Campus Life, China, Communication

There’s No Place Like Home!

There was a wee bit of naughtiness this week amongst the foreign teaching staff in regards to our living situation.

You might recall from one of my first posts here that I and all the other new foreign teachers were placed in a new building that was still under construction. We were the building’s first inhabitants—its pioneers. We all took up residence on the fourth floor, except for one teacher who complained and was moved to the ninth floor (the elevator promptly went out of service for several weeks). With time other people moved in, but the Chinese teachers and staff considered the building essentially unlivable for the first months of the semester. We have now been here for over 3 months. And the construction still continues.

(On a side note, the number four in China carries the same connotation as number thirteen does in Western culture because it sounds like the word for death. When someone explained this to me, I burst out laughing. Of course we were all placed on the fourth floor! It’s actually very lucky for them that they have a bunch of foreigners they can put there. We have no fear of four!)

There are several problems with this situation:
1. It states in our contract that the school will provide, rent-free, a one bedroom apartment that includes a kitchen, sitting room, bathroom and bedroom. It’s in our contact. Contract. We are now living in studio apartments that have a combined kitchen and bedroom and no sitting room. Regardless of the fact that everything is fresh and probably nicer than the apartments we would’ve otherwise been given, it’s a contractual issue. Contracts are sacred. Once someone starts breaking/bending the contract, a lot of good faith and good will go out the window.
2. The rooms came equipped with a microwave, but no stove. If we want to cook, we have to buy a stove and/or oven ourselves. And we are not allowed to purchase gas ranges. We can only purchase hot plates.
3. Hot water is limited to a few times a day and only in the shower. As the temperature has dropped, we are now washing dishes and hands in very cold water. Not very sanitary or comfortable. And as to the hot water in the shower, there is no guarantee that it will be hot even if you are theoretically trying to use it during the scheduled times. And of course we are paying for this “hot water”.
4. Then there is the constant daily frustration of living in a construction zone. By which we mostly mean the noise, the dust, and the fumes. But mostly the noise.
5. And there is an air-conditioner, but no heater. It’s downright chilly in my room as I type this. I’m going to have to buy some sort of electrical heater.

Of these four issues, numbers 3 and 4 have been the kickers. As the department protested total innocence, most of us have been gracious about being downgraded to living in a nice-ish type studio. They say they had no idea the school would place us in the new building, that they were notified only days before we started arriving. No time to notify us of this change. The skepticism/cynicism of each individual foreign teacher had to determine how much they believed that. But there is a lot of wrath about the hot water and the construction.

For me, there was generally hot or warm water when I went to take showers at night so I didn’t have much to complain about for awhile. And initially the weather was so hot for so long that even if my shower was a little cool it wasn’t a problem. However, with the changing of the weather, the cold sink water is starting to bother me more, especially as the room is already cold without plunging your hands into chilly water.

It was the morning-shower people who were hit the hardest as it seemed that there was never hot water for them in the morning. That was usually the second question out of everyone’s mouths in the morning, maybe even the first: “Hey, did you have hot water this morning?”

And the noise. Oh my God. The noise! Jack-hammers. Tile saws. Hammering. Workers shouting. Cement mixers. Clouds of dust. Cranes outside our balcony windows. Notices (always in Chinese) that they need to come fix our doors, they need to check our fire sprinklers, they need to paint our balcony, they need to install this, fix that, paint, etc, etc, etc. So will you be free Saturday morning? Friday afternoon? Do you care if they come when you are not there? Workers blocking this exit. Testing the fire alarms today. Workers blocking that exit. They’re tiling this walkway so go out the other exit, but at the other exit they are painting. Ripping out freshly placed tiles in your hall with a chisel when you’re sleeping. Jackhammers ripping up cement that was just poured a few days ago. And then, inexplicably, the workers disappear for days at a time and work halts.

I think collectively we’ve been gritting our teeth for so long it’s a wonder we haven’t broken any. I broke down and sent ONE email to the vice dean strongly requesting that the workers not begin doing anything particularly noisy on the WEEKENDS until after at least 9 AM. Other teachers complained almost daily. Some tried to play hard-ass with the department. They demanded to be moved. They refused to do anything that wasn’t in our contract, replying simply with “I’ll do that when we have hot water and the apartments we were promised”. All of which got us exactly nowhere. Until this week, that is.

On Tuesday, we received an email stating that the department will provide a housing allowance to those teachers who wish to move off-campus. They stated that they have been working hard since the day we moved in to improve the living conditions of our building; however, they admit that “the conditions have not been improved as fast as we expected.” So, if we wish, we can receive a housing allowance of 150 RMB a week, which is approximately $25. Just to be clear, that isn’t enough to rent a decent apartment in the area. Then the fun began . . .

One teacher, who is a bit of a wit, replied effusively thanking the department for all their efforts and asking to use the allowance towards one of the on-campus apartments. It was followed ten minutes late by another email apologizing for his mistake: “In my excitement to be free of this one room cold water cement box, I failed to read the part about the allowance being for off campus housing, and not as a means for paying for the on campus housing that was offered in the original contract. My mistake!” He then asked for a list of apartments that rent for 600 RMB a month; several teachers also requested this in response.

A few hours later, we received a new email from him, suggesting that we should have contest to see who can find the best off-campus housing for 600 RMB/month. “I know it’s early,” he said, “but so far I found this place.”

“The owner assures me that it is private and quiet. No more jackhammers, buzz saws, power drills, excavators, loud talking construction workers, truck horns, etc at 6 am Sunday mornings. Yeah! It looks like it’s on a river, but it may be the runoff from the local chemical factory.”

After that, other teachers just had to get in the game. Another teacher criticized the first, telling him he was being too fancy: “Be reasonable… we’re just lowly foreigners in a foreign land. You can’t ask for an ocean view!” He suggested the following apartment as “perfect for the neglected, disrespected ‘foreign expert’ and recommended that we jump on it before someone else did”

The original teacher complimented the second on his excellent find and told him that with the “proper signage it would definitely have potential.”

It’s naughty, I know, but to be honest, we’ve all needed something to laugh about in regards to the building situation. At the end of the day, it’s a contractual issue and we weren’t the ones to break it. But as foreigners who’s there to appeal to anyways? Too bad we’re not unionized.


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