel like they’re about to fall apart underneath you. Out of all the elliptical machines, only 1 of them accurately tracks distance and calories…1!!! It’s the same with the weights and the resistance machines. Many of them are missing pins so you can’t adjust the resistance without first hunting down a pin from some other machine. Plus, nobody puts their equipment away after they use them, so there are random weights just hanging around on the floor…a little bit dangerous…

Sanitation: This is a big one. There are no towels or spray bottles anywhere at Power House so people don’t clean their equipment like they do in Canada. I can’t tell you how often I get onto an elliptical and realize that the handles are covered in someone else’s sticky sweat. I bring my Norwex towel with me to help with that kind of thing, but it’s still pretty gross. The bathrooms are also pretty dirty. People don’t flush their dirty toilet paper in China (something about the sewage systems not being able to handle it), so the garbage cans are full of that dirty toilet paper. It smells awful and the cans get emptied so rarely that the entire hallway around the bathrooms and change rooms stinks like urine.   Not pleasant…

SquatToilet
The biggest problem with squatters themselves is that it’s sometimes hard to control where your pee ends up….so most of the time, it ends up on (at least) the bottom of your shoes, and you end up tracking it out of the bathroom…

The People: This is the worst part of going to the gym. I can’t even tell you how many times I haven’t been able to finish my work out because someone is sitting on a machine I need, texting or checking their WeChat accounts…it’s infuriating but I often feel like I’m the only person who cares. This kind of thing was especially bad in January and February, when all the New Years resolution memberships started up. Girls (the worst offenders) would hop on a treadmill and spend 10-15 minutes going back and forth between stretching (on the machine!!) and taking selfies to post on WeChat. This isn’t a huge gym, and while there are plenty of treadmills, that can’t be said about any other machine in the building. Yesterday I gave up after waiting 5 minutes for a guy to get off the crunch machine I wanted to use to target my upper abs. And that one elliptical machine that works…the one I mentioned before…people hog that machine for 50+ minutes…some of them hardly even breaking a sweat they are going so slowly because they are too busy enjoying their favourite TV show on their cell phones.

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And most of the time, people aren’t just taking short breaks between sets…they literally use the equipment like public benches…

And this is where the title of this post comes in…a lot of these problems are annoying but forgivable. After all, I know my standards are high…I’m lucky and I was born in a wealthy country where I have the luxury of having problems as shallow as ‘not having cold enough water’. I also know that the sewage issues in China are complicated and that not everywhere in the world is as sterile as North America (it’s weird coming home for visits by the way…everything feels too clean…the whole country feels like a hospital).  There are absolutely things that can be explained by pointing out cultural differences…and foreigners who have been here for a while are always quick to point out that you’re being judgmental for getting upset about some of the things we deal with here in China.  I always feel bad when someone says that to me, because I try very hard to be understanding of cultural differences…

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A picture depicting the difference between line ups in North America, vs the way it’s done in China…I even learned to embrace this in Guiyang and Xiamen (it’s not to bad in Suzhou).  I put aside my Canadian upbringing and learned to push my way to the front, just like everyone else…

But this morning, when we were having breakfast with Michael, he said something that really rang true with me during my work out today: When can we stop pretending that EVERYTHING is about culture? How many things can we blame on cultural differences, really?? When does Culture become an excuse?

 

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The Chinese think that drinking cold water is bad for your stomach…so even at the gym, you can only find hot water, or room temperature.  At Power House, one of the options is suppose to be cold, but it comes out warm enough to steam up my bottle, sooo…

I don’t think that the selfie taking at the gym is forgivable just because I’m in China and “things are different here”. I also don’t think people have to leave their equipment all over the place for others to trip on. And I definitely don’t think that a gym like Power House, who claims to be the ‘western gym’ and charges western prices, has any excuses as far as buying terrible equipment is concerned. None of these things are cultural…they’re just people being inconsiderate of others. And maybe it’s my Canadian background…maybe it’s just my upbringing…but I really have very little patience for inconsiderate people. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone just paid attention to other people’s needs and tried to be more aware of the world around them?

