Life was good. I had just scored my dream job of being an interpreter at a prestigious advertising agency, and I was finally making money after my horrible student experience at Shanghai International Studies University. I was on top of the world.
The first thing I did with my paycheck was put down a deposit and pay three months rent for my “new” apartment in Shanghai. After living in the dorms for six months, I was elated. I could finally have a place to call my own and move back to city center Shanghai.
Being the romantic I am, I was hellbent on living in a 老房子 (lao fangzi, aka antique houses) in Shanghai. Lao Fangzi are unique in that they have changed little since the days Shanghai was ruled as a sort of colony by other countries (such as UK, America, Japan, etc..), with the largest concession being the French one. The buildings are like a page from history; they are European but Chinese, foreign yet still very Shanghai. These antique buildings have withstood the test of time (and even the cultural revolution), and are without a doubt one of the core reasons Shanghai is such a magical city.
So I found the most Shanghai of Shanghai neighborhoods you can imagine. My neighbors couldn’t even speak Mandarin (Shanghainese or nothin’). The exterior of my complex was gorgeous, but the inside hadn’t changed much since the 1940s; it was wooden, rotted, and musty.
Somehow, though, I fell in love with the place. Walking through the gates, tip toeing up the creaky stairs to my room, and just knowing that I lived in a piece of history–it was like being in some kind of Chinese fairy tale.
Then, my legs started to itch. At first I thought it was just mosquitoes (it was summer after all), but then the bites started to increase. Before I knew it, my white, Irish legs were covered in red dots–like I had the chicken pox all over again.
And then, I saw it. A black thing. A black thing jump on my shoulder and then quickly fly away. I saw another black thing jump on my leg. My arm. I screamed, ran, and booked the nearest hotel possible. I was deathly afraid of going in my apartment.
“So, you’ve got fleas.” The doctor said as he prescribed anti-itch medicine. My legs were red and raw. “You’ll need to fumigate your home. Live somewhere else for a few days. The medicine will help with your itching, but the scars may last forever.” I cringed.
In that instant, my fairy tale Shanghai apartment instantly transformed into a run-down dump. I was horrified that I had even considered living there.
Knowing Who Your True Friends Are
Although I would have much preferred to set my apartment on fire instead of attempt to clean it, there were some items that I was hesitant to part with (plus, I’m sure my deposit wouldn’t be coming back if I charred the place to a crisp), so I had no choice but to go back in and attempt to clear out the fleas.
After a thorough fumigation that lasted three days, I went back to flea infested apartment and thought the worst was over. I opened the windows to clear out the toxins from the fumigator. I bundled up all of my clothes and spent over 200 dollars to get them laundered (only hot water kills fleas, and Chinese washing machines can only use cold water), and I thought I could finally get on with my life.
And then, I saw it. A little black creature jump from my shoulder. Another one jumped off my foot.
I darted out of my apartment and ran to my usual hotel around the corner, but it was fully booked. The only place available was across town, in a very ghetto Hanting (the Chinese version of Comfort Inn). After scrubbing my body down raw and washing my hair ten or twelve times, I sprawled onto my hotel bed, exhausted.
I wailed like a banshee. I was utterly and hopelessly miserable. I had been living out of a suitcase for days on end and spent close to 500 dollars on hotels alone. Although I had a host of friends in Shanghai, I was hesitant to stay with them and, in turn, give them fleas.
Fleas. They’re a fucking nightmare.
I poured my feelings onto Facebook, looking for an outlet. It was 2:00 AM. After wiping the last of my tears and uploading my post, I prepared for bed. I had to get up for work at 6:00 AM.
Then, my cell phone rang.
“Mary, you’re staying with me tomorrow,” it was a phone call from my Russian friend from my previous Shanghai University Program. She had just read my Facebook post. “I only have a one bedroom studio, but we can share the bed. You can’t live like this. You are coming here tomorrow.”
“But I don’t want to give you fleas,” I protested.
“You’re coming tomorrow,” she reiterated sternly. “I’m texting you my address. You can stay with me as long as you need.”
She hung up.
I cried again. But this time, it was tears of relief.
A Friendship Formed From Fleas
I will never, I repeat, never forget the kindness and generosity my Russian friend showed me when I needed help the most. Despite being a flea infested wreck, she opened up her home to me with loving arms. She cooked dinner for me. Made an extra key for me. Let me, a girl that may have been rife with fleas, sleep in her bed right beside her (luckily, she did not get any fleas!).
If that’s not true friendship, I don’t know what is.
One day a coworker saw the red spots on my legs and asked, horrified, what in god’s name happened. I explained the flea situation and she immediately responded:
“Come stay with me. I just moved to a new apartment and we have an extra room for guests. You can stay there until your apartment’s contract is over next month.”
Although I had only known her for a month, I was touched at her willingness to let me in her home. When I tried to compensate her for rent, she shoved the money back in my face and said she didn’t need it. Her hospitality and generosity moved me. I was at a loss for words.
And this is how I met Tomoko. One of my best Japanese friends and, undoubtedly, a woman who changed my life forever.
Thanks to Tomoko, I met a slew of friends in Shanghai that have now become lifelong connections and soulmates. She introduced me to the world of Shanghai Jazz and music. When we lived together for that short month, she taught me how to cook, how to appreciate a good beat, how to dance, how to rock climb, and how to enjoy life.
So, even though the fleas thing really sucked (understatement of the century, really), I like to think that the fleas were a sort of cruel destiny.
Without the fleas, I wouldn’t have become closer to my Russian friend. Without the fleas, I wouldn’t have created a lifelong bond with Tomoko and, through her, create a happy and wholesome Shanghai life.
I guess everything happens for a reason. Even fleas.
Tips For Getting Rid of Fleas in China (or anywhere)
So I just have to say, if you are unlucky enough to suffer a flea infestation, prepare for the worst. You’ll have to leave your apartment and live in another location for days, if not weeks depending how dire the infestation is.
Fumigation is the only way to kill fleas. Unfortunately for me, one fumigation was not enough. You will have to fumigate your home multiple times, which will take a week at the very minimum (and afterwards, you will have to keep your house vacant to clear out all the toxins from the fumigation). I purchased fumigators from 久光 (Hisamitsu), a Japanese shopping mall in Jing An Temple. This works wonders, but like I said, you have to use it multiple times.
After fumigation is finished, wash all of your linens and clothing in boiling hot water. Only hot water will kill fleas and their eggs.
If you have flea bites, go to the doctor to get heavy duty anti-itch medicine. Mosquito anti-itch oils and creams will only make it worse. If you’re cursed with Irish skin like me, the bites will scar. Three years later and you can still see them on my legs.
The safest bet for eradicating fleas is to call an exterminator, but they charge an arm and a leg.
Fleas come from animals, so make sure your pets are clean. Fleas are quite visible and you can usually see them hopping around on your pet if they happen to be flea bitten. Although I didn’t own a pet in Shanghai, I had many stray cats walking around the premises, which I believe brought in the fleas eventually.
And finally, don’t live in a lao fangzi. It looks cool, and for many foreigners it’s the ultimate Shanghai experience…
….but trust me. It’s so not worth it.
Have you ever dealt with a bug infestation? Was there ever a moment in life when someone really helped you out in a pinch, and you’re eternally grateful? Have you ever had any ‘cruel twist of destiny’ type moments?