Friday, November 26, 2010

Diary of a Mad Woman in Search for a MUJI Plunger

My toilet was suddenly clogged the other day, so I went out to the street in search for a plunger. 5 minutes away from home, I found a hole-in-the-wall supply store and asked for one. The couple in the store - squeezing their words out with some difficulty as both had toothpicks playing around in their mouths (a result of just finishing an early supper perhaps) - picked one up right from the floor and handed it to me.

"Umm ... Do you have another one?" I hesitated to take it from the husband. The wooden stick that held the rubber cup at the bottom seemed cracked and dirty.

"What's wrong with this one?" He asked.

"Well, it just seems a bit dirty ..." I said.

"Dirty?! Lady, this is a plunger. A plunger, ok? For the toilet bowl. What do you need a 'clean' one for?" The wife immediately cut in.

Not funny, I thought. So I justified my reasons as follows - "Well, I was just wondering if you have cleaner one. I know it's for the toilet bowl. But at least at the moment when I buy it, I want it to be new and clean ..." I answered, with my voice getting lower and lower with each sentence uttered.

I know how ridiculous of a person they thought I was, as they looked at me in such great puzzlement written all over their faces. They were pretty much speechless.

In order not to disappoint them further, I escaped from the scene by coming up with a lame excuse - "Alright, I guess I can take it. But first I need to go to the market nearby. I'll come by later to pick it up," I said, leaving the scene knowing that if I can somehow find another one elsewhere, I would not be going back.

5 minutes later, I walked into the nearby "wet market" (as it's apparently how the foreigners in town call it) and again looked for a plunger.

On the second floor, at the corner farther away from the entrance, I found a grocery store with all sorts of household supplies spreading all over the place. I popped the same question again.

This time, just like last time, the guy picked up a plunger right from the floor and handed it to me (he didn't have a toothpick in his mouth; instead, he had a lit-up cigarette). Again, just like last time, I hesitated to take it from him, but I got smarter - I decided not to ask him for a new one, for I could see all the plungers that he had right there, all on the floor.

Only that this time, the floor looked more dusty and black than the previous one.

Knowing that my plunger search would apparently go no further (unless I wanted to waste 12 RMB on cabbing to the nearest Carrefour), I decided to let go of my hygienic standards and only remained picky about not having a cracked wooden stick. Still, as I was fussing through choosing the "best" plunger among the only 3 that he had, giving reasons such as I'd like one with a non-cracked stick, the guy looked at me funny and said the same thing:

"Lady, this is for the toilet. What do you expect?"

What do I expect?

Do you really wanna know?

I decided not to scream the above 2 sentences back at him and just remained quiet. Because in my mind, I know that to really tell him what I expect can take up a whole hour as I can start with the plunger issue to the clogged toilet issue to why the floor seems so blackened and dirty and sticky and stinky yet no one seems to have bothered to give it a scrub. Oh yeah, and there's "please don't speak to your customer or do business with your customer with a toothpick/lit-up cigarette hanging out of your mouth" type of issue.

In the meantime, there was a mental picture slowly emerging in my mind:

MUJI. Yes, the nice and sparkly clean MUJI stores in Tokyo. And a mental picture of myself shopping for a plunger - yes, even a plunger! a nice, clean, shiny, designer-looking plunger - in any MUJI stores in Tokyo, where polite and enthusiastic staff who are willing to help you in any way they can is a simple MUST.

But I uttered no words and let out a deep sigh only. I paid my 10 RMB for my dirty (though supposedly new) and half-cracked plunger (on its wooden stick) and walked out of the wet market. And on the way back, I purposely avoided walking on the side of the street where the first supply store is located.

To them, I may be the lunatic.

But then, it's not like the rest of the villagers ever thought the mad man was a sane one.


PS: The funny thing is, I didn't even know that the thing that I was frantically looking for is called the "plunger" as I don't even know how to call it in Chinese/Japanese. If back in Taiwan, I'd just say, "那個通馬桶的東西". Or perhaps the reason why I haven't really learned the proper English/Chinese/Japanese name for this thing is because, so far in my life, I've never had to use one or buy one.

