The Shower Debacle (or Why I Have Been Spending More Time at the Gym)

A few weeks ago, the shower door came off its hinges.  Lucas was the unlucky one taking a shower, and just as he pulled the door handle to get out, the top hinge snapped and the entire door fell forward.  In this house we have only one shower so this was bad news for anyone else who was interested in personal hygiene.  Well, not entirely.  We do have two bathtubs here, but for those of us who prefer a shower, we would have to wait until the guys from maintenance could come over to fix it.

Our Chinese bathrooms, like much of Shanghai, are decorated in what can only be described as excessive sparkle.  They might not be showcases for usable space, but they glitter like nobody’s business.  These bathrooms are an appropriate place for jazz hands if ever there was one.  The shower is one of the many things in the bathroom that, at first glance, looks fantastic.  It is a rectangular glass box with all sorts of jets and nozzles–a certifiable fancy shower.  Once you step in, however, you immediately notice a few shortcomings.  The space inside is surprisingly small and the door has these strange plastic pieces all around it that are intended to keep the water inside the shower.  These pieces fly off frequently, and rarely if ever become a barrier of any kind.  This means that showers, particularly ones taken by the under twelve set, result in large lakes being formed on the bathroom floor.  Using the fancy jets only exacerbates this problem, so we have had to use the shower’s most exciting features sparingly.

The door isn’t the first thing to go wrong with our super shower.  At one point Mark made the startling discovery that the shower only provided cold water no matter how far you turned the temperature nozzle.  The kids had taken showers the night before and the rest of the house had plenty of hot water so the problem appeared to be only in the shower.  Off to the gym went Mark while I was left to deal with the workmen and the shower situation.  After a lengthy discussion involving elaborate hand signals, the problem was fixed.  Hooray!  Hot showers for everyone!  There was one glitch, however.  The workman informed me that someone adjusting the water temperature had caused the problem.  What?  No one had done anything to the water heater or any of the complicated controls on the wall in the kitchen.  I was sure of this because none of us could read what any of the buttons said.  We were afraid to touch them.  Oh no, he explained, someone had adjusted the temperature of the water inside the shower.  That was a no no.  No more changing the temperature to suit personal preferences.  He had set the temperature and we were not to bother the handle in the shower.  I had pressed him a little on this.  What if it was too hot for the children?  That was crazy!  No, he insisted, it was not.  If we wanted to shower we would need to use the water the way it was.  No more fooling around!  Needless to say, we all ignored this and haven’t had problems with the water temperature since.

The door was another matter.  It was heavy and I was afraid to try to move it or reattach it by myself.  The glass hadn’t broken, but there was always the possibility that the bottom hinge would snap and the whole thing would come crashing down.  Mark moved it a bit when he came home from work, but other than that we left it and I called the management office in the morning.

While many things are frequently left undone by our management company, a shower door hanging by only one hinge apparently sounds some sort of alarm.  A workman was sent over right away to get the door reattached.  I showed him the problem and he immediately decided that it was a job requiring more than one person.  The door was bulky, and it took one person to hold the door and one person to fix the hinge.  He got on the phone and management sent one more guy over.  Together they started the work and I went back downstairs.

A few minutes later there was a loud thump.  No crashing, no cursing, and no screaming– just a very loud thump.  I thought about going upstairs to check, but wedging myself in the small bathroom as two guys tried to fix the shower had been unpleasant the first time I tried it.  And once I joined them in the bathroom, I would need to try to explain myself in Mandarin.  I decided that if there was a problem I would certainly find out.  No need to rush bad news by going upstairs and poking around, right?  Not five minutes later one of the workmen scurried down the stairs.  He had wrapped his right forearm completely in toilet paper and was holding the mummified appendage above his head.  He didn’t make eye contact with me.  He just walked out the front door, got on his bicycle, and rode off.  He was steering with his good arm.

Now I was forced to go upstairs and investigate.  Sure enough, the shower door was broken and the other workman was three inches deep in glass shards.  His arms were cut, but apparently he thought his wounds weren’t serious enough to warrant leaving the job site.  He asked for a broom and some bags and started shoveling the glass bits off the floor.  I got the vacuum in an attempt to contain what had exploded out onto the bedroom carpet.  The management office called.  The developer was on his way over.  Ten minutes later five new guys appeared at the door and rushed up to the bathroom.  They didn’t even bother to remove their shoes, which I took to mean this was serious business.  Of course, it could just mean they were jerks that didn’t care about tracking dirt in my house.  Either way, they brought glass downstairs with them when they left, spreading it all over the stairs and into the dining room.