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Another example of this behaviour..some one took off with the school kitchen’s mop over the holiday.  There was a water issue in the kitchen and the only way I could get the water out of the mop they left behind, was to take it outside and step on the mop to get the water out…People take things from that kitchen all the time and leave messes as well.  I don’t know if they just don’t realize that SOMEONE has to clean it (that someone being me), or if they just straight up don’t care…

So those are my thoughts today. Living overseas can be very hard some days, and although it’s gotten ions easier for me since moving to Suzhou, there are still thing here that tick me off. I guess I still have not succeeded in becoming the Super Wizard that I long to be… a Super Wizard who is annoyed by nothing and can aparate to Canada any time she wants to go to the gym or meet her gorgeous new nephew, Zachary.

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Thank goodness I have these 3 to keep me sane!

There’s still more about India on its way! Thanks for checking in!!!

Home Sweet Home Away from Home – Part 1

Well, another weekend is coming to an end and I must say we spent it well.  A good portion of our time was spent in coffee shops, where I was either working on my blog, organizing pictures or finishing up some test corrections.  This may not sound very adventurous, on the surface, but it was all about the location this weekend!  We’d been hearing about a cafe that had several cat occupants for a while  now, so we decided to go hunt it down on Monday.  As an animal nut, I’ve gotta say I was pretty stoked to spend my day off surrounded by purring and fur 🙂

Favorite shot of the day.  This sweet girl became our bestie when I gave her some kitty treats :)
Favorite shot of the day. This sweet girl became our bestie when I gave her some kitty treats 🙂
She has the softest fur and the bluest eyes!!
She has the softest fur and the bluest eyes!!
This little man came over for a visit shortly before we left.
This little man came over for a visit shortly before we left.

Although it is great going on adventures and discovering new things,  it’s also just so fantastic to sit down and relax like we did this weekend.  The whole time I was finishing my degree, we worked like mad so that we could get our butts to China and slow down.  I feel like this is one of the only weekends where we’ve actually done that…slow down….since we got here.  It was well deserved and very appreciated!  And best of all, it was relaxing but still productive!  I had time to go through several hundred photos and figure out exactly what I wanted to show you about our apartments in Guiyang.  It turned out there is A LOT I want to show you, so this is probably going to turn into two posts.  I’ll make sure that they are posted closely together though, so that you don’t have to wait 3 weeks before the comedy portion of my story (SPOILER: this post is the tragedy portion ;))

First off, I need to give a bit of back story for those of you who don’t already know about our first apartment in Guiyang.  We moved in our second day here (after spending our first night at a hotel) to find the place moldy, damp and spider infested.  It was a beautiful apartment, and had so much potential if the land lord had been willing to maintain the place, but unfortunately, that hadn’t been the case.

5 Upstairs bathroom mold
The upstairs bathroom was particularly bad. There was mold everywhere and the entire room smelled of sour yogurt and rotten fish. We spent a great deal of time trying to pinpoint what exactly we were smelling…
6 Upstairs bathroom mold
the same counter after an hour of scrubbing, done by yours truly.

We tried to make the best of it, and did our best to clean the place up.  The apartment did have some wonderful features, including a balcony and a rooftop terrace (SO BEAUTIFUL!!).  It looked like it was all going to work out in that big apartment.  We had to climb 10 flights of stairs to get to our bedroom, but the exercise was doing us some good.  The spiders were terrible but were improving as we cleaned the place up.  We spent hours cleaning up the terrace and bringing the plants up there back to life…  I actually started to like the place…

But then it started raining…

7 Leaky Ceilings
And the rain started coming in…. It didn’t take long for us to realize why half the lights in the place didn’t work…
8 The results of that leaky ceiling
And the ceiling started to crumble…
9 - A growing problem
And then it got worse….

As a result of our ceiling starting to fall apart, our land lord decided to increase his efforts in selling the place.  He’d spent a small fortune trying to fix the apartment’s many problems already, and he wasn’t willing to spend anything more.  So he started showing the apartment 4-5 times a day, several days a week.  He was really friendly with us, so we put up with it for a while…

Then the mold started coming back…

That was my final straw.  I broke down and told the school how awful the place was and asked them to move us to a more suitable apartment.  We were fine with a smaller space and we were perfectly ok giving up the rooftop terrace.  After all…what good is a rooftop terrace, if you’re battling fungal pneumonia??  (2 of the teachers who’d lived in this apartment in the past couple of years had developed lung problems as a result of that mold…)

My boss felt awful about the whole mess, and began searching for a new apartment for us right away.  After several days of searching, she found us something that had 2 bedrooms (a requirement so that Dave could work from home) and that was in the school’s price range.  And that’s how we ended up where we are now!

