“Do people in America have fans in their windows?”
Xiang was a short and portly man with a penchant for laughing as he spoke. My girlfriend, Lily, and I were working at a high school in the city of Yichang, in central China, and Xiang’s role was to communicate with the foreign teachers. He joined me walking home from school one day with important information to relay.
“Fans?” I said. “Well, it depends on where you live.”
“Another person told me, everyone has fans in their windows.”
“If it is hot, yes.”
“They said, in Washington DC everyone has fans in their windows.”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
“But you did not have fans?”
“No. Maybe in the summer.”
“Oh,” Xiang said. “Some people will be coming to build fans in your windows. I think it should be tomorrow.”
Early the next morning a troupe of blue-blazered workers arrived. When the door opened they spread out into various rooms, and soon the sounds of saws and drills filled the apartment. I did not see any fans. When the workers had finished, we explored our newly altered home and found that we had been ‘fenced’ in, not fanned. In all but one window, the workers had installed heavy metal bars, all secured with fat bolts. They could not be opened; we were jailed. We went to the one bar-less window and leaned out, imagining how, in case of a sudden fire or other disaster, we might escape by leaping from the dangling air conditioning unit and swinging from a tree branch to safety.
About our building there was nothing remarkable – nothing but its ordinariness, its bland façade, its striking similarity to a million other buildings in similar complexes on similar streets across the country. It rose up six floors, it’s gray cement walls blending seamlessly into the rough surface of the courtyard, which blended further into the outer wall and the streets and on into the city. Not knowing better one might suppose that this solid material was the natural stuff of the earth. Even the trees emerged directly from it.
Obstacles were common. For weeks the courtyard was not a courtyard at all but a pond – the side effect of a renovation project that employed a handful of middle-aged men in black jackets to fix the uneven surface of the courtyard, by means of tearing most of it up (the rubble piled into a corner) with sledgehammers and jackhammers and later refilling the space with new concrete. Midway through the plan it rained. The holes flooded, and to travel from the bottom step of the staircase to the gate required several running leaps. Eventually the concrete was laid and the courtyard was once again a wavy, uneven place. During winter, when the pipes froze and three apartment buildings were without running water, they had to bring out the jackhammer again, this time to excavate the main valve from its airtight grave of concrete.
It was home. But it was not permanent. Not only for us, foreigners in for a stint, but the building, the complex, courtyard, walls, gate – all of it was, in essence, temporary. Built quickly, it could also have been razed quickly. The buildings were drab and nondescript enough that few people would have realized had they vanished and been replaced with something taller and shinier. Thick black grease stains covered the exteriors, while inside the walls were of bare plaster over cement; white powder dusted everything. The kitchen floor was a series of layers akin to baklava – cement, mold, tile, mold, fake wood wallpaper curling up at the edges with mold. The winter air slipped easily under the doors and windowpanes. The kitchen sink emptied into a dark, mysterious hole, and rusted, eroding pipes entered through the ceiling and disappeared again through the floor, carrying nothing of ours. The water valve was broken, permanently open. The faucet was secured with tape. The apartment existed under one law: if one thing were fixed, another would break. It was impermanent, but unfortunately not condemned.
I would try to be understanding. I would remind myself that the apartment was free, and large, and more than many had. But the truth was that there were also many better places, and there was no reason to assume that the locals cherished a building such as ours. It was maintained only to a minimum level of habitability, and its condition spoke of priorities.
One day Lily and I walked toward home along with a student from the high school where we taught. Turning the corner so our apartment building came into view over the brick wall topped with shards of glass, we pointed out which unit was ours. The metal bars enclosing the windows and balcony glimmered. The student gasped and then hid in her hand and giggled.
“You live there?” she asked.
She tittered again. “It is very ugly!”
Spring brought severe change to Yichang. The streets – tiles, bricks, concrete and stones – were torn up all at once. The trees along the sidewalks were cropped and then uprooted. Heaps of rubble occupied corners for weeks or months. A great portion of the city had been designated for overhaul, but there seemed to be no order to any of it.
Then it rained. The dirt streets became a viscous muck, passable only by the placement of planks. Old doors were laid across ditches overflowing with muddy rainwater, sewage, and trash.
As if anticipating our amazement at the new state of the city, Xiang took it upon himself to address the issue. We were eating at a hotpot restaurant downtown, along with our boss and some other teachers, when he unexpectedly posed a question to us.
“In France,” he said, “They have the same streets for hundreds of years, but here we remake them every year! Why do you think so?”
He plucked a piece of meat with his chopsticks from a communal basin of boiling oil and broth.
“Maybe the government needs to keep people employed,” Lily suggested.
“Is that your opinion?”
His answer was surprising. “Oh, good! Yes. I think you are correct. In China, there have so many people, and they need jobs, so…”
“Also, maybe there aren’t regulations to keep them from being ruined.”
“No,” he said, pointing his chopsticks. “The government’s laws are perfect. But some people… maybe they do not follow them. I think it is very bad.” He laughed as he said this.
“Ah,” we said.
“But I think it is… unnecessary,” he said. “The roads should be good enough.”
When the earthquake struck nearby Sichuan province that May, we did everything wrong; we did not leap from the one free window. We remained calm, sought out doorways and braced ourselves, hearing the windows rattle in their loose frames and the doors above slamming as the upstairs residents fled the building in fright. I glanced out one window and saw a thick clump of electrical wires swinging like a jump rope.
When the shaking stopped and we decided to leave, we came down the stairs to find every other resident of the three buildings sitting in the courtyard. The old women, seeing us, shouted, “The foreigners were inside! The foreigners were inside!” Not one of the residents had been foolish enough to think the buildings would hold, that they were made to last. Their instincts had told them what all our schooling had overruled, what we soon realized should have been common sense, as reports came out describing the collapsed schools and other buildings in Sichuan, and of the corruption and disregard that had allowed them to be built so poorly.
For hours that day we wandered through the city. While there was no obvious damage, entire office buildings and department stores had been evacuated, and throngs of businessmen and uniformed workers filled the sidewalks and the main square in the center of the city. Even McDonald’s was closed. Safe or not, there was an ominous feeling of disruption. Had a visitor first arrived that day and seen the crowds, the myriad piles of rubble, the wrecked streets and the unfinished buildings of rebar and brick, they might have thought they had come upon the very epicenter of the quake.