梅ちゃん at 9:36:00 PM


Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Letter to Mom, Post-moving

As I was typing out the following email to Mom, I realize that I might as well post it as my little summary of my past very exhausting 3 days of moving.

Wish I could stay in Shanghai and unpack all of my 20 boxes from Japan. But leaving on a 8:30am flight to Seoul tomorrow ...

At least my post-graduation transition is finally coming to an end with settling into my new apartment ...


Dear Mom,

Thanks for your email. I'm completely moved in now. The moving process wasn't so bad 'cuz I was lucky enough to find a really good moving company -- according to C, that really is considered a stroke of rare luck, 'cuz out of all of her experiences with moving in the past 4 years, not one of them was pleasant. But running around shopping for new stuff for the apartment and fixing things here and there has been extremely tiring. I know it could just be the moving process that aggregates the feelings of unsettledness, but I'm really getting frustrated with people constantly wanting to cheat on me and shockingly poor customer service at places like Ikea and Carrefour, supposedly international brand name stores.

China is a place that really exhausts you. You step out of the door and for no good reason you get yelled at by whoever you come in contact with. Another analogy that better describes how I feel is this -- it's like one walking out of the door expecting to just have an easy and "normal" day, yet suddenly many big and small rocks fall from the sky out of nowhere, and one either dodges them barely or comes home wounded if not traumatized, both physically and mentally. The school hasn't been very helpful either. The international exchange office has been an extreme fuss with not yet getting my long-term visa ready, so I'll need to go through the hassle of getting another visa in Seoul even though this visa will only an one-time entry, AGAIN. And guess what? Our dear Chinese consulate in Seoul doesn't even accept visa applications from non-Korean citizens. So now I need to go through a local Korean travel agent -- with extra charges of course! -- in order to get my visa back to China.

Again, why does the school/China have to make things so difficult for someone whom they supposedly want to hire?

I realize that I'm going through a lot of cultural shock issues. This is at first puzzling to me 'cuz this isn't my first time living in China. But I think it may have to do with my past 3 years of living, studying, and working in Japan. In order to survive China, I literally need to "de-Japanize" myself or unlearn everything that Japan has taught me -- about professionalism, about politeness, about hygiene, about common courtesy, about standards of perfection, the list goes on. This is not to say that I'm going to start acting like the Chinese, but I do need to start "expecting" differently and stop "hoping" that the Chinese will in any way behave like the Japanese or the Westerners. It's simply impossible, 9 out of 10 cases.

On a positive note -- I totally love my new apartment. I purchased a really nice carpet (orange/red with a modern-style rose motif), which makes the living room really cozy, and adding some floor lamps also helps make the apartment warm and homey. I love how convenient the location is -- literally one minute from the subway stop, and subway line one is the most convenient line of all. I also love the feel of the neighborhood -- French concession with 梧桐樹 everywhere.

The only downside of this apartment complex so far is that the security guards at the door, the 管理員, are completely useless. One of them looks at me with this blank face no matter what questions I ask him. The other does nothing but chain smokes (occasionally he picks up a broom and sweeps the dusk off the floor -- but only from one corner to the other corner, not from the floor to the trash can, it seems like). This 水電工 (plumber/electric guy) also has been a jerk lying to me and ripping me off big time the other day. I wish the landlord could've warned me about him or told me more stuff about this complex (in the end, perhaps the landlord/lady aren't as nice as the agent said). But in the end, it's only merely one of the many instances where I've got cheated by people anyway ...

I'm leaving tomorrow real early for Korea. Will have an important meeting in the afternoon and a full-day conference on Sat. Monday I'm also giving a talk a S Univ. Neither presentations are completely done yet though ... *sigh*

Hope all is well. Will keep you updated via email.


梅ちゃん at 10:26:00 PM


Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Richer the Crueler

After seeing the outrageous condition of the faculty housing last week and realizing that no amount of investment -- big or small -- in further furnishing or renovating the place would save that truly lost cause, I decided to go on an aggressive apartment search.

Only to realize that I've entered a war zone.

