Roommate troubles: how to be diplomatic when I'm just really annoyed? (Chinese roommate filter - cross cultural perspectives appreciated)
November 4, 2012 1:16 AM   Subscribe

Roommate troubles: how to be diplomatic when I'm just really annoyed? (Chinese roommate filter - cross cultural perspectives appreciated)

So I live in a student residence in an apartment with one other person. To be honest, I would prefer to live alone, but it's not financially possible right now.

My roommate is a usually very nice, generally clean Chinese girl. It's her first time living with a foreigner (something that she has brought up a couple of times, also the first time she's lived outside of China I think). We've been living together about a month so far, and have had a couple of communications about various things vis a vis our shared space, which is just a kitchen basically (these things have included, how to split up buying the shared necessities, being quieter in the morning to not wake the other person up (her request of me which I've been trying to fulfill), one or two other things).

However, yesterday we had a conversation that kind of got me frustrated. Basically, she had changed the garbage but then left the garbage bag on the balcony right next to the door to our apartment, because she didn't want to take it down to throw it out downstairs since she was still in her pajamas. Okay, fine. The thing is she left it there the entire day. It was really starting to bug me to see it sitting there and I had already taken it downstairs twice on other occasions when she's done this, plus the last time she did this the security guard came by and told me to take it down.

So I mentioned to her last night that the security guard had come by the last time, and it bothers me for it to be there for so long anyway, so could she please make an effort to take it down when she changes it. She basically said no she couldn't. She also mentioned the fact that she takes it down a lot more than I do, which is true - but this is not because I wouldn't take it down but because she seems to reach the point where she needs to change the garbage a lot sooner than I do. And she said that this could be true, that in China they would take the garbage out every single day regardless of whether it is full because it is seen as dirty to have it in the house too long.

After we had a kind of circular conversation - me offering to try to take it out more often if she would not just leave it by the door and her refusing, she then brought up a bunch of things that I've been doing that have been bothering her (closing the door too loudly whenever her friends come over (which is a lot, and I've been closing it because it was open and I'm studying and when they come over I can hear them talking and can't concentrate), using the same sponge to wipe of the counter and do the dishes, and oh yeah that one time I changed the garbage and left the garbage bag near her refrigerator for a couple of minutes before taking it downstairs which she thought was just gross). Fine, so I said I would try not to do all of these things, and she said that she would still leave the garbage by the door but did not expect me to bring it down.

She then went out for the night and still left the bag there, and again the security guard came by and asked me to take it down (but then backed off when I said it was my roommate who had left it there and probably sounded kind of pissed about it). Flash forward to this morning. The garbage bag is still there! Ahhhh! I took it down and threw it out because I had reached my limit.

So here's my question: do I bring it up again? It would be nice if she would at least take it down within a couple of hours and not leave it there for an entire day. I just feel like I'm really kind of pissed off at this point and I don't want to have more awkward conversations with her, which would probably happen if I bring it up and sound pissed off about it. I just feel kind of disrespected. Also, if anyone has any perspectives on living with a Chinese person who doesn't have that much experience living with a westerner (I'm American), that would be appreciated.
posted by Rinoia to Human Relations (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Does it upset you to have it there because of the security guard coming by, or because you feel an obligation to take it out once it's there, or because you get bothered by having a bag there in general?

If it were me, it would be the security guard that bothered me. I would tell her that you're not ok with the security guard getting a bad opinion of you both, so if you see the bag sitting outside you'll put it inside next to the bin. If she doesn't want it there she can take it out to the garbage when she changes it.

Of the things she brought up, the one that sounds terribly rude to me is 'closing your door too hard when she brings friends over'. Going to someone's house and having their roommate obviously slam their door is confronting and quite possibly makes her feel uncomfortable for having people over and her friends feel uncomfortable being there. If you're sharing accommodation it's not her problem that you can't concentrate with normal people around. Get headphones, play music, learn coping skills, or study in a library.

Have you got much experience living with other people? All of these sound like issues any set of roommates might have, not really 'cultural' issues.
posted by jacalata at 1:34 AM on November 4, 2012 [9 favorites]

Perhaps emphasize that the security guard has been asking you about it? Try to make the point that it's an external authority (not you) that requires that the garbage bag is not left there. If possible, get the security guard or someone to talk to her directly.

BTW, I don't think this is culturally related at all. The compulsion to take the garbage out everyday may arise from what she's used to in China, but her repeated failure to take it downstairs does not. Americans are sometimes quick to "other" non-westerners, and assume that any deviant behavior is cultural rather than a personality trait. It's generous, in some way, to think that, because you're writing off her obstinacy as a factor beyond her control, when it's really all her, but it's also a bit offensive.
posted by redlines at 1:36 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Re: China question - it's not my interpretation that this is a Chinese thing, it's just that that is how she framed it when she explained that she would prefer to take it out every day - she said "that's how we do it in China" and in general the fact that I am a westerner is something that she has brought up numerous times.

