• Alexandra Sieh / Colorado Daily

    From our upstairs window, you can see the typical layout of hutong homes. The center courtyard is small, with a few homes all built around it. Past that roof in the foreground is the main hutong, or alleyway.

  • Alexandra Sieh

  • Alexandra Sieh / Colorado Daily

    Our home, with the blue wall, is at the back of the courtyard. We walk under the neighbors' laundry and past their storage to get there. (Don't worry: That isn't wastewater on the ground,)



“So, what did they want?”

Manfriend’s face twisted up a bit. “Well,” he said hesitantly. “It seems our toilet is broken.”

I looked up, confused. After arriving back home from a few errands, our neighbors had knocked on the door and pulled Manfriend outside for something.

“What do you mean? There’s no leak in here,” I said.

“There’s a leak outside, though. It seems our shit is literally leaking out into the courtyard.”

“Well … shit.”

In looking for a unique apartment to rent last summer, we had found an old-style home downtown, just a short walk from the center of Beijing. These homes are set up as a sort of mini community, where a cluster of homes all sit around a tiny courtyard. These pods lay along a main hutong, or alley. In warmer weather, neighbors will stand about in that main road and chat. Inside these small courtyards, folks hang their clothes on overhead lines and store things communally in piles in the walkway.

There aren’t bathrooms in most homes — instead, local residents will use the public bathrooms along the main alleyway. Early in the morning, on my way to the subway, I’ll pass folks in their pajamas as they head to the bathroom nearby.

Everyone uses them, except the foreigners, who will pay twice as much for a refurbished place that includes an indoor toilet.

One that leaked, apparently.

“I’ll go call the landlord,” Manfriend said.

I guess our vacation was officially over.

We had just returned from a much-needed holiday in Southeast Asia. Across Cambodia and Vietnam, we spent two weeks eating, snapping photos and relaxing as best we could in the chaos of those beautiful countries.

When we arrived back in Beijing, shivering against the winter wind, I wondered how the next few months would go. It had been such a beautiful trip. Could we keep the good vibes rolling?


My foot landed in a puddle on our kitchen floor. The washing machine was leaking. Upon further inspection, though, that was it. And in speaking with folks at work, all was humming along well there, too. It seemed things were going all right.

Yet two days later, I was standing outside, using my broken Chinese to ask how long the maintenance workers would be, trying to ignore the wastewater pooled at our feet.

Such is life, I suppose, even for those of us living abroad. One moment, you’re staring up at ancient temples, and the next, you’re stepping over a literal shit creek.

A few hours later, our landlord called: The mess was cleared. All should be well.

I should hope so. And while I haven’t been able to look our neighbors in the face again yet, I figure this should count as our bad luck for the time being.

Here’s to a good semester — and plenty of safe flushes — ahead.

Read more Sieh: Stalk her:

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