I've lived in my fair share of apartments since moving to China back in 2005. And each apartment, perhaps with the exception of the one we live in now, came with a share of headaches. My first apartment was mine, rent free, thanks to my job teaching at the local high school. The windows were ancient, allowing wind and cold air to whip through during the frigid winter. The garbage shoot in the stairwell was a hangout for neighborhood rats. I left that apartment in the summer, expecting to return to it in the fall after vacation but instead I received an email from my waiban (foreign affairs boss) saying that all my things were being moved into another apartment while I was away as the previous occupant to my flat was returning. I did a mental checklist of all my belongings—anything odd, incriminating, embarrassing? Since I'm a pretty boring person, I quickly realized there had been nothing of the sort left behind. But then a bolt of panic rushed through me as I realized there was 4000 rmb (US$500, at the time) under my desk. I had never managed to open a bank account and that seemed as safe a place as any. Luckily, my boss paid me back the money that had been “lost” in the move.
A year or so later, Ming and I moved to Beijing. I was back in the US when “we” moved. Ming was saddled with the responsibility of finding us a place to live near the school I'd be attending. I figured he'd have no problem, being a 30-year-old man who spoke the local language, a skill I still hadn't managed to acquire. I assumed he'd have the know-how to apartment hunt even in an unfamiliar city. I was mistaken. When I arrived to Beijing, Ming was living in a one room shanty that housed a bed, table, and a very sad looking stool. If I wanted to use the toilet, I'd have to use a public one. You know the kind (if you've been to China), they are without stalls and are little more than holes in a concrete floor. I told him I'd hold my bladder until we found a McDonald's or a new apartment—whichever came first. And we did find a new apartment (and McDonald's) later that day. But it was a shared apartment, with a middle aged lady and her grade school-aged son. While the place was in our budget, it was far out of my comfort level. So we told the agency we needed something else and we settled for an over priced, roach infested palace nearby. Luckily, we upgraded to a cleaner, cheaper place within a few months.
|Chengde apartment building|
I'm glad the days of dismal apartments are behind me. In fact, I didn't think I'd ever have to rent an apartment again, especially in China. But as it turns out, we are now both owners and renters. In addition to the apartment we are living in (which we own), we are also renting the apartment across the hall from ours. Since it's hard to work from home with a small baby in a 62 square meter (680 square feet) flat, we decided it would be worth the money to rent a place for me to use as my office. While it is worth the money, I'm still trying to decide if it's worth the headache.
Despite being told that the place would come furnished, all we were left with by the former occupants was a bed, air-conditioning unit, and mop. We didn't even get a toilet seat—not sure what is worse, that they took the old one with them or just didn't use one at all. They did leave us a bathroom full of mold and mildew as well as a leaky toilet and sink. Ming and the landlord continue to bicker over who should pay for cleaning and repairs. I decided to take it into my own hands and scrub away at the mold. I'm not sure what steps to take in fixing the leaks. I've pretty much come to terms to the reality that I may be listening to dripping water for the next year.
Of course a new home is always full of surprises. The biggest one of all came yesterday when my friend, Marie, was in our rented space. We neglected to tell her how to get out of the apartment, which can require some finesse as Chinese doors often require an intricate knowledge of which knobs to push or pull while jiggling the key and pressing the door with just the right amount of pressure at a specific angle. Marie had no knowledge of the workings of our door, so she did what any overly confident foreigner would do and assumed she'd be able to figure out how to open and exit the apartment by herself. She was mistaken. With one simple wrong turn, she locked herself in the apartment. That particular lock was most likely rusted from years of sitting unused. After spending over an hour trying to get out of the flat without success, Ming had to jump from the neighboring apartment's balcony into the bedroom window to rescue Marie. After forcing the lock with the handle of a mop, Marie and Ming managed to escape unscathed.
I feel like it's a right of passage into young adulthood (or living in China): overpriced, cramped, and dismal apartments. Please tell me your most nightmarish apartment stories!