Re: door - I am not intentionally slamming it/trying to make it apparent that I'm pissed off, it's just that the doors here are these weird sliding doors that you have to close a little harder to get them to close at all. Plus part of the reason my door has been open in the first place sometimes is that she asked me not to close it in the morning because it makes too much noise and wakes her up.
posted by Rinoia at 1:41 AM on November 4, 2012

well I never used to leave garbage outside the door of my apartment (US born and raised) but now that I'm living abroad I often leave the garbage outside of the door until whenever it's convenient to take it down- the same day, the next day, or when really lazy, a couple days later. That seems the norm around here, to leave it outside the door rather than inside the house. Maybe it's because in most apartments there is a doorman whose job includes picking up these bags from next to the door and disposing of them- but this is not so in all apartments.

so it's not the biggest of cultural differences, I'd say, not one that should be related to cultural pride in any way.

I once had a Chinese roommate. She was super shy and did really weird things, like that one time she cooked a HUGE cauldron like pot of a soup and then turned down the temperature in the fridge as far as she could so that the soup would cool down, and in the process FROZE EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE FRIDGE and couldn't understand I was upset. I don't know if that had anything to do with her being Chinese, I suspect not, but anyway. These things can be stressful.

If she is taking out the garbage much more often than you, well then I see why she's doing what she is, to be honest. I suggest you both agree that taking out the garbage every day is a good idea (get a smaller trash can/trash bags if you feel weird taking out half-bags) because at the end of the day it IS a better/cleaner habit. Now that I'm living with my SO and he takes out the trash every day its a little highlight to my day. You can take it out one day, her the next. Problem solved.
posted by saraindc at 1:44 AM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is not a cultural issue, you just have a roommate that's too lazy to bring the garbage down. Bring up the fact that third parties are asking about it and keep on asking *you* to bring it down, so this requires a change of *individual* (see, not cultural) habits. Suggest to her that she so chooses to take out the garbage, she should only do so when she is not wearing PJs, and so bring it all the way downstairs. If she is wearing PJs, then she should wait to act on the garbage thing once she is no longer in PJs.

I don't take the garbage down, but it's because I live alone and no third party hassles me.

I'm Chinese-Canadian. I never lived in Mainland China (although I grew up with people who did), but I think the reason why some "awkward Chinese roommates" are awkward not because of culture really, but probably because it's the first time these individuals have lived apart from family in general and just grew up as really sheltered (most likely) only-children. Just my personal guess.

That refrigerator incident is super weird. I've pissed off roommates with weird stuff, but I've always just left my soup out in the open to cool off. Is this person new to cooking or something?
posted by Hawk V at 1:54 AM on November 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

Is your roommate being disrespectful? I've got to say, yes, yes she is. It sounds like you're trying to compromise (shut your door quieter, make allowances for cultural differences) and she is NOT --- rather, she's flinging those cultural differences in your face and using them to REFUSE to compromise. You're trying to be quieter for her, but she's fine with bringing loud people into the apartment. She claims the garbage thing is because what? She's from a cleaner culture? But then leaves it out in public. She seems to be very much a my-way-or-the-highway sort of person.

Is there any way to switch roommates? Maybe not right now, but at the end of this semester?
posted by easily confused at 2:38 AM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Roommate relationships can sometimes be like the "broken windows" observation. In my place if neither of us do the dishes, and they pile up, it perpetuates itself.
Can't you just bite the bullet and take the trash down this time? If you make the compromise, its likely that she will too.
Also, it's healthy to have a sit down every once in a while and ask eachother if there's anything they'd like to improve. Difficult but preferable to passive aggressive nonsense.
posted by banishedimmortal at 2:51 AM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Is the trip to take the garbage out a long one?

Like big freakin' deal it's the garbage, it isn't nuclear waste. Just take it down when you think it's necessary. Taking "turns" or roistering household chores never works. Just do it, and a human system will develop.
posted by the noob at 2:54 AM on November 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

The only cultural factor I really see playing here is the fact that she may have never had to take the trash out before because there was always someone else to do it for her. Does she expect someone who works for the school or the building to throw out the trash for her?

I've noticed that in China, no one ever seems to throw their own stuff away. At McDonald's and other fast food places, once you're done, you just leave. A worker will show up by your table to throw the tray away and wipe down the table. All you do is leave it there.

