Posts Tagged ‘Fire’

Let it burn

You can get anything in China. So says everyone. As soon you land you can pop into a store, buy yourself an iPhone for twenty dollars, food and housing is dirt cheap, and the lies continue until you actually land and realize you should have bought a few more things in Europe, because “everything” boils down to the same copy-paste products existing in Carrefour, Suguo and Walmart.

The one thing they do need here en masse would be fire alarms. Spring Festival just ended. Imagine two weeks of almost everything being closed as almost everyone is at home with their families, sitting and eating in front of a television. Now, imagine said families stocking up on enough fireworks to invade a small country with and using them to paint the sky. But wait, while you and I will go to ‘see’ fireworks, the noise being a bonus on the side, the Chinese focus on the large bangs, which scares away demons and bad luck from entering people’s lives in the coming new year. The most houses burn down in this two week period.

Walking home from a Suguo in the middle of the day I step on red wrapping and pass by small boxes which once held fireworks and now slowly burn themselves down. No one puts the fires out, especially not the people who used them in the first place. Chinese people will also tell you that the most important aspect of their lives is their own families, and everyone else be damned. So as long as their boxes aren’t burning in their backyards, the fire is not their own problem.

I thought I was in the clear and could finally enjoy life once the two weeks were up, and yes, stores and clubs reopened and I could finally go out and get various Chinese food and stop surviving on dumplings and McDonald’s. I went out Saturday night and drank just the right amount. Enough to have fun and just short of everything spinning out of control. The water I drank that night did little to prevent the hangover that attacked me in the morning, each heavy blink resulted in micro explosions. I boiled some water and filled up all the mugs in the house, waited eons for them to cool before downing them all.

I heard loud noises outside. Louder than usual that is. There is always something going on in China. If it isn’t traffic, it is people or the drills of construction. No hour is off limits. In Spring Festival I woke up before seven as my the neighbors (for some reason) thought it would be a good time to light some fireworks. And by some I mean a half hours worth. I pulled back my curtains and looked out to see a group of people around the gate to my block. I assumed someone was in need of an ambulance. I also knew that someone would have called an ambulance and did not feel like standing around watching and waiting while someone might be dying. If I was a doctor or knew some first aid then sure, but watching someone die is not something I will ever do willingly.

I go back to watching Community, drinking more water until I hear sirens and more sirens. I look out the window again. Some people are looking at me. Not shouting or waving, just looking. I look directly down. Firemen run in with a hose. I freeze. I hate fire. Is my house on fire? Wouldn’t there be more screams? I put on my clothes and remember the fire drills I had in Manchester University. Each time the alarm went off it was mainly as a drill to see how quick we would react. We were promised it was the last one and left to go back to bed at the two in the morning, cursing the guys who thought we needed the practice. Each time I would pass by my Chinese friend’s room, Yu, who would open up and ask if it was a real fire this time. I had no idea how he could stand the loud, panicky wail of the alarms, until coming here of course, where people are narrowly crushed by honking buses and don’t spare the time to flinch in fear. In Manchester I would dress and calmly make my down, along with everyone else who hated being woken up at the time. This time I just froze. I grabbed my wallet, iPod and phone.  I went for my front door, opening it to thin smoke.


I ran back to my room and looked out the window, expecting to see the windows of the flats below to be blown out. I was going to be another crazy laowai caught doing something stupid, this time being helped out of a burning building. This is the kind of thing that happens to someone else. The fire is to the side of the building not too far from where everyone is standing. I grab my keys and move quickly down and out into the open. I can smell smoke and burned rubber. I join the crowd outside on the streets to see smoke pouring out of the restaurant on the ground floor. Kitchen staff are running alongside firemen, helping them carry a hose and set it up. The hose begins to leak out water along its spine. I stand and wait, wondering where I sleep this night and if the fire will reach up into my room. I wait and wait and the smoke begins to die and the firemen begin to lose all urgency as they carry equipment into the restaurant and fight the fire. An old man explains that the fire started because of a fire in the kitchens. He was very animated and talks with authority, as if he was there, but he looks more like he was out for a stroll and decided to enjoy the show. I left for lunch and came back later. Everything was fine with the building, but I was still shocked that no one told me. No knocks on the door, no alarms, no evacuation procedures. Nothing.

In the UK, Universities have compulsory meetings for International Students, where some key cultural differences are laid out. There was a meeting here in Nanjing in a small room that could fit maybe seventy people, but not over two hundred students. I was told I should have come earlier than the twenty minutes before the start, but wasn’t explained how to squeeze into the solid mass of bodies that already filled the room.

Now I know to do what everyone else knows. Try to be lucky.

To end the day I went out to buy some food and lit a tea candle and put it under an incense cup, with a small basin on top where you can place some scented oils. It caught on fire. I looked around the room for something to put the fire out with, that wasn’t flammable itself. Quick look. Just water. The fire was above my books. So I grabbed my bottle of water, and yes, yes, I KNOW that the oil was on top, so I aimed for the tea candle itself. The small splash resulted in a high rising flame, towering over me. In slow motion I saw the fire build up even though I am lazy as hell, even though there are starving kids in Kenya with more muscle mass than myself, I can still react to things with a speed that leaves me smiling and wondering how I did that. This time I was just happy to still have my eyebrows. I also checked the tangle of hair on my head building itself up to a fro. That was a fire hazard if ever there was one.

I went to bed that night, thankful that I’d had time to get over most of my hangover before the fires started, and thinking about what might have happened. I checked the stove before finally falling asleep.


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