Michelle’s Favorite China Moments (#6 Of Tornados, Fires, and Floods)

This month I am doing a series on my favorite China moments over the past decade.  These are in no particular order.

Both of these stories teach me a valuable lesson: Our possessions are temporal, but the things that really matter are the things of the heart and the legacy that we leave.  Nice and philosophical, yes?  Either that or this valuable less-than-philosophical lesson: Laugh.  Just laugh.  Because sometimes that’s all you can really do.

Apartment on fire and a tornado.  In 2004 our team was on a retreat somewhere.  Maybe we were visiting Chairman Mao’s hometown or climbing a mountain somewhere, I don’t remember.  All I remember is getting a phone call from the school saying my apartment had caught on fire.  Wait, what?!?   Then somewhere in the translation there was something about a tornado.  Wait, what??  Tornadoes just don’t happen often (or at all) in China- but of course it happened in my area when we were out of town.   However, not much more was said in that phone call.  Realizing I had absolutely no control over a situation that already happened I just waited until we returned to see what I would find.  And then I went back to my weekend.

The first view I had when I returned to my apartment the next day was the picture you see here.  Oh dear.  They weren’t kidding.  The electric box in my stairwell had exploded.  Be still, my anxious heart.  They are just things.  Then a peace that passes all understanding enveloped me and I found myself actually grinning.  I suddenly found the whole thing rather amusing, actually.

I learned later that the 75-year-old apartment gatekeeper (see picture below) apparently ran to my apartment in his pajamas attempting to rescue me from the fire.  Pounding on my door, he didn’t realize I wasn’t home.  Poor guy.  Luckily the things inside the apartment weren’t harmed, other than having this horrible black soot on the walls and the smell of smoke in everything for many days afterwards.  I lived with my teammates for the next week until the electrician could restore some kind of order back to my life.

You know the icebreaker/warmup exercise often used?  The one that says, “if your house was on fire, what three things would you save as you’re running out the door?”  Students just don’t understand why I start giggling every time I use that one.

Gatekeeper and family

Apartment with a flood.  Years later I was in Kashgar.  A teammate and I were in my living room watching a movie.  I lived on the second floor and it was close to 11 pm in the middle of November- no heat, and quite chilly.  Suddenly we heard a loud rushing sound coming from the front of the apartment.  Please tell me that sound is from the movie.  “Um, Michelle, you might want to come see this.”

I walked timidly in the direction of my teammates’ voice.  I peeked around the corner and had no words.  The water radiator in my bathroom had exploded and water was gushing out (not trickling, not streaming, gushing with the force of a fire hose).  There suddenly comes this sinking feeling when there is absolutely nothing…absolutely nothing…you can do until the water recedes.  I rushed to put as much of my things on top of my couch and bed as I could.  My mother is convinced that if it happened in the middle of the night I would be dining with the angels this evening, since all my wires were on my floor and I would have been electrocuted.  My teammates ran outside into the dark night (sprinted more like it) to some mysterious place and brought back three men.  “Where did you find these people at 11 pm?  You know what- doesn’t matter.”  But then they just kind of stared at the gushing water, rather helplessly I might add.  They tinkered with something, but basically said that we’d just have to wait until the water stopped and they’d come back in the morning.  Good luck.  Really!?!   That’s all you got?!?  Then they left.  What just happened?

Rolling up our pants, we got to work.  My teammate and I spent a better part of the night cleaning it up.  My entire apartment was covered with three inches of water.  The linoleum covering my floor was now floating.  Suddenly a giggle came bubbling up.  Pretty soon we were laughing.  We laughed until tears came down our faces.  Together we were a working machine!  However, as we pushed the water out from my second floor, the water eventually made its way to the first floor and we had to help my poor Japanese neighbor with her flood as well.

Sounds like the beginning of a bar joke with no punch line.  “So, in a desert in China an American knocks on the door of her Japanese neighbor and says in Uighur, ‘so, you see this water flowing into your apartment- yeah, that’s my fault.’  I mean, who needs neighborhood block parties and barbecues if you can bond with your neighbors over a flood?  Let’s just say she wasn’t nearly as amused.


Stay tuned for my next Favorite China Moments #7 blog: “And Don’t Forget About Earthquakes”



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