Only the lone workman remained and he stayed all day.  Once I thought the mess was reasonably taken care of I encouraged him to leave.  I tried to explain that I could clean up the rest.  He deemed this absolutely unacceptable and kept right on running his bare hands along every surface.  He winced whenever he found another tiny glass shard, would pull it from his flesh, and immediately go back to sliding his hands on the floor again.  He took everything off the counters and shook the glass loose.  He moistened an entire roll of toilet paper and used it to basically mop the floor.  When he was finally finished he apologized profusely.

We waited two weeks for the replacement door to arrive.  When it did they delivered it at night, and left it lying in the tiny strip of grass between our house and the neighbors’.  Mark only noticed it when he went out to make a phone call.  It wasn’t in a box, just a long sheet of glass propped up on thick wads of paper.  Luckily, no one stepped on it.  The door was finally installed on Sunday morning and we are now back to flooding the upstairs bathroom every night.  Unfortunately, even after all that, my triceps are still a bit flabby.

Having A China Day

Around here when things aren’t going your way and it all gets to be too much, we say we are “Having a China Day”.  In casual conversation with a neighbor or expat friend if I say I am “having a China day” they know immediately what I am talking about.  Maybe there was a problem with your refrigerator and you couldn’t manage to get someone to fix it.  Maybe you spent all day trying to grocery shop and ended up with nothing to show for it.  Maybe you just couldn’t get over your irritation with, well, everything.  That is a China day.

I am having one today.  There is no real reason.  Just generally being annoyed with all the extra effort things take and my lack of progress in getting things done.  It is like swimming in molasses to accomplish small tasks and small tasks are all that get accomplished around here.  Yes, I went to the grocery store and the gym.  But we have nothing for dinner because I only went to one store.  And, frankly, going to the gym and the grocery store should not be major life milestones now.  I tried to get some dissertation work done, but was stymied by the ayi’s need to vacuum and then mop directly underneath my feet while slamming into the furniture.  Yes, she was cleaning the house while I sat there, but this only added to my frustration.  How ridiculous is it to be angry at someone as they do your work for you?  It is pretty ridiculous.  You don’t need to tell me.  Still, having someone in the house all the time adds fuel to a China day.  Basically I am never alone, which for me makes for a high level of frustration.  Shanghai is crowded—not exactly the easiest place to find a quiet spot—and I sometimes would like to have my house be a place of solitude and silence.  This is hard to accomplish with three children and a Chinese lady hanging around all the time.  Add a friend or two and I can be positively crazy acting.

But luckily, these days always pass.  Things don’t suddenly get rosy, but they usually look better after I sleep on it.  Or have a stiff drink.  Or both.  Check back tomorrow and the story might be different.

Back in the Swim

The kids are finally back in school and we are settling back in to life in Shanghai.  Ava is adjusting well to her new school- riding the bus with her big brother and making new friends.  Both big kids tried out for the school swim team which turned out to be a somewhat stressful endeavor.  At the end of last year, the kids decided it might be fun to be on the team, so I popped by the pool office to meet the coach and get more information.  I spoke with some of the other swim moms first to see how they felt about the time commitment and to see how their kids were enjoying the team experience.  I got only positive feedback so I happily made my way to the pool and introduced myself.  The coach seemed nice enough, but it took me only a few seconds to realize that his idea of swim team and my idea of swim team were two very different things.

In the United States, my kids swam for the neighborhood pool.  We had maybe four meets and the coaches were all teenagers.  Ok, some of them were “swimmers”.  Maybe they swam for their high school teams or they might even be swimming in college, but it wasn’t ever serious business.  I don’t think the season even lasted a month and a half.  For the very little ones who weren’t yet strong swimmers the coaches would even jump in with them and propel them forward like tiny little missiles, keeping one hand under to help them stay afloat.  But our neighborhood pool is only open in the summer and the hours aren’t great so there is a more serious pool where Mark swims.  Oh, and Michael Phelps swims there, too.  Maybe you’ve heard of him?  The greatest Olympic swimmer of all time?  Yeah, that guy.  My kids have taken swim lessons there and participated in stroke clinic on the weekend, but they don’t swim competitively there.  I have spent plenty of time hanging around watching the kids swim.  This is why I can tell you firsthand how Michael Phelps actually looks in his bathing suit.  It is the kind of sacrifice that mothers sometimes have to make.  Mark had been pushing for the kids to start year round competitive swimming or at least for us to change summer pool memberships so that his future Olympians could be on the Meadowbrook summer swim team.  He isn’t really one for sports, but when it comes to swimming he is worse than any peewee football dad could ever be.  I mean, are we aiming for the Olympics or not?! Can we all just get serious here!?

