I received a note in my mailbox from Shanghai Gas – the local utility not the result from consuming the local cuisine – saying that they needed to send a technician to change the gas lines to my stove and asking if I would be home between, I think, 9:00 a.m. Saturday and 2017 (yea, they’re not great planners at Shanghai Gas). The techno-dude came, miraculously, on the appointed Saturday morning, and did his gas magic, pronouncing his job done in 10 minutes. As I walked him to the door, he said off-handedly, “Oh, when they restart the gas later this afternoon, your old stove might not work with the new gas system. Have a nice day.”
Um … what? So, precisely, did you end up “fixing”??
Sure enough, later that afternoon the gas came on but my stove did not … or it did but with a flame the power of a mosquito’s disposable lighter. Certainly not enough to fire up a wok. So what to do? I guess I needed to get a new stove. I called my landlord who came back with a version of “I’m not going to do anything … it was OK when I last saw it”, so I guess is was up to me to get a new gas range and install it.
That should be no problem for me. I come from a long line of do-it-yourselfers, strong, practical men who can fix anything with a pair pliers, a length of twine and a well-used handkerchief. My father always repaired the family car himself – in the days before you needed a computer science degree from M.I.T. – as did his father before him. In the same Mr. Fix-it Family tradition, my brother can completely rewire and re-plumb his kitchen before breakfast. In short, the handyman DNA is part of my genetic inheritance.
I, however, paddle around in the shallow end of the family gene pool, sputtering and getting water up my nose. I don’t know how to plug in a hammer; I can’t distinguish between a dime and a ten-penny nail, and I use terms like “whosa-whatsis” and “thingy-bobby” to describe anything more complicated than a mechanical pencil.
Consequently, not long after I arrived in China to teach, back in the days when most everything here broke down on a regular basis, I soon found that my apartment had become a sort of burial ground of broken things, the place where man-made objects came to die a dishonorable death. The week after I moved in, my desk lamp went up in a mini mushroom cloud of smoke and sparks. Once it expired, I was reduced to correcting tests by candlelight, a fact that I regrettably confessed to a Chinese colleague. He gave me that puzzled look I so often receive, the one that says: “and you can feed yourself?” That look was accompanied by advice: “So just call someone to fix it.”
Sure enough, I collared the campus maintenance man, the same guy who was in charge of the campus screwdriver. He agreed to look at my lamp; indeed, he fixed it quicker than you can say “why didn’t you call me in the first place?” This was a revelation to me…I didn’t have to remain a victim of my own mechanical ineptitude.
China is not DIY (Do It Yourself); it is YDI (You Do It). There is no need to spend good money on a set of expensive tools to fix your bicycle when you can find 90 bicycle repairmen within three meters of wherever you might be (on your broken down bike). Take it from me, these guys could get Lance Armstrong back up and running again in seconds flat. Except for the drug charges. You’re kinda on your own on that one, Lancy-pants.
So back to the stove … if it was going to be able to ever cook again, I would need to do something about it so I went to Yolo, a local home improvement store to look at gas ranges. I saw gleaming, ready-to-install appliances; easy-to-apply paint with names like Shanghai Industrial Sunrise (a mottled orange); and numerous, simple-to-use, shiny hand tools. All of which gave rise to that all-too-familiar nervous twitching of my lower duodenum. Yes, these objects were awaiting buyers more capable than this humble blogger.
I looked around at all of the gas ranges. My knowledge of gas extends to giving it some, stepping on it and passing it … I know nothing about gas appliances. Typically, men in such a situation will try to fake it, to pretend we know something when we really don’t. Not me. I’m a firm believer in the 12-step method to home improvement: Step 1: admit that you need help. Step 2: seek the assistance of a higher power (in this case Ms. Yang at the Yolo Home Improvement store in Shanghai). I walked up to Ms. Yang, told her that I need a new stove, gave her the measurements (I can, usually, operate a tape measure) and then told her to tell me what to buy. She showed me something. I asked for something cheaper. She showed me something else. I asked “is it easy to install”? She said, “delivery and installation are free with purchase.” I firmly resisted kissing her and said, “I’ll take it!” I was in and out of the store in 10 minutes, flat.
I walked out of there with a nearly tangible sense of the familiar. There I was, back in the shallow end of the gene pool where the water was warm and someone else was plunging into the deep end on my behalf. I hope they can fix the plumbing while they are down there.