So yes, I would bring it up again with her. Be direct. You're not going to resolve this by being afraid of the awkwardness.
posted by astapasta24 at 3:06 AM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

You've set up a power struggle. Let go of the power struggle. She wants to leave it by the door, you don't want it by the door. So, either accept that it will be left by the door or take it down yourself. The less you make this about "she should take the garbage downstairs" and more "she likes to leave it by the door longer than I like, so because I'm uncomfortable I'll take it downstairs." No big deal. Its her quirk not something she's doing to you. As for the Security Guard, I wonder why he always seems to be telling you about it and not your roommate?
posted by Pineapplicious at 3:17 AM on November 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

Is there some other reason that she is refusing to take the garbage out, aside from being in her pajamas and her changing the garbage more often than you? Because assuming you set up a fair system in terms of who takes out the garbage, and she can plan ahead to ensure that she takes the garbage out before she gets into her pajamas (she's not in her pajamas all day, right?) it seems like that should remove any barriers here.

I think you need to actually make a system for who's taking the trash out on a given day. It may sound silly but this is becoming a big issue, so I think it will only devolve if you keep letting it turn into a passive-aggressive game. Just propose that each of you is responsible for taking out the garbage 3 days a week and alternating Sundays, and put initials on the calendar so you know which day belongs to who. Whoever is responsible for changing the garbage bag is also responsible for taking it down. Alternatively, you could say she is responsible for changing the garbage bag every day and you will be responsible for taking it downstairs every day, but depending on the timing that could result in further security guard warnings.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 3:55 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just take the garbage out or look for a new place to live.
posted by discopolo at 4:30 AM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

A shared responsibility doesn't become her exclusive responsibility just because she started the task and couldn't complete it.
posted by acidic at 5:33 AM on November 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

For what it's worth, because we both hate doing it in our house, we've used a system where one person pulls the trash out and puts a new bag in, and the other person brings the trash out. It is left on the basement stairs until the taker-outer takes it out. You don't have an area you can do this, but maybe you could buy a basket or something she could put the trash in by the door, and you could, indeed, deliver it to the garbage.

To the larger point, this situation sounds like a pain in the ass and it doesn't really seem limited to just this one thing and seems uncomfortable and annoying overall and I'd think about either getting good with an uncomfortable living environment and just dealing with these things as they come up, or finding a new place to live with someone easier to communicate with.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:01 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

When you leave the house, always take any existing garbage out. Rule for both of you. This will solve: concern about not taking it often enough; concern about who takes it more often; unwanted external attention; pajama problem.

Can't help you with the noise issues. You're both going to have to develop more of a courtesy-and-tolerance attitude for that to ever get resolved. That's normal for young people, though.
posted by ctmf at 6:05 AM on November 4, 2012

My view is that, within reason, when negotiating cohabitation difficulties around personal preferences, quieter trumps louder, cleaner trumps messier, and less attention from external authorities trumps more attention from them. It can be difficult to establish what is within reason, of course, but it's important when negotiating to link behavior to observable, measurable parameters.

Of course, the overall social dynamic doesn't exist in discrete categories of negotiation. It's omnipresent. So the tension from an unsatisfactory agreement in one area has a tendency to spill over into other areas, and often results in problems that wouldn't have existed otherwise. In light of this, it seems possible that the kitchen garbage issue may be serving double duty -- existing an issue in its own right, but also as a proxy for a more general unresolved tension between you. Consider whether this is the case, and keep in mind that it is always okay to revisit previously agreed-to solutions.

For instance:

> the doors here are these weird sliding doors that you have to close a little harder to get them to close at all. Plus part of the reason my door has been open in the first place sometimes is that she asked me not to close it in the morning because it makes too much noise and wakes her up.

I'm having a hard time picturing this. As a former builder, I've never dealt with doors of any type that by design had to be kind of "slammed" in order to latch. What do you mean, exactly? If you just close them normally, they just don't latch & therefore remain ever so slightly ajar? Or if you don't latch them, they spring open farther? Or something else? Can you latch your door by closing it normally and then applying a bit of extra pressure at the end?

On more than one occasion I've installed a door such that a little extra pressure is required to latch it. This was usually an exterior door, to make a good weather seal -- but that little bit of extra pressure for me might be a giant heave for a smaller, lighter individuals, usually a woman, who would be the one using it.

The reason I am focusing on this is because doors are for privacy, and you have somehow come to an arrangement that apparently requires you to give some of yours up. A lot depends on personality, but if this were me I would not be content with this solution, and that could exacerbate the overall dynamic. So if there's a legitimate maintenance issue, maybe getting it addressed could ease some of the tension.

