The following post was written by Global Gap Year Fellow Sadie Allen. Sadie is spending the first part of her gap year in China.
It was 9 PM on a Thursday night when I realized just how big of a mistake I had made. This fatal miscalculation and I had met before (in fact, several times,) but a problem like this is handled with greater levels of ease when you are in your home country. One cannot simply greet this mistake in China like they would back in the States. At home, I could say, “Hello, problem. Let’s get rid of you immediately.” This time, given my lackluster Mandarin skills, I could barely muster a “Ni Hao.” to my old friend. This mistake, now sitting in front of me, was a clogged toilet.
My problem and I have become well-acquainted over the years. Oftentimes, I can, much like a mistake magician, make it disappear without houseguests or family members noticing.There have been rare occurrences, though, when my magic powers vanish, rendering me virtually helpless to my clogged conundrum. Once, while on a family vacation, I nearly flooded our apartment. My parents were far from thrilled and kindly explained the situation to the owner of the building, who was even less delighted. I cursed this problem for causing such a disturbance. I had even introduced my boyfriend to this acquaintance (twice) when I could not locate his plunger. Even after he kindly found one for me, I was still unable to solve my situation, leaving him to rescue me from my fatal over-flushing. As you can imagine, I like to deal with this problem alone when I can. When in public and faced with no other palatable solution, I can even sneak away from my old friend, leaving it there in a now-forbidden stall, only to be reunited once more when the problem occurs in a different location later on.
I have been given various solutions to this issue, oftentimes by the people who it has inconvenienced. For instance, after causing a family embarrassment on our lovely vacation to Florida, I was met with many tips and tricks from my hassled parents. My boyfriend even had some solutions to throw into the ring after my two incidents in his lovely home. Unfortunately for all of them, I am stubborn, hard headed, and prefer to do things on my own terms and in my own time. Now, staring at my clogged Chinese toilet, I wish I had taken their advice and ditched my pigheaded ways.
I was now faced with the daunting task of solving my problem. I was no longer the mistake magician, plunger in hand, ready to make the issue disappear. Instead, I was a helpless foreigner, stripped of my power and confidence. A part of me wanted desperately to walk away from it all– from my pungent problem, from living in a foreign country, from constantly translating in my head. I felt weak. My parents could not tell the landlord and I could not ask my boyfriend for a plunger. For the first time since I came to China, I felt like a child. I wasn’t the bold and daring woman who left home at the age of eighteen. I was sitting in the back of my parent’s Subaru again, getting fussed at for my vacation mishap. I was once more the girl who was frantically flushing her problems away in her boyfriend’s bathroom. I was so utterly powerless.
I could not bear the thought of asking the principal at my school for help. I could imagine the scene in my head — me, pitifully walking over to her door, perhaps waking her from an early slumber, and greeting her with a poorly translated plea for a plunger. How pitiful I would look without my proud demeanor. My stubbornness urged me to clutch my pride and not ask for help.
Perhaps I could live without a toilet for the next two months. It could be done, right? After further consideration, I knew what had to be done. I swallowed my pride and walked out of my door, submitting myself to my newfound lack of autonomy. In that moment, I felt both my freedom and my powerlessness, standing alone in a foreign country and about to beg for help from a near stranger.
Bracing against the cold, I went to ask for a plunger.