I had always put my foot down about year round competitive swimming.  After all, I was going to be the one running kids to and from practice.  And they seemed so little.  How could they know that swimming was really their thing?  It was a big time commitment for small people.  Mark argued that earlier was better and that if they hated it they could decide it wasn’t for them.  I was skeptical that he could let it go that easily.  He swam year round as a kid, even when he hated it, and I was sure he would expect the same from them.

But the school team seemed like a good idea.  It is after school so it requires very little running around.  There is even a bus that will bring them home after practice.  What could be simpler?  Two practices a week, a commitment for all Shanghai meets, and one meet outside of Shanghai each year.  So manageable.  But the school coach was clearly more in line with Mark’s way of thinking.  He needed to know specifics.  Where were we from?  Baltimore got him interested.  Had the kids competed before?  I played it cool.  I didn’t volunteer the light Roland Park Pool swim schedule.  Did they swim year round?  Um, sort of?  I mentioned Meadowbrook and that they swam there.  His face registered instant recognition.  Oh, he knew that pool.  Michael Phelps’ pool!  This was technically true, but I was immediately aware that he now thought the kids were competitive year round swimmers working under the supervision of the coaches and staff that had produced multiple Olympians.  Basically we were superstars!  We were nearly fish!

The coach demanded to know more.  What were their times?  Um, their times?  I had no idea.  No worries, he assured me.  Over the summer when they competed I would be able to compare their times with the ones on their website, right?  Sure I could!  Well, I could if they were going to be swimming on a team, which, they weren’t.  He found this troubling, but helpfully suggested that I could time them when I had them in the pool.  Yes, yes.  During one of our many training sessions I would whip out the old stopwatch!  Maybe I would just ask Michael Phelps to do that for me.

The coach could make no promises, because the team was competitive, but he liked that Ava had a late birthday.  And Lucas was swimming in PE so he could check out his skills the very next week.  They didn’t have spaces for everyone and some kids were going to be disappointed.  You see, not everyone makes the team.  Yes, this is elementary school.  Oh, and they needed to be proficient in all four strokes.  They were, right?   How was I supposed to answer that?  Could he be more specific about “proficient”?  I was suddenly concerned that we were biting of more than we could chew.

Over summer vacation we worked very little on swimming so that when we arrived in Shanghai the kids’ preparation was not unlike cramming for college finals twenty minutes before the start of the exam.  Mark had them in the pool on the weekends to fast track their flip turns and attempt to give them some more help with swimming butterfly.  It was going to be close, but it would have to be good enough.

The first day of tryouts arrived.  Lucas was decidedly positive but Ava was terrified.  She has had some confidence issues these past few months.  Issues that warrant their own post, but suffice it to say, not making the swim team might have been a giant blow to her already weakened self-esteem.  She considered not trying out at all.  Lucas tried to encourage her by telling her that she needed to believe in herself, but this didn’t calm her nerves and she left for school on tryout day in tears.

But she came home all smiles.  She powered through and was so proud of herself for finishing the tryouts without falling apart that she said it didn’t matter if she made the team or not.  Of course, I knew it probably did matter just a little bit, but she was so genuinely happy—so visibly excited to have had that little bit of success– that I really believed her.  It had been scary but she had done it and she had done her best.  Lucas was more concerned, however.  The other kids had been better than he had expected.  Some kids were trying out for the second time after being rejected last year and he wasn’t so sure his name was going to be there when they posted the team list.

We waited.  Ava claimed to have seen a list of 3rd grade swimmers with her name on it posted by the pool.  Lucas had no idea what she was talking about.  Surely they would make certain the parents knew, right?  When would they find out?  Lucas thought Wednesday, but he wasn’t sure.  We were on pins and needles.  Finally, we got emails on Monday.

They both made the team!  Michael Phelps is lucky he retired because I think there are a few new kids that just might blow him out of the water.  I mean, once they get those flip turns down.