If it turns out that it's a maintenance issue but you can't get it addressed (i.e. landlord won't fix it) then it may be time to revisit your earlier compromise, along the lines of: "You need quiet in the morning when you're sleeping. I need quiet when you have friends over and I'm studying. My door won't shut quietly, so I have to shut it hard. Please don't take it personally. I'm sure you'll agree that dealing with an occasional burst of sound from me is more reasonable than requiring me to deal with an ongoing stream of sound from your social activities."

Back to the garbage issue. Kitchen garbage generally does need to be emptied more often than other garbage, but this too can be based on real, observable phenomena: Odor, seepage, presence of bugs, the bag being overfull, etc. If any of these things are happening, and she is already taking out the garbage more often than you, then her requirement that you do more is legitimate.

A well tailored compromise should accomplish prevention of real, physical issues, not establish a pattern of dealing with them after they have already occurred. However, ideally it would also not require one person to cater to another's need for regularity and ritual. If, on an ongoing basis, the garbage didn't stink, attract bugs, seep, get overfull, or cause some other legitimate, observable, measurable problem, but your roommate nevertheless felt a need for it to be removed daily, that would be her issue to address, not a shared one. As such, it would not be a legitimate basis for her to require a compromise. That doesn't mean you couldn't negotiate with her on it anyway as a favor (for which you could legitimately request something in return if you chose -- don't get confused on this point -- the willingness to negotiate is itself a favor in this case, not just the behavioral constraint you voluntarily adopt), but you shouldn't feel obligated, and it would be reasonable to make this clear to her.

Finally, her behavior of putting the garbage outside the door transgresses the directive of minimizing attention from external authorities, and is a situation the two of you have to resolve. If, upon performing an honest self-assessment, you find you must admit (at least privately to yourself) that you have been lax about the garbage situation, then consider that your roommate may be escalating the situation because she has been unable to reach a reasonable compromise with you. In this case, the very least you can do is simply suck it up and do your share. Even better, if you could do so with sincerity, would be to explain your line of reasoning to her, apologize for making her feel like she had to escalate, and express a desire to solve future problems one-on-one. Exhibiting this level of maturity raises the behavioral bar, and therefore reduces the likelihood that she'd develop a pattern of going directly to the escalation option whenever something comes up.

If, on the other hand, your honest self-assessment leaves you legitimately feeling that you have been measuring up to reasonable standards of behavior, including modifying your own behavior when it is called for (and hopefully with good grace), then it is entirely legitimate for you to identify the security guard issue as separate from the garbage issue, and work out a solution with her on that front that does not put you on the spot like that.

Hope this helps.
posted by perspicio at 6:20 AM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

If she already changes the garbage a lot more frequently than you do, then perhaps you taking the garbage downstairs when you see it sitting there will roughly even out the garbage load.

Bundling up the bag and taking it out of the can is the ickier part of taking out the garbage, usually -- once the bag is closed you don't have to smell it anymore. So maybe try to approach it as being grateful that she's done the gross bit and you're happy to do the heavy lifting bit?
posted by jacquilynne at 6:34 AM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Have the security guard or super speak directly to her.
posted by brujita at 6:57 AM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Re the doors: make sure to smile and say "hi" before closing the door when her friends come over, so it will be clear you're not storming off in a huff.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:08 AM on November 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

It bothers you when the trash is left by the door too long (in your opinion). It bothers her when the trash is left in the trashcan too long (in her opinion). It actually seems like a pretty fair compromise for her to take the trash out of the apartment and you to take it down, at least every now and then, since it also sounds like she's taking responsibility for taking the trash both out and down fairly often.

The things you bring up don't sound like cultural issues, but what may be a kind of cultural issue is her refusal to change -- she's likely in the midst of culture shock, a (sometimes recurring) stage of which is very definitely "Everything in this new place sucks and they are so wrong about how they do everything and why can't they just see how much better we do it in old place and change?????" I wouldn't take it personally, as it will likely mellow out after a few months.
posted by jaguar at 7:20 AM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

She also mentioned the fact that she takes it down a lot more than I do, which is true - but this is not because I wouldn't take it down but because she seems to reach the point where she needs to change the garbage a lot sooner than I do.

This is a huge source of the problem, which could be avoided if the two of you set up a schedule of how often the trash needs to be taken out, and then take turns.

Because what you describe — wait until a situation gets bad enough that one of the people involved does something to address it — is a very common dynamic where the person with the higher tolerance for filth "wins". The person who is more fastidious will almost always break first because for them it's a choice between getting stuck with taking out the trash all the time, on one hand, and living in squalor and filth, on the other.

