This post is about finding accommodation in China as a westerner, and I must say, it’s a little longer than usual, so instead of dividing it up, lets feast today, and famine tomorrow.
I should also note, or in fact, warn, that today’s post is malignant and unnerving.
Those of you reading this whilst commuting, or at work, I’d recommend saving it for when you’re in the comfort of your own home, on the sofa, with your cheap yet cultured and sophisticated, ‘after-eight mint’. I don’t want to be responsible for anyone screaming hysterically, and waving their arms about in public, so, wait until you’re home, and read on as I tell you a story of how I found my first apartment in China.
As stated previously in Chapter 4, Dick had emailed me telling me that I was to find my own apartment as soon as possible. Now, I hadn’t done any house/flat hunting before, but I was well aware that the procedure involved contacting estate agents and arranging a viewing with them, and I had assumed that, “China was no different”, and of course, why wouldn’t I.
With this in mind, I would obviously need assistance arranging these viewings as I couldn’t speak Chinese, yet Dick offered no solution, nor did he arrange for a Chinese member of staff to help me. Dick just merely stated that I was to find my own accommodation, pronto!
Feeling lost and overwhelmed with this easy, yet difficult task, and being situated in Donatello’s centre at the time, I had asked the only Chinese worker I had met, ‘Daisy’, (the one who gave me that ‘pep talk’ in my last post) to assist me. I’m not at all accustomed to troubling people, as I don’t like to feel a nuisance, like an elderly woman not eating for days, and starving to death because she, “didn’t want to bother you”.
Unfortunately though, I needed to find a place to live, so, it didn’t help when Daisy reacted to my plea, with a shoulder-shrugging huff, like I was asking for her last bloody cigarette.
Now, let me very briefly explain that her birth name isn’t actually Daisy, but in China, many people have an alternative ‘English name’, that they prefer to use on a daily basis, maybe because they think it’s cool, or maybe it’s just easier. Some of the names, if not most, are quite simply atrocious, for example, rabbit, sequins, dollar, diamond…. bon’qui qui…. sha’nay nay (I’m just guessing now), and so many more *coughs into hand* stripper names.
After making me feel as bad as possible for asking for help, by telling me she’d have to now cancel all her meetings, she asked me what my price range was regarding finding an apartment. After asking her for advice on what I could get for my money, we agreed on a figure and an area to begin our search.
My teacher’s salary was more than enough to splash out on something ostentatious, but I wasn’t there to live decadently, I had wanted to save as much as I could, but without living in squalor. We had agreed on a figure of about £270 per month, and some of you might be thinking, “£270, that’s so cheap”, and you’re absolutely right, it is, but the pricing for accommodation is unbelievably low in China, it’s all too easy to live like a king (well, the king of a shanty town).
She told me that we would be meeting with the estate agent, and that he would be taking us to view properties within my budget, so at the drop of a hat, we needed to leave the language centre whenever he called (basically, you just wait around, there’s no real scheduling).
Playing the waiting game, I had asked about other members of staff and if I’d get the chance to meet them, and for those of you who know me, that will sound like bullsh*t, that I, the humdrum hermit is trying to befriend others, but as I said before, you need to make friends fast.
Daisy told me that later in that day, we, accompanied by other staff, would all go out for a meal at the companies expense. This was good news for me, as it meant that I wouldn’t have to once more suffer eating the same old crap that I began to depend upon, a bitter melon rice meal, the most dreadful food that I ever had the pleasure of regurgitating.
Maybe you’re wondering why I suffered this apparent slop and didn’t instead buy something else, well, brace yourselves for sarcasm and red-faced breathless shouting!
“Yes okay, I’ll just eat the carved off chicken’s feet soaked in pickled water with the claws still attached, which comes delightfully packaged in a fu*king clear vacuumed packed plastic bag you pissing pisser!”
I apologise, it was a tough time to recall.
As time passed, Daisy received a call which she had picked up whilst I was talking to her. She then casually silenced me by raising her index finger to my face, and then gently shushed me. I had assumed initially that it was her partner on the other end, as her voice escalated into an audible, very loud warlike rage as if she was hanging her dirty laundry in public.
She was aggressively shouting down the phone, and I felt somewhat awkward by this, as I was sat next to her at her desk. I tried desperately to avoid looking in her direction entirely, by fiddling with ‘desk objects’, but eventually I settled for looking out of the window, in an attempt to seem completely at ease by her ‘private’ outburst.
After a brief phone call, she turned to me and said, “okay, let’s go meet the estate agent.”
And out of confusion, I had asked, “everything okay? You seemed upset.”
She replied puzzlingly, “Yeah, I’m fine, that was just the estate agent, we were agreeing on where to meet”.
I’ll use this scenario, and your possible confusion, to explain that screaming down the phone to one another is common, but of course, to us westerners, who understand the concept of what a microphone is, this seems completely unnecessary. From what I have been told, they’re just making sure they can hear each other (as if they were using two cans and a string).
As we approached the building that we had arranged to meet at (in 40 degrees heat), I had looked up at its peak, and as I did, I felt dizzy for its sheer height. The building didn’t look new, in fact, it was covered in what looked like a flaky skin of cheap white tiles, peeling and cracked.
The most prominent feature was the bars on the windows that protected the residents from burglars and suicides (apparently). I was told that the barred windows on the top stories, were in place to prevent burglars who abseil down the building, and although that sounded too sophisticated for where I was, I would later eat my words.
We met with the estate agent who was waiting for us outside the building, and he seemed extremely happy to see us (or me). He illustrated this by stupidly grinning at me continuously as if he had put a ‘kick me’ sticker on my back. After an awkward ‘interview’, as he asked Daisy as many questions about me as possible (because I was the mysterious foreigner), we took to the main door, which was a big rusty gate. We made our way up the steep concrete stairs as there were no lifts, climbing at least a quarter of the building, and in that heat, that was tough.
We arrived at the tenth floor, breathless and sweating, and to the end of the corridor, was a door that was buried behind a blockade of stacked trash bags. Assuming of course that this was not the property they were planning to show me, I had walked past it, holding my breath because of the smell. I began my ascent up the next flight of stairs, but before I did, the estate agent made a series of grunting sounds at me, like a pig, indicating that we had in fact arrived at the property.
As he began kicking the trash to the side, there were a series of noises coming from the plastic bags, mainly scurrying sounds. As he lifted one sagging wet bag, a cluster of big, heavy-footed cockroaches dashed erratically about in search of the next dark crevice. Then the estate agent, accompanied by Daisy, started stomping frantically, as I stood in total disbelieve that this really was a property that they intended to show me.
Yes, I was presented with a door that had trash bags on either side and a mini front garden of dead cockroach corpses, with Daisy entirely unfazed, saying, “this is it”. Now, in the U.K, and I’m sure in many other parts of the world, if someone was coming to view a property of yours, and you wanted to rent it out, you’d make sure it looked presentable to impress the potential tenant. But of course, this wasn’t the case