Chapter 79: Battling Roaches and Rats

Dark cockroach
In our old Shanghai town house, John and I faced a double infestation -- cockroaches and rats -- despite the popular wisdom that you can't have both together.

In China, I’ve heard people say you might have rats or cockroaches in your apartment, but never both.

If only they’d lived where I did. That creaky old wooden Shanghai townhouse — in the same 1920s style as the surrounding neighborhood — oozed a lot more than just character after we moved in.

John and I returned home one balmy evening and turned the lights on to find a black spot on the ceiling that moved. And just as I shrieked in disgust, it then began to fly, darting around the ceiling with a defiant buzz, as if to say “Go ahead, just try and kill me. I dare you.” Not even John’s whacks to the ceiling with a broom did any good, as the cockroach scrambled — and flew — away from our reach. We looked at each other with a tired grimace, and almost didn’t even need to say what was on our minds — yet another cockroach infestation.

Not long after that, we found the other offending party.

It was late at night, just after John and I retired to bed, when I heard it, this pattering across the floor that could not have been the wind, or the neighbors. “What’s that?” I whispered to a half-comatose John laying next to me, gently nudging him out of sleep. “Did you hear that?” He yawned and and began to open his eyes, just conscious enough to listen to that same pattering, which seemed to move from one side to the other. And then came the answer from John, confirming the worst: “Laoshu,” he moaned. A rat.

So began the war within our home. For the cockroaches, we drew the battle lines with cockroach chalk, said to kill any roach who dares to cross over the deadly white streaks we left on the walls, floors and stairs. For the rats, we left deceptive rat boards on the floor, their sticky goo said to imprison the vermin for life (or, rather, for death). But even with the chalk and boards, we still had crawling spots on the ceiling, and pattering at night. Roaches. Rats.

After a summer and fall of infestation, we decided to move to another apartment by the end of November 2003. In the end, maybe the reason people say you can never have both roaches and rats in your home is because no one will put up with two pests at once.

Have you ever faced cockroaches, or rats, or both?


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or browse the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

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5 Replies to “Chapter 79: Battling Roaches and Rats”

  1. I haven’t had roaches or mice in my home in China (although I had a healthy little mouse family living in my 150 year old town house in Toronto), but my favorite mouse story did take place in China, in Kashgar. Last October we traveled there for the National Day holiday. One evening we decided to eat at a restaurant that is highly touted in all the guidebooks. Halfway through the meal we saw a mouse dart out from under our table and scurry across the floor to the opposite wall where he disappeared under a cabinet. The other foreigners at the table next to us freaked out. My husband and I hardly blinked. I was rather pleased with myself because I had recently learned the Mandarin word for mouse, so when I said it out loud, the waitresses who were seated at the next table and I shared a little laugh. I don’t think the other foreigners were amused.

    1. @globalgal, thanks for the comment! Wow, that was indeed one memorable dinner in Kashgar.

      @jamie, great to see you here and thanks for sharing! Ugh, sounds like you were living in a nightmare!

      @Jennifer, thanks for sharing your experience in that “ratty” (pun intended) restaurant. 😉 You know, I adore Pearl Buck very much — her writing is still very relevant today, and a joy to read.

      @Tori, thanks for the comment. Yikes, you also encountered the dastardly flying cockroach — and just out of the bathroom!

  2. When I lived in the Dominican Republic I could never understand why there were so obsessed with cleanliness. Three or four hours a day, easily, were spent cleaning. By me as well. And even so, no matter how clean my room was, it failed to meet other people’s standards.

    I thought it was no big deal until I started getting cockroaches. One, after the other, after the giant other. I’d ask for help and they’d all sniff and gaze around my spotless room, saying: “well, what do you expect in this pigsty?”

  3. Yes to both!
    Most recently, a rat fell through the ceiling of a Chinese restaurant in Moscow. I kid you not. A shame, really, because there are not so many good Chinese restaurants in Moscow, but I could not bring myself to visit again. On the upside, a friend brought corn starch over from the UK and I made excellent hot and sour soup for the first time. Every cloud.
    I am having a Pearl Buck orgy this summer…is she just very old hat for you?

  4. That reminds me of one time when I was home visiting. I had gone out with a friend, and when I came back it was late and everyone was asleep. I had gotten ready for bed, came out of the bathroom and saw the biggest roach right where I was about to step. I am deathly afraid of anything with more than four legs. So in the midst of my freak-out I threw a book at it…and then it started flying! I screamed bloody murder. After a few more screams and a few more attempts of throwing books, I finally killed it and went to bed paranoid. The next day I told my mom that now I know if isomething actually happens no one will hear me scream (my room is on the opposite side of the house), lol. I don’t know how you guys endured that for more than a week. Just the thought of it makes me cringe.

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