Tuesday, December 16, 2008
My employer paid for my first week here in a in a modest hotel until I could find an apartment. I used the entire week apartment hunting within a 3 mile radius of the institute. My criteria were simple: close to work and subway, clean, and at or below 1500 Yuan (~200 dollars). I began with the help of a Chinese friend at the institute. We looked at Chinese versions of Craig’s List and also expat websites like Beijinger. Though all the listings were advertised as individuals’ posts, we quickly realized that they were actually “middle companies.” The way my friend spit the out the word, “zhong jie,” made it sound like they were something obscene and abhorred. We scheduled a few visits on a Saturday and hit the neighborhood on foot. After just two calls, my name and number was out. No sooner had we finished one visit when my phone would ring with another company offering to show me a room. The mystery voice on the phone would instruct us to meet him at a certain corner/bus stop etc. We would arrive at the corner and locate a slightly sleazy looking man wearing a cheap suit jacket and black leather shoes. Upon seeing a lost looking blond, he would jump up from his resting squat and lead us to the next room, chain-smoking all along the way. As we walked I struggled to stay close to my friend and the middleman, bobbing and weaving around cars, carts, people, trees, and various gross things smeared on the sidewalk. The first day I mostly listened, memorizing the standard conversation as I knew that the rest of the week would be a solo adventure.
Over the course of a week I looked at about 20 apartments. These places ranged from disgustingly dingy first floor slums, to dazzling newly refinished hotel-like rooms. If the other renters were home I tried my best to size them up quickly. Some were foreign students: Italians, Japanese, Kazakhstanis, Americans, and one German. All of those places were either too expensive or meant speaking to much English. Other prospective apartment mates included an older bachelorette with a hyperactive three year old niece (that told me I was beautiful and then threw candy at me), a young family that swore they would never be home, a middle-aged couple with a chain-smoking husband, and two young Chinese guys with a bio-hazard for a bathroom. One middle company sleaze-ball took me to an apartment and then admitted that he didn’t actually have the keys. He said he would see if anyone was home and I expected him to make a phone call. Instead, I watched in disbelief as he scaled the barred windows and peered into the second story apartment to get someone’s attention. I told him to forget it and left him hanging.
Finally, I met one middle company guy at about 9:30 on the last night of my free stay in the hotel. As we walked he suddenly stopped and pointed to a Jeep Cherokee that seemed to appear out of nowhere, suggesting that we ride to see the apartment. I hesitated; I hate these judgment testing moments! It’s a little like when an unleashed barking dog charges you in a public park while the owner runs after yelling, “He won’t bite!” You think, I don’t want to overact, but I don’t want to get mauled either! I was thinking, I don’t want to freak out and offend these guys, but I also don’t want to lose my internal organs tonight!
I peered in at the driver, a geeky looking college kid with glasses and a friendly grin. He addressed me in Chinese and explained that he could give me a lift to his friend’s apartment with the spare room. “I know where it is…it’s just down the road… I can just walk,” I said. “Suit yourself” he said, “But it's cold and I can’t park here.” A response with any more pressure to get in the car would have blown the whole deal for me. But, that was just enough indifference to make me try it. I got in, one hand on the door handle ready bolt if need be and at the same time thinking that if they were really going to steal my kidney tonight they would have found a way to keep me from jumping out [insert mother’s cringe here].
The young guy turned out to be extremely nice and he was indeed actually helping his friend. The three of us talked about the global financial crisis, NBA stars, and how cold it gets in Beijing in winter. He drove through a security gate and deep into low rise apartment complex to the foot of building number 22. The front was lined with hundreds of bicycles ready for the morning commute. The balconies were decorated with laundry, cabbages, sausages, leeks, and garlic braids, all hanging out to dry. The stairwell was normal for this price range: dirty, dark, unmaintained, and like it might lead to a prison cell. I was comforted that we stopped to get keys from the landlord on the first floor. The door opened to a warm, spotless, well lit, newly refinished, sizable three bedroom apartment that smelled like someone had recently cooked something tasty. The current renter, a young Chinese woman, was away. But a quick glance at her shoes, kitchen utensils, stocked refrigerator, and absence of filth was enough for me to think we might be more compatible than the screaming child or the stinky Chinese boys. The landlord couple came up to visit from their apartment on the first floor. He was a cute reticent old man with a Mao era hat. She was a typical middle-aged, plump, ruddy faced loud mouthed nosey woman, who I am sure would push me out of the way on the bus any day. They asked questions about my experiences in China and complemented my Chinese. They explained that they were “lao Beijing ren” (Beijing born and raised) and their old neighborhood was in the same place before it was leveled to make way for this apartment complex. I took it all hook line and sinker and put down a couple hundred Yuan for the key.
I left feeling a sense of achievement for independently securing a decent room, under budget, and all in a foreign language. I celebrated with a bowl of noodles and a chocolate bar. But, when I contacted the folks helping me at the institute to tell them the good news, my pride and satisfaction turned to angst and dread. They wanted to come and help with the contract signing, meet my landlord, check on the apartment, and barter yet another lower price. I knew what was going to happen. My bubble of ignorant trust was about to be popped! They would tell me that I was paying too much, these people were cheating me, my future roommate was probably not even living there, and I should not have made such a hasty decision. All these things passed through my mind too, but I was tired and trusting and went with my gut.
As predicted, what seemed to me like a simple six month agreement to exchange money for a place to sleep and a hot shower turned into hours of discussion. Voices were raised, teeth were sucked in dissatisfied, and the smiling faces of my landlords were twisted into disgust and distain. But, I know that all this is necessary. Nothing in China is ever as simple as I feel that it should or could be. My friends know this system and can predict the 110 ways I could be taken advantage of later. I know that this flagrant display of skepticism and distrust are normal in these negotiations. But, after almost two years it still makes me uncomfortable! As I followed the fast loud conversation, I wanted to scream, “I don’t care what you think! This location is convenient, the place is clean, I’m under budget, and if things get ugly at least I’ll have something to write about!” But, I kept respectfully quiet until the contractual negotiation/shouting match subsided and I got the cue to sign. I felt somewhat vindicated in that after all that the landlord wouldn’t come down on the price. My friends were not satisfied, but were luckily too busy to insist that I keep looking for something cheaper.
While I am truly thankful for their help and local perspective, I recognize that our objectives are different. I am personally willing to pay a small premium just too keep the pleasant and polite comfort bubble intact. When I see my landlords playing with their grandchild outside, they will smile and ask me if I have eaten yet. And, I can smile back and continue to think of them as a sweet “lao Beijing” couple that may actually have my best interest in mind.