Saturday, August 15, 2009

The plumber is man's best friend. He brings the water in and he takes the water away

I had to have my plumbing fixed the other day. Over the course of the month and a half I’ve been in this apartment more and more water has appeared on the floor of my bathroom with each shower I’ve taken. While it would not be completely unusual for this to be the correct operation of a shower here in China, I suspected that something was not quite right so I called my relocation specialist lest the ceiling in the downstairs apartment cave in. Since none of us possess the Chinese necessary to interact with our landlords on such matters, our relocation specialists act as the first line of communications, relaying problems, negotiating agreements and reading our utility meters. Maria, who has worked with me from the very beginning arranged to bring by the landlord’s agent on Wednesday.

When I selected this apartment back in January there was no bath tub or shower in the main bathroom, just rosy beige tile covering the floor, walls and ceiling. This is pretty common in the newer apartments and houses - shower heads are sometimes mounted in the dead center of the ceiling and I suppose that the designers think that it’s fine to hose everything down. Bathrooms like this most resemble the stalls where they wash horses at equestrian centers – designed to have water flying everywhere. But I don’t want to have to mop the whole room after my morning shower so I requested a tub with a shower head in it as opposed to near it, and that’s what I got. These rooms are also often designed to act as laundries, and so my shower has a couple of capped off gas pipes and two 240V power outlets. I can only imagine what the plumbing code inspector back in Ohio might say about such a configuration.

The first week I lived here I had no shower curtain since there was no rod provided. Figuring I could contain the water inside the perimeter of the tub was a very shortsighted assumption – it went everywhere. And while the room was certainly constructed to merrily accept this volume of spray, again, mopping the walls and ceiling was simply not something I want to commit to on an everyday basis. So I took a trip to Metro and picked up a rod and curtain.

The second week I lived here – shower curtain in place – everything was fine. I could take a nice long shower and the room surrounding me remained crisp and dry. The only downside encountered during this phase was my habit of severely burning the inside of my arm on the exposed hot water pipe every time I reached down to get the bar of soap. That though was easily fixed by moving the soap dish to the ledge at back of the tub where its bad behavior could be limited to nothing more than a brown stain (it’s bamboo) left on the shelf.

The third week I lived here water began to appear on the floor along the tub surround wall. A pretty big puddle, long enough to soak my bath mat. I took a look at the situation and concluded that I was probably not plastering the shower curtain against the wall well enough and that water was flowing along the front edge of the tub and down the wall. The design on the front of the tub is tricky – there is a little three-shelf wall unit that is stuck in a niche that forms part of the tub enclosure. The curtain runs across the front of the tub and when closed the shelves are inside of it. This means they get sprayed when the water is on and that water falls down onto another shelf and from there onto the floor. The only means of preventing this is to pull the shower inward and fix it in place with something on one of the shelves. My bottle of Nivea Night Damage Retarding Elixir Treatment Cream was perfect – small yet dense as lead. However the system was far from perfect – the bottle would move, the curtain would fly in, water would go everywhere – and so I returned from my last trip home with a magnetic potato chip bag clip which worked perfectly - you clip the curtain to the rail on the shelf and the water stays put.

My fourth week in the apartment brought a change to the equilibrium – water started showing up on the floor in spite of the clipped curtain. More carefully scrutinizing the situation this time, and having made sure that there was no gap in the Nylon Curtain the water appeared to be flowing out of a gap at the base of the wall panel. The floor tile here clearly sloped down a little bit towards some sort of depression behind the wall, a drain perhaps? Now since the room was built to one specification and the tub added to another I began to suspect that the drain in the floor did not line up with the drain in the tub and perhaps that the plumber did not bother to connect the two. Instead, he might have simply let the water from the tub dump out onto the floor and then find its way to the drain. Makes sense I suppose, the room was designed to wash elephants. But this was not acceptable – it meant a big pool of water that I somehow had to ignore or deal with. Feeling that the former was impossible and that the latter was untenable I jammed a rolled up Shop Towel in the gap and life was good; at least for a couple of showers after which the towel was soaked to the point that the puddle formed anyway. Not as big but big enough to prevent me from overlooking it any longer.


I spent the fifth week making believe it was not a problem and it wasn’t until one day when I pulled out the wet Shop Towel and enough to water flood the whole room flowed out. It was time to act, so I placed the call.

