Day 14: This Room Was Built on Good Intentions

You know the old saying that goes: “things always get worse before they get better”—the belief that even at its worst, there is the supposition that in the future a given situation will improve? Well, whoever coined that phrase obviously never lived in a Chinese house.

This realization was a long time in the making. I had seen structures outfitted and thrown up in nary a month's time in numerous cities in and around China, but most strikingly on campus and in the town of Taigu where I live. Giant construction pits full of concrete slurry, mortar, fragmented brick chunks, and wooden support beams line the edge of North Yard, and seemingly transform into habitable structures overnight. However, as James, who worked as a stone mason for a year, will tell you, not all buildings are created equal. The instability and shoddiness with which buildings get erected in China is largely to blame for the grave aftermath of catastrophic events like earthquakes and landslides, which have been headline-making news of late. The emphasis is on getting buildings up, and not about ensuring the structural integrity of them to any large degree.

The door to my bedroom, decorated with posters from Hong Kong, New York, and Japan.

From an outsider's perspective, China's economic development is advancing at a blistering pace. But foreigners only see one side of the story—the tall, glittery new highrises that line China's skylines in Shanghai and Guangzhou. The truth of the matter is much more nuanced—that wedged within those massively tall skyscrapers lie innumerable building codes violations and a bevvy of cost-efficient, but ultimately low-quality building materials. While the exteriors may be paragons of grandeur, little thought is placed on the effects of that hasty construction in the long run. In fact, Chinese modernization bears a stunning correlation to the state of our one-story flats.

Much to my surprise, following the long summer holiday, I returned home to find the interior of my home meticulously re-modeled. Though most of the renovations were much needed fixes, within a matter of weeks, they had done very little to affect any kind of long-lasting change. It became clear to me that rather than tackle the problem at its core, aging houses like mine have just been remodeled to oblivion. In one of my first lessons on living in Taigu, I learned that leaning up against any surface is a recipe for discolored clothing. The white-wash walls in our homes are really no more than compacted layers of chalk and the external “bricks” are actually just red-dyed cinder blocks made to look like them. Since I first moved in, numerous dance parties have worn away the evenness of the floor, we've needed three replacement living room tables, and rats have chewed holes through drywall, plumbing, and ceiling tiles. Cracks have already begun to form in the new paint job of our neither sound- nor weather-proof walls.

My bedroom, outfitted with a poster from Pingyao, a tapestry from Oberlin, and a nightstand overflowing with nick-knacks and student gifts.  The red lantern from Nanjing in the foreground transforms the room into a seedy opium den by night.

In an effort to counteract such shortcomings, I've made a few DIY modifications. I did my own make-shift insulation by layering the three floor-to-ceiling windows in my bedroom with thick sheets of plastic. Though it does make the room warmer and ironically gives me quite a bit more privacy, it unfortunately eliminates the ability to see the sun. I've also tried to do a few less purely practical touches in the way of interior decorating, reprising my role first at Oberlin and later at Cornell—starting with a newly acquired lantern from Nanjing and a few well-placed wall hangings and posters. While they may not be enough to stop natural disasters, at least they're small steps toward improving my quality of life. Perhaps things do get better after all.