A few weeks ago, I bought an electric teakettle at Carrefour, a local French supermarket. Electric teakettles are cool – they can boil water in a ridiculously short amount of time. I figured it’d be useful for the filter-boil combination needed to make Beijing tap water at least sort of safe to drink. Being a professional cheapskate (I prefer to call it “thrifty”), I’ve learned to look high and low for a bargain. That is, look high on the shelf and at the bottom of the shelf, because this is where the bargains are. Good deals are rarely at eye level. This seems to apply everywhere in the world, no matter where you are.

And there, on the bottom shelf below all the brand-name products, I spotted it. What a find! An electric tea kettle for only 46 RMB, less than $7. It wasn’t the cheapest one, but I’ve learned that it’s generally a bad idea to buy the cheapest one of anything in China. It was shiny, looked nearly as well made as ones costing twice as much, and so what if it had a completely unpronounceable name? Pleased with my find, I threw it in my cart.

Fast forward to today. Freshly back from the States and armed with a Costco run worth of Brita filters, I was finally ready to execute my plan. I made a big pitcher of filtered water, poured it into the electric teakettle, and plugged it in.

A blue flash, scorch, and loud pop later, and the water heater stopped running. Oops. Looks like I blew a breaker, which I quickly confirmed and reset. Puzzled, I thought maybe the power draw was too much, since the water heater was apparently on the same circuit as the power strip I had plugged into. I walked over to another power strip, plugged in the base of the kettle (they come in two pieces, a kettle and a base), and no problem. Must have overloaded the circuit. Satisfied, I retrieved the kettle, dropped it onto the base, and … why is it so dark in here?

The power was out. All of it, every light, every outlet, the entire apartment. I walked over to the breaker box, and no breakers had tripped. Confused, I reset them all to no effect. This was strange. Did the building coincidentally lose power at the same time? It seemed unlikely, but I opened the door to the hallway, stomped my foot, and the corridor became dimly lit. Nope, obviously that wasn’t it. There must be a master switch somewhere, but where? Hopefully not behind the padlock on the meter, since I couldn’t really call anyone and ask them to open it. But maybe Gloria could! A quick call to my real estate agent. Nope, too late. Her phone was powered off, which she does at night (I don’t blame her, in her line of work, a phone never stops ringing).

The meter was from the early 1980s, a perplexing array of Communist engineering with dials and knobs and panels galore. I started turning dials and twisting knobs and pulling open panels and finally I found two large breakers, one up, one down. Hm, maybe that’s it? What’s the worst thing that could happen? Wait, don’t answer that.

Deep breath. Flip. Victory! The lights came back on. I hope none of those other things I did with the meter really mattered much.

My RMB 46 non UL certified electric teakettle with an unpronounceable brand name is now sitting in my trash can if anyone wants it. Free!