On a strangely sunny and clear day this past Thursday morning, I entered my apartment building on campus and took to the stairs only to discover that my building was on fire.
Staircases must feel very lonely in China since Chinese people avoid the exertion of scaling stairs, considering it unhealthy. Thus, despite the fact that I live on the second floor, I have yet to see any of my neighbors taking the stairs this entire year.
This led me to conclude that I was the first person to see the thick smoke billowing into the stairwell from the storage room below.
I ran outside to look for the security guard only to find her chatting with a pear-shaped old man with wildly long eyebrow hair.
“Fire! The, the building’s on fire!” I said stumbling over my words.
The pair stared at me blankly for a second, then chuckled. “There’s no fire, heh,” the security guard said.
“But the hallway’s filled with smoke!” I contested.
The old man laughed, “Zheli hen anquan. Bu yong danxin! It’s very safe here. Don’t worry!” He waved his hand and smiled insisting that I shouldn’t worry.
“But the smoke!” I repeated.
“Don’t worry, ha ha,” the old man repeated.
“But why is there smoke!?” I wasn’t giving up.
This time, the security guard spoke up. “Maybe they’re fumigating for cockroaches or rats or something.”
Maybe? I thought. I would prefer a touch more certainty when there’s a possibility that a twenty-plus floor apartment building is burning to the ground.
I wasn’t satisfied, but the group had already decided, so I turned back to head inside. As I walked away, the old man kept chuckling and repeated, “Zheli hen anquan!”
The odd encounter replayed in my mind as I dashed through the acrid smoke that had filled the hallway.
There were a number of elements that warranted explanation, like why we hadn’t been notified beforehand that the building would be fumigated. There’s also the fact that there were no safety precautions to protect me against the noxious smoke that made me dizzy as I walked through it.
What struck me most, though, was that the man’s attempts to reassure me was similar to a trend that I’ve seen before. It has to do with reasons.
To my worry and confusion, the old man responded only to my worry. I, however, paid no heed. I wanted explanation, a reason for the fact that I had seen the hallway filling with smoke. When the old man didn’t give me a reason, I dinstantly discredited his attempts to calm me down.
It’s hard for me to imagine that someone could see smoke, then hear simply, “Don’t worry!” and be contented, but I suspect that it’s plausible in China. Perhaps it has to do with people placing more trust in authority in China or Americans’ being more uptight. Whatever the reason, it’s a recurring source of tension in my China life; yet I’m comforted that there might just be a reason for it.