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How to love people who are a pain in the arse

Pssshhhhhh … the toilet flushing in our apartment was the most beautiful sound I have heard in a long time. I sat in our lounge, revelling in its bubbly, splashy song, grinning at myself for finding this somewhat stercoraceous moment almost sublime. We have been living in Suzhou, China for just over the month and the toilet has broken five times. Sometimes we were for days without a toilet and believe you me there was nothing sublime about the odour in our humble apartment. Hence it was truly a sweet, mellifluous sound to rival the very best of Mozart’s violin concertos when the landlady (we don’t pay for the apartment, our agency does) gave up on the cheapskate methods and replaced the goddam loo. The last time the toilet broke the bottom part of the cistern bowl literally crumbled and the water half-flooded our bathroom. Marion has not heard me curse like that in a long time. I was on the throne at the time, on perhaps the fourth movement of a very different kind to Mozart’s.

Aaahhh, it was a sweet moment as I watched the plumber open the glass door of our bathroom (yes, glass, you read that right) and I leaned forward to peer in delight at that stately, porcelain marvel which was still sighing the last strains of some sweet lullaby. There it was: a sculpture that at that precise moment rivalled Michelangelo’s The David in the sheer elegance of its chiselled lines, the sparkling white sweep of the unbroken seat (the last once turned into a fricken skateboard at ABSOLUTELY the wrong moment, I am sure you get my drift, pardon the pun) and then … my beatific grin faded into a scowl.

The bloody plumber had used Marion’s bathroom mat to clean and scrub away the crumbling cement, dirt and sealing left behind when he removed the old toilet. Sure, the mat looked like and could have been used as a towel, but why had the bloke chosen to use and spoil OUR bathroom mat instead of using … ?? I am sure, dear reader, you can finish the blindingly obvious sentence. Well, obvious to us Westerners. I am once again facing all kinds of cultural difference which I can only see as blunders and daftness. But I love it. Why?

I think it’s because I am never in a comfort zone and so long as I see the funny side (easy enough) it’s not painful. I am, rather, in an almost constant cultural shock zone yet again (described at length in my book Cracking China). I pondered the matter further as I wrung out our forlorn bathroom mat, pulling out bits of concrete and old cement, nevertheless still comforted by the new, sparkling white throne squatting next to me, genteelly waiting to serve me whenever I needed to hold an audience with myself.

As I placed our mat on its own for a further go in our washing machine my conclusion was there’s just so much colour, hilarity plus bizarreness, to living in China. And I do prefer people who come across as daft or a tad eccentric. I mean, many of the mainland Chinese I meet are just not grey carbon copy nine to five people at all. Take the glass toilet door. Yes, a bloody glass door, glazed, I will grant you, but nevertheless glass, which our landlady chose. You can still easily make out a person dropping his pants to squat (perfect view from our little dining room, isn’t it just?) or a tad too much information in terms of body parts when getting out of the shower.

Who the hell puts a bloody glass door on a toilet/bathroom? Not grey people. We’re talking here about people whose grey matter does not have conventional neural paths, whose noggins are out of kilter, whose lifts don’t quite make the top floor but stop at some mysterious, otherworldly floor filled with new, exciting possibilities no one has ever dreamt of.

Or take getting email addresses from colleagues for on-going communication. My head of department, a wonderful Chinese lady, gave me hers a few weeks ago. I sent her an email with some things I needed printing, a few queries on protocol and so forth. Then I forgot about it. A week later I received a frantic email from her profusely apologising for her tardy response, explaining “sorry for my late reply, but I seldom use that email address. In future, could you use … ” Yes, dear reader, I found myself lightly bouncing my head on my desk next to this keyboard I am writing on, muttering “well, if it is not an email address you really use or seldom use or whatever, then why didn’t you … Gunn, in the first place, not just … ” I am sure you can once again finish my shatteringly profound question without too much difficulty.

To be honest, I should have been sharper on the email address thing. That has happened to me before several times in my last, five-year stay in China. But I still battle with MY cultural paradigm, not insulting the other’s intelligence or my own by asking, on receiving contact details from a colleague, a bone-headed question, oh something like “erm, is this an email address you actually … use?” If I were to ask you that, you might look at me and wonder if I were on some quaint cocktail of drugs, surely?

But a year in New Zealand softened me up, helped me lose my edge when it comes to second and third guessing these wonderful, dotty people, who have given the missus and I such a cheery welcome and done their best to make us feel at home in a very different, often unconventional world that truly helps to get the creative juices flowing.

Also follow Rod’s column The Mocking Truth on NewsTime


  • Rod MacKenzie

    CRACKING CHINA was previously the title of this blog. That title was used as the name for Rod MacKenzie's second book, Cracking China: a memoir of our first three years in China. From a review in the Johannesburg Star: " Mackenzie's writing is shot through with humour and there are many laugh-out-loud scenes". Cracking China is available as an eBook on Amazon Kindle or get a hard copy from His previous book is a collection of poetry,Gathering Light. A born and bred South African, Rod now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, after a number of years working in southern mainland China and a stint in England. Under the editorship of David Bullard and Michael Trapido he had a column called "The Mocking Truth" on NewsTime until the newszine folded. He has a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. if you are a big, BIG publisher you should ask to see one of his many manuscript novels. Follow Rod on Twitter @