A disastrous evening OR What not to do in China when you don’t speak Chinese

I haven’t posted much recently because I haven’t done much recently. Other than going to school on Sunday to teach, my days have all been the same. Sleep in, eat pastries for breakfast, chat with friends online, eat a late lunch, write, eat dinner, watch movies, talk with John, write some more, and chat with more friends. Obviously, my writing has not been in the form of blogging (except for the postaday2011 project I’m working on at choosingtomuse.wordpress.com).  However, I didn’t really think that any of this was worth writing about.  So I didn’t write.

And then last night happened.  Now, finally, I have a story to tell!

It was a typical day.  John and I chilled in the apartment all afternoon editing a thesis for our employers (foreign policy during the Clinton administration is dense and boring at least when translated from Chinese).  Around 5:20pm we decided to head to dinner to take a break and refresh our minds so that we could write when we got back.  Since we only have one gate key instead of two, I never take my apartment key with me.  It’s useless if I can’t get through the gate, so it chills in my backpack.  John always has our gate key and apartment key, so it’s no big deal.  I have also developed the habit of leaving my phone at home when running out for lunch or dinner because no one is going to call me anyway.  John leaves his at home too; since we are together, we have no need for phones.  Last night was typical.  We headed out the door, letting it slam closed behind us.  Only to turn around and realize that John had left our keys in the apartment along with my key and our phones.  This sounds like no big deal.  Just go back in and get the keys, right?

Wrong.

Our door handle has been broken ever since we moved in, and since we don’t speak Chinese, we’ve never complained about it or gotten it fixed.  Though our door wasn’t locked, we were essentially locked out of our apartment with no way to communicate with anyone since our phones (with which we could call translators) were inside and we don’t speak Chinese beyond counting, saying thank you, and ordering basic food.  Instantly frustrated by our dilemma, we both set out to figuring out how to fix it.  My first instinct was to go knock on any door and show them the problem hoping they could help.  Our downstairs neighbors’ door handle had been mangled during an attempted robbery last week (oh yes, I feel safe.  And the gate does its job so well!), and they managed to get into their apartment without breaking the door down.  Perhaps they could help us get into ours.  However, the Chinese approach problem solving in a much different way than we do, and as John pointed out, it would be frustrating, difficult, and excruciatingly slow to ask anyone for help.  His idea was to go buy pliers and try to turn the handle.  This sounded like it would be much easier (though slightly more expensive), so I agreed.  Off we headed to the store on our way to dinner.

After trying three stores, we did finally find a pair of pliers (as well as a screwdriver in case we needed to take the handle off completely).  Hopeful, we went to eat dinner, which was delicious.  We recently discovered a new clay pot shop (ok, maybe I should have written about that.  I’ll post about it soon.), and we ate scrambled eggs with onions, peppers, and carrots over steamed rice.  When we got back to our apartment after dinner, we stood at the gate for a minute wondering how to get up past the gate.  Thankfully, a neighbor (whom I had never seen before) came up shortly after us and let us through.  We climbed the six flights of stairs (so looking forward to fewer stairs in my life) and pulled out the pliers to open our door.

It didn’t work.

No matter how many different ways John tried to turn the handle, it wouldn’t open.  Apparently Chinese doors and locks are super secure and have some locking mechanism I don’t understand.  By now, we were cold and irked by the situation.  We were left with no choice but to try to ask the Chinese for help, so we trudged back down the stairs to the apartment building office.  No one was there.  We knocked on the neighbors door next to the office hoping they could help.  They didn’t understand.  So we went back upstairs and tried  the door again.  I am well aware that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly expecting different results.  Sometimes desperate times led to temporary insanity.  Our next door neighbor came home while we were trying the door and shook his head at our attempts.  It wouldn’t work.  He pointed to a number on the wall and motioned for us to call it for help then disappeared into his apartment.  But we didn’t have our phones with us.  Even if we did, we don’t speak Chinese.  Without a translator (and a phone) the number on the wall was useless.

When we need help with the apartment or need something fixed, we are supposed to go knock on one of the fifth floor doors.  The man that lives there is a friend of the man who actually owns our apartment.  However, he wasn’t home last night.  Then I remembered the neighbor who let us up to begin with and headed up to the seventh floor and knocked on the door.  Thankfully, he answered the door and I showed him the door handle and pointed downstairs to our apartment.  He willingly came and looked at the door then called for his father to come.  After some hand motions/body language communication, they figured out that we had left our keys in the apartment and had no clue what to do.

For some reason, they decided to help.  They called one of the numbers on the wall and then invited up to their apartment to wait for someone to come.  They gave us hot tea and oranges.  Our neighbor (I have no idea how to spell his name – Shia Yue perhaps?) offered John a cigarette, and they smoked (a very friendly custom in China).  They even tried to speak slowly and use the few English words they knew to talk with us and put us at ease.  After a half an hour or so, the locksmith showed up.  He was able to pry off the peephole covering and wiggle an iron hook through the door to lift the handle from the inside.  If our door had actually been locked, I’m sure it would have been much, much worse.  Once inside, we were able to call Mrs. Wang and have her translate for the locksmith and our neighbors.  It cost us 50 RMB to get into our apartment, but no damage was done.  We are truly blessed to have such helpful and friendly neighbors.  I suspect that the community-based culture in China encourages people to help each other since the good of the community is stressed over the good of the individual.  Regardless, I am thankful that God gave us such good neighbors.  He really does look out for us.

The moral of the story is to never leave home without your keys or your phone in general, but especially if you live in a foreign country and don’t speak the common language.  The other moral of the story is that God is good and faithful, always protecting His children.

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