And this war zone spreads not just across the field of real estate renting but -- shockingly -- deep within the way people deal with one another.

Give you one example. With the same exact apartment unit, there could be 3 or 4 or 5 (or God knows how many more) real estate agencies who "represent" the unit simultaneously -- they certainly all claim that this is one of the rare units that they can find, and it has only appeared in the market hours ago. This may not seem obvious at first, but after seeing the unit during the day and at night doing a quick search online, you realize, wait a minute, this unit is also posted by another real estate agent with a different price, different description of the total square meter, or even the date of availability.

So, you decide to give that online post a try and ring up the agent to double check upon the details. You even think that you are acting smart by comparing your notes around and figuring out the little shadiness or lies hidden around.

Only that the next day when you are with a totally different agent and expecting to see a totally different unit in the same apartment complex, that one particular unit -- your dream unit even -- surfaces again. "Actually ... I've already seen the unit yesterday ..." You finally decided to tell this particular agent just to avoid the hassle of going through the visiting process again.

So the fierce bargaining battle begins, so much so that you don't know whose price or guarantees you should trust, how much time you still have to decide, or how eager or disinterested you should appear to be.

Worst of all -- you start to wonder if you should start acting like one of them, also pulling out facades and playing mental tricks so that they could still stay in the game with you until you get what you want. Forget about trusting your 1st agent introduced through a connection or paying loyalty to the 2nd agent who has gone out for extra service for you. In the meantime, though, the 3rd agent pops up out of nowhere and you just wonder if his business card is even authentic, while the 4th agent just seems too resourceful to be true.

In essence, and in one word -- you stop trusting anyone. And you stop asking your own conscience if you have actually become one of them who's only concern is TO GET WHAT YOU WANT and throw the lofty word called "trust" or "decency" out of the window.

Because in the end, all that they want comes down to one thing -- MONEY. That's what the landlord wants, the agent wants, and the whole society wants.

(And you just want an apartment so that you can stop crashing at friends' places and living out of suitcases for another 2 months).


Some people suggest that ignoring all their talks about "this unit is going to go right now if you don't give me a deposit." Yet today, I indeed lost a very ideal unit because I hesitated for 2 hours (I thought I was just "taking my time to think it through").

Some people suggest trying out different agents and don't put all the eggs in one basket. Yet because of that, today, my cell couldn't stop ringing with all these random cell phone numbers. I even had one guy who phoned me up at dinner tonight and had the following conversation with him:

"I heard that you are looking for an apartment."

"Excuse me, who am I speaking to?"

"I can't tell you who I am, but I was told that you are looking for an apartment."

"Ok, I don't care about who you are, but I do care about how you got my cell phone number."

"I can't tell you who gave me your cell phone number, but I was told that you are looking for an apartment."

"Yes I am looking for an apartment, but since I don't know who you are and don't know who gave you my number, this is my private matter, my private number, and neither of them has anything to do with you. So I am going to hang up now."


WHAT THE?!? I didn't even have any energy left to scream, at the end of my 3rd day of apartment search.

The reality is, as an associate professor working in one of the most prestigious universities in China (letting alone having one of the best educational degrees in the world), I cannot afford a decent one-bedroom apartment near campus that doesn't threaten the rest of my budget for basic standard of living. The reality also stands that one of the most prestigious universities in China cannot/doesn't care more about setting a reasonable salary level that comes anywhere close to the skyrocketing housing market and standards of living here in the city.

"That's why no professor lives with one salary alone in China," people have warned me.

And that's why many other people -- the migrant workers, the blue-collar workers, the a-yi's, the nannies, the young college graduates from other cities outside Shanghai, the Mr. X, the Ms. Y, the Mrs. Z ... -- do not and cannot live with one salary alone.

"In this whole wide world, there are no other countries more capitalistic than China."

Now I know what my father's saying.

"Shanghai's motto -- survival the fittest."

Now I know that my friend C is saying.

Since my last long-term stay in Shanghai 6 years ago, Shanghai has gone richer.

It has also gone much crueler.

梅ちゃん at 12:59:00 AM