The climate here is decidedly tropical and it’s not a surprise that Dalian shares the same latitude as Washington DC. I’ve been there in the summer and I wouldn’t want to go back. I’m not partial to heat and if you throw in 80% humidity, well, let’s just say there are a lot of places I’d rather be. In order to counteract the horrific conditions outside I keep my apartment at a temperature more appropriate for a meat locker or morgue. When I’m sitting around in the evening it’s often in a Gap sweatshirt and my sea facing windows generally carry about the same level of condensation as a Corona bottle in July in Merida.

Cutting out of work early, I planned to meet Maria and the agent at my place around 12 and when I opened the door at a few minutes after I was surprised to see that they had brought a plumber along. Good news as I was expecting only a reconnoiter mission today, not a full-fledged repair session. We went back to the bath and I turned on the water for them. At first nothing happened and I was sure it was going to be another one of those cases of “but it did it this morning.” However my patience paid off and the water began to trickle out.

The agent and the plumber set about arguing over something – I wasn’t following the gist and after a few minutes of yelling the plumber got down to work peeling away the caulking that holds the wall panels in place.

The three of us went out to the living room and the two of them spent some time admiring the framed Chinese art I had stacked up against the wall. Maria suggested that the Crowned Cranes had my eyes, a comment I was not so sure about. The agent particularly liked the scroll painting of the red cherry blossoms over my couch, reading the Chinese characters across the top. I only caught something about “really strong.” Maria alternated between answering her phone and pulling her cardigan closed at the neck before finally asking me if I wasn’t cold. She was apparently freezing and the agent was now standing in the sunshine in my bay window rubbing his arms. Once warmed up he returned to the shade to look at the supposed meteorites I had picked up at the temple market. He really liked the two vases I had bought at the same place and offered that they would actually be worth something if they had chop marks. It’s funny, I had not taken him for an art connoisseur but he seemed to know his stuff. He also admired my horse scrolls and told me that he and I share the same zodiac animal.

We alternated between talking about art and overseeing the plumber who by now had removed his shirt and was busily doing something under the tub. While I am sure we would have all liked to stand there watching, there wasn’t enough room for four of us. It turned out that a pipe had broken, not quite the half-baked installation I had expected but pretty lame when you think that perhaps a pipe under a tub ought to stand up to more than 5 or 6 weeks of use. Eventually he wrapped it up and we all gathered in the bathroom for the ritual observation of the leak. I took the position of honor controlling the tap and the other three faced me. I turned the faucet on full blast and we all bent over at the waist and watched – no more water.

I thanked each of them for their contribution to my happiness and the agent said “you’re welcome”, a bit of a surprise as he claims to not speak English. It was more of a surprise when the plumber mimicked him with mechanical version that sounded like an old audio recording. He laughed.

That task done I sent them on their way and went down to find Jiang for a ride back to work. The plumber and Maria were gone but the agent was at the car window talking to Jiang. When I got in, he waved and walked away. Jiang was laughing – he told me that the agent said my apartment was freezing.

I thought I would try to use a bit of Chinese here to explain the outcome to Jiang. I said, “Guǎnzi pò le.”, “A pipe was broken.” Jiang nodded and went on driving.

That evening on the ride home I asked Jiang if “pò” was the proper verb. He said “no” and went about explaining that “pò” was used specifically to describe certain things and the way they break. He grabbed his shirt and said “yīfu pò le”, “clothes broken.” That one threw me so he grabbed a tissue and repeated the phrase whereupon it sunk in – “pò le” meant “ripped” and it was a verb specific to broken soft things. I rattled on about paper and other rip worthy items and he said yes. So I asked him to give me the proper verb for a broken pipe and the answer was “huài le.” I started rattling off a bunch of things – car, cell phone, camera – all used that verb to describe a broken condition. I pointed to my arm and said “gēbo huài le” and the answer was “no”, a broken arm uses “duàn”. Okay, now this was beginning to try my patience but I thought I might be gaining some clarity. Things like machines and devices break one way – they don’t work anymore. Soft stuff breaks another way – they rip. Living things break too, but in their own way. I pointed at a tree and said “duàn le” and he said “no, sǎn le”, but I think we had a misunderstanding as he was thinking “leaves” and I was thinking “branches.” When I upped the ante and said “a big wind comes and the leaves “sǎn le”, he said “no, diào le”, the leaves drop. We eventually agreed that when a firecracker explodes, the pieces “sǎn le” or “scatter” and in the autumn the leaves “diào le” or “fall to the ground.”

So much from a simple broken pipe.

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