I have to admit…it wasn’t love at first sight.  The stairwell left a lot to be desired, but I’d already learned in Xiamen that stairwells hardly ever reflect the individual apartments that they lead to.  So as I climbed the 3 flights (only 3 flights!!) to my new apartment, I kept that in mind.

10 Stairway to Our New apartment
The stairs leading up to our apartment
11 The entrance to our new place
Apartment 302. The outside of our door also has lots of red banners on it, presumably for good luck.

Step 1:  Remove Current Inhabitants…

The place was much smaller than the 3 story ‘rooftop-terrace’ space that we’d been occupying for nearly 2 months, but it was mold-free and had a lot of potential.  My first task was originally to wash the walls, because the previous tenants had been smokers, and the walls were all stained yellow…

Yum...right??  They had about 20 posters and banners up all over the apartment and this is what the wall looked like behind each of them...
Yum…right?? They had about 20 posters and banners up all over the apartment and this is what the wall looked like behind each of them…

Of course, my priorities quickly changed upon our first night-time visit to drop off some of our things (when you are moving everything down 10 flights of stairs…you do it bit by bit!).  We opened the door and turned on the lights, only to see about 10 cockroaches scurry under the furniture and into nooks and crannies.  I’d gotten used to cockroaches in Xiamen (they were EVERYWHERE there!), but in Guiyang we’d only seen a handful in 2 months, so this came as a surprise.  When we witnessed the same thing the following evening, we knew that the apartment we’d agreed to move into was far dirtier than we’d originally thought.

At this point, I definitely just wanted to curl up into a ball and cry…but I’m a ‘doer’, so instead of giving up, we found some heavy duty cockroach killer and got rid of the little monsters…

There are many ways to kill a cockroach, but the quickest and most effective way is to smoke ’em out.  You buy this stuff that sort of looks and acts like incense: you light the end, wait til the thing actually catches, and then blow it out.  The smoke does the rest!  It’s very important to get out of the apartment quickly after lighting the sticks, because they can seriously damage your lungs, but they work amazingly well at killing the roaches.  You basically let the stuff work for a few hours, come home, open the windows and sweep up the carcasses…yummy…I know….

Step 2: Declutter!!!!

Now, I realize that there is value in keeping things and fixing them when you can…but the Chinese take that to a new level.  When we moved in, there was so much stuff left over from the previous tenants, that we filled between 5 and 6 big black garbage bags with trash.  Among the things we found are:

  1. A stack of broken plastic stools
  2. Teddy bears and children’s pillows that were stained with cigarette smoke (I should also add that no children actually LIVED in this apartment)
  3. Large buckets with stagnant water sitting in them.
  4. Old ceramic pots that had (at some point) held plants.  They were still filled with dirt…
  5. A total of 4 desks (2 of which are broken)
  6. Mounds of old Chinese magazines and books
  7. Several broken dishes
  8. Drawers full of fish food, newspaper clippings burnt out extension cords
  9. Several broken lamps
  10. soooo much more….
This was how the spare bedroom was originally set up.  There were several desks , and many many broken stools in the room.
This was how the spare bedroom was originally set up. There were several desks , and many many broken stools in the room.
15.2 Decluttering
It’s still a little cluttered now, but it’s all neat and actually clean. The water dispenser you see was left here by the previous tenants. It’s listed as one of the items that are covered by our damage deposit, so we can’t throw it out…
The other side of the room, which Dave uses as an office.  I really like the way we set up this room.  It looks so much better!
The other side of the room, which Dave uses as an office. I really like the way we set up this room. It looks so much better!