This is guaranteed to lead to resentment and anger. It's also avoidable. Set up a schedule so you each feel that responsibilities are fairly distributed, then stay current on doing yours.
posted by Lexica at 8:47 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Like big freakin' deal it's the garbage, it isn't nuclear waste. Just take it down when you think it's necessary. Taking "turns" or roistering household chores never works. Just do it, and a human system will develop.

In my experience with a roommate like this, this will mean that OP will forever and ever taking out garbage. My roommate wasn't Chinese. Just really lazy.

My solution has been to avoid roommates. Well, except for my husband, but we have an investment in working together as a functioning family unit. In my experience, in roommate situations it's every man for him or herself. Also, once resentment sets in on either side in a situation like this, it can be difficult to solve. You guys are both pissed off and resentful and have no reason to act with empathy or understanding, so it's likely that any lapse will be seen as evidence of the others' shittiness.

(But really, this level of discord after a month is a bad sign, I hate to say. Try to hold out until your lease is up, but good luck with that.)

So save up cash and try to live alone. Until then, you can do what my husband did when he had roommates like this--take care of your own mess, don't touch the other person's. When the security guard comes by to chastise you guys, direct him to your roommate and let her deal with it and don't answer the door if she's not at home. Not your mess, not your problem.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:31 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

It sounds like, at least from your perspective, you're making a lot of accomodations and she's not. Can you possibly frame it that way? "Compromise means we both give something up, to make both of us happier. I've been quieter in the morning, not closed my doors, etc... Will you please do this? ... If not, then what WILL you do to make this a better situation?"
posted by Lady Li at 9:53 AM on November 4, 2012

For the cultural perspective, I grew up in China for a about 8 years:

Yes, my grandmother had the garbage taken out everyday. Every single garbage can. (There were 4 or 5.) Yes, I think it's gross to have an open garbage can with old (more than a day) garbage in it, so I only have covered garbage cans (except for the one in the office that I only put paper in).

I would only use the same sponge to wash the dishes and wipe down the table if (1) I wash it vigorously with soap in between, or (2) I wash the dishes first, and then wipe down the table/counter with no intention of it ever used to wash dishes ever again.

Honestly, most of China is pretty dirty compared to the US. It's probably something to do with a combination of increased population density, bad air quality, and income diversity. So to be healthy, Chinese people in general are much more OCD about being sanitary. For example, I have Chinese friends who would not sit on the floor or drink tap water, and other things that Americans would do without thinking.


Re: garbage - it seem like she's doing it passive aggressively to get you to notice that garbage is an issue (at least for her). This is obviously not the best way for her to communicate it... but if you're not willing to take it out every other day, can you offer to do some other chore instead? Alternatively, if you have an open garbage can, maybe you can purchase a shared closed garbage can so you can agree to take out the trash less often?

Re: cleanliness in general - I would just tell her point blank that she seems to have more stringent standards for what is clean and what is not. If you feel up to it, ask her to tell you when something bothers her so you can try to do that. Obviously if she asks for something unreasonable or something for you to do that she doesn't, have a talk about it. Don't be a doormat.

Re: door slamming - she sounds like someone who has never lived with anybody before. Remember that most people of our generation from China were born and raised as only children and therefore coddled (and grow up entitled, intolerant, and naive). If you're already trying your best, that should be good enough. Maybe suggest she get ear plugs or something.

Honestly, some people are just not meant to share housing with other people. Your roommate may be one of them. And some people are just bad matches for house sharing (e.g. I would never live with another pot smoker). It may be best to just plan to move. See if someone (maybe someone Chinese) can take over the lease.

Also, my experience after staying in Switzerland in a year is that the kitchen is a really, really gross place, and you can't really be "too clean" about it--it's just that there's not enough time to de-sanitize it everyday. (Also, we had a garbage war going on between the 10 residents that used the kitchen on another floor--there were often maggots in the garbage. I suggest you don't go that far.)
posted by ethidda at 9:57 AM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Get a second garbage can for the balcony. When she takes out the kitchen trash, she can put it in there, which shouldn't bother the security guard and hopefully will be less annoying for you than having the bag lying around by itself. Then you both can just check the outdoor can each time you leave the house and take out whatever bags are in there.
posted by zadermatermorts at 12:13 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might be able to spin this situation into something positive, i.e., an opportunity. She apparently doesn't like to take the garbage out. Maybe you can acknowledge this to her as part of a deal: "OK, I'll do something you don't like (take out the garbage), and you can do something (you propose or she proposes what it is) I don't like to do."
posted by Dansaman at 8:27 AM on November 5, 2012

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