Seth Barham Design
Minimal and effective design, inspired by culture.

Spartan Wanderer

Ramblings from the road, gear reviews, design trends, and whatever else happens to be on my mind.

The Heating Debacle of 2016

My current home of Daqing is in Heilongjiang province, which is one of three provinces in China’s dongbei region - literally “east-north”. Winter comes early here and stays late. It’s not uncommon for the first snow to fall before the leaves do. A thick, down jacket is not a mere comfort, but necessary if you want to get any fresh air in the thick of the deep freeze.

With all this in mind, one must know that central heating is especially important in a place that can get down to -35°C. And I can’t complain. Most places you go in Daqing will be very warm inside. The government usually turns the central heating on mid-October, which ushers in that year’s Airpocalypse, as the heating is coal-powered. And right on time, my radiators slowly began to spring to life. Workers from my school had bled them while I was in London, so everything should have been good to go. 

The Valve of Power

One evening after work, I settled down with some takeout, a beer and the latest South Park when…




Even knocking at the door demonstrates the complete lack of patience in (Mainland) Chinese society. No, not a normal three raps and a pause for the person to get up and make their way to the door, but a constant cacophony until you actually open up. I’m not usually a fan, but Sheldon from Big Bang Theory is an apt comparison. 

It was my neighbor from the 2nd floor. He muttered something about his apartment being cold and let himself in, making a beeline for my bathroom. 


After some frantic searching, he pulls the lever of a tap near the floor. There’s some rumbling, a loud hiss, then an explosion of disgusting black water shooting out all over my bathroom floor. At this point, I had to ask.  
“What are you doing?”

He smiles, satisfied with his job of unleashing the soot of years gone by all over my floor, and goes on to explain that I somehow control the heating for my entire building. Because I live on the 6th floor - the top - it’s my job to release steam from the valve that spewed poop soup onto my bathroom floor, of which my neighbor was standing in with only his socks. I call my boss to make sure I’m getting all of this right. My neighbor goes downstairs and returns with some sort of hose he MacGyvered so that I can release the air/steam/water into my shower drain instead of onto the floor. Why he didn’t use it before…well, I would drive myself insane by constantly dwelling on such questions

With great power comes great responsibility

For the next two days, I have other neighbors knocking on my door complaining that their apartments are too cold. I try my best to explain that I already released the valve several times. Even my best Chinese friend paused our drinking and YouTube session to chastise me and went to the bathroom to again release the valve. Again, I helplessly explained that I’ve been doing it every day, just as everyone has asked. 

For the next week, everyone in my building is constantly interrogating me. From knocking on my door as early as 6am and as late as 10pm to materializing suddenly in the stairwell anytime they hear somebody walking up. It got so bad that my boss put a notice on my door that said to call her instead of constantly pestering me. I completely understood that they were cold and wanted the heating that they paid for on, but it was impossible to convince them that the dumb foreigner indeed knew how to turn a lever 90°, and they all wanted to try their hand at it, expecting a different result. 

Eventually, professionals from the government were called in. I was beginning to get a little cold myself, so I was hoping they could finally resolve this crisis. They checked every radiator in my apartment, bled them all again, and of course finished the job by visiting the now-famous lever in my bathroom. They tell me my heating - and everyone else’s - should be normal by tomorrow evening. Thank Mao. 

The real culprit

Alas, the radiators remained cold and lifeless to the touch. Only when the professionals failed to find a solution did my neighbors begin to entertain the idea that the problem may not lie with the dumb foreigner. 

An investigation was launched. The government repairmen went to every unit below mine to check the pipes. Lo and behold, a man on the first floor had somehow rerouted the main heating pipe through his apartment so that he could be warmer, quicker. I’m not even sure how that’s possible, but that was the problem in the end. Nope, not mentally-challenged me, who everyone felt it was pertinent to help turn a lever, but some selfish bastard downstairs. 

It would be wrong to say that Chinese people, by their nature, are more selfish than any other human being. But rather, an entire generation living through a famine has a ripple effect, which is still washing over modern Chinese society from its epicenter in the 1950s. People act selfishly because of this famine mentality that was lodged into the national psyche with blunt force trauma. Some wounds take a while to heal, and until they do, expect heating hoaxes to continue. 

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