We also swept up a garbage bag worth of dust, hair and dirt from behind and under all the furniture and spent hours wiping everything in the house down, because pretty much everything was covered in a layer of dust (and in some rooms, everything was covered in a layer of grease AND a layer of dust).  I don’t know if the people who lived here before us had ever cleaned anything…ever…

Our very cluttered bedroom.  It started off with teddy bears, pillows and a tonne of old books (that were missing pages and covers...).  We also found a gigantic hanger in this room...shoved behind the armoir.  Not sure why they didn't just throw it away....
Our very cluttered bedroom. It started off with teddy bears, pillows and a tonne of old books (that were missing pages and covers…). We also found a gigantic hanger in this room…shoved behind the armoir. Not sure why they didn’t just throw it away….Oh…and btw…that’s Timore 🙂  She is the Chinese Staff Manager.
I never got a before picture of this side of the bedroom, but this is how it looks now.  Pretty standard as far as bedrooms go...except of course that we've bought like 4 different pads for the bed so that it doesn't feel like we're sleeping on a piece of plywood.  Chinese beds suck!!
I never got a before picture of this side of the bedroom, but this is how it looks now. Pretty standard as far as bedrooms go…except of course that we’ve bought like 4 different pads for the bed so that it doesn’t feel like we’re sleeping on a piece of plywood. Chinese beds suck!!
Our very cluttered kitchen.
Our very cluttered kitchen.  To be fair, it looked like this because we’d moved one of the broken desks into here as well as the water cooler…we were a little tight on space until we got the place organized!
Our kitchen now.  Once more, there are certain things we couldn't throw out because of the damage deposit.  We needed counter space anyway, so one of our broken desks became just that :)
Our kitchen now. Once more, there are certain things we couldn’t throw out because of the damage deposit. We needed counter space anyway, so one of our broken desks became just that 🙂 Of course there is more to our kitchen’s new look than simple decluttering…but I’ll get to that in a moment….

Step 3:  Paint!  (Because washing the walls just wasn’t an option!!)

After killing all the cockroaches, and getting the dust and dirt out of the place, our next mission was to wash the walls.  The light switches were all filthy and the walls all had tape stuck to them and stains everywhere.  Of course, when we started to wipe down the walls, we quickly realized that our apartment had never actually been painted.  Instead of paint, a thin layer of plaster covered the concrete walls, and as we wiped away the dirt, we also wiped away the plaster.  This why we had to paint…it was honestly not in our original plans….

The light switch outside our 'sink room' before I cleaned it...
The light switch outside our ‘sink room’ before I cleaned it…
The same light switch after approximately 30 seconds of work...
The same light switch after approximately 30 seconds of work…

On top of the damage we did to the place while trying to WASH it…the previous tenants had stuck posters and banners on the wall with scotch tape, and as we tried to remove all these ugly posters, a lot of plaster came off with them…  It’s probably for the best that we painted the place.  I don’t know if we would have gotten our damage deposit back if we hadn’t…

The living room wall before we painted...
The living room wall before we painted…
The same wall after we painted
The same wall after we painted
The other side of the living room.  I love how much warmer this place got with a bit of paint, and some replaced light bulbs...only 1/5 of the light bulbs in the living room worked when we moved in...
The other side of the living room. I love how much warmer this place got with a bit of paint, and some replaced light bulbs…only 1/5 of the light bulbs in the living room worked when we moved in…

4.) Scrub…Scrub….Scrub…..

So, I’ve already mentioned that there were a lot of cockroaches here when we moved in, and I also mentioned that cockroaches aren’t a huge problem in Guiyang so their presence indicated a problem with the cleanliness of the apartment, right?  Well…step 4 was the most unpleasant of all the steps we took to making this place livable.  Yes…it was worse than the cockroach carcasses and even more gross than finding old, moldy underwear hiding in a closet (that actually happened at the first apartment, but still…).  I’ll let the pictures do the talking…

Dave, wiping the mold and grime off of the bathroom ceiling...
Dave, wiping the mold and grime off of the bathroom ceiling…
Our bathroom before....(we actually had them replace the toilet because there was NO WAY I was sitting on that thing!!)
Our bathroom before….(we actually had them replace the toilet because there was NO WAY I was sitting on that thing!!)
24 Bathroom After
Our bathroom now.  Notice that there is no shower in the room.  That’s normal in China.  Instead, they just have a shower head in the middle of the bathroom.  We added the shower curtain so that our toilet paper would stop getting wet…
The 'sink room' that's right outside the bathroom.  We put up a shower curtain here as well...mostly to hide the ugly, rusty pipes that we simply couldn't get clean....
The ‘sink room’ that’s right outside the bathroom. We put up a shower curtain here as well…mostly to hide the ugly, rusty pipes that we simply couldn’t get clean….

After spending an entire day scrubbing these two rooms so that they were useable, we decided to wait a while before tackling the kitchen.  Eating at restaurants is cheap here anyway, and we weren’t in a hurry to cook yet.  Of course, we did eventually have to open that door and deal with the grease and filth.  Once more, I will let the pictures do the talking….

What our kitchen originally looked like.  Notice the grease stains on the far left wall?  Yeah...that was basically everywhere...
What our kitchen originally looked like. Notice the grease stains on the far left wall? Yeah…that was basically everywhere…
31 A Greasy Kitchen
Some wonderful ‘mid way through’ pictures. Notice the wall in the right part of the picture has been wiped down. I still hadn’t gotten to the left side yet…though it made for a good visual….
32 A Greasy Kitchen
It took us several weeks to get the kitchen completely clean. We had to stop and take a picture as we finished up on the first day. And yes…this is all just grease. What bothered us both the most is how easy it was to clean all this…All it really took was some degreaser and some hot water, and most of it just wiped off.  Apparently the previous tenants weren’t up to that task though, so they’d just let the filth build up instead.  I don’t even understand how they cooked in there…

And some of my favorite pictures….

Our hot water tank, before we cleaned it...
Our hot water tank, before we cleaned it…
And after.  Oh, and yes...our hot water tank is in our kitchen.  We don't actually get any hot water IN our kitchen, but there just wasn't enough room for it in the bathroom, I guess...
And after….
The hood to our range before (at this point I actually thought that the glass was frosted...)
The hood to our range before (at this point I actually thought that the glass was frosted…)
And after...well...kind of in between...I just took a picture at this point because I couldn't believe that the glass had just been that dirty!!!
And after…well…kind of in between…I just took a picture at this point because I couldn’t believe that the glass had just been that dirty!!!
The ceiling above the range...
The ceiling above the range…
Annnd after...
Annnd after…
You can feel free to be grateful for the way damage deposits work in Canada now...
You can feel free to be grateful for the way damage deposits work in Canada now…

Step 5:  Fix what you broke while you were cleaning!!!

In addition to the grease and dust and cockroach poop (yup…lots of it…in the kitchen…..Bleach anyone!?!?!?), we also had a lot of lime build up that needed to be cleaned off the pipes.  Of course, we didn’t realize that the only thing keeping these old pipes from leaking was that very build up.  So after a day of scrubbing, we had to laugh when the pipes started leaking, making a mess in the kitchen.  Luckily the school fixed it quickly, but I never thought that cleaning a kitchen could actually MAKE a mess!!!

The pipes above our kitchen sink.  They carry the water from the hot water tank to the bathroom.
The pipes above our kitchen sink. They carry the water from the hot water tank to the bathroom.
42 Woops!
The pipe closest to the wall began to leak at the joint when we had the audacity to… GASP…clean it!! lol!!!

In total, we spent nearly 3 months making this place home.  It was a lot of work, but it was all worth it in the end because now this place is ours.

As I finish this post, I want to leave you with 3 thoughts:

1.) China is a crazy place.  Their cleanliness standards aren’t the same as they are in the west, but this apartment is not the norm for foreigners living in this incredible country.  I happen to live in a poor part of the country and our boss was trying to get us out of an even worse apartment, that could have made us sick if we’d stayed there much longer.  So PLEASE don’t think that Chinese people are all this filthy, or that schools here don’t care where they put their foreign teachers.  We just had some bad luck…

2.) I’m not writing about this all to gross you out, or to make you never want to come see us…I’m writing it to show you that the things you take for granted in Canada just aren’t ‘a given’ here.  When you move out of an apartment in China, you don’t lose your damage deposit if the place isn’t clean.  That means that you sometimes have a massive mess to clean up when you move into a new place.

and 3.)

I wrote this to show you what you are capable of (and to remind myself what I’M capable of), with a bit of determination.  A lot of people I know would have refused to live in this apartment, but we worked with what we were given.  This whole “China Experience” is about confronting all the difficulties of living in a foreign culture after all…it can’t all be trips to Guilin and walks along ancient walls!!!

So that concludes the ‘drama’ part of my Apartment Post.  Stay tuned for my next post, which will show you all the nutty ‘quick fixes’ that are common place in China!  This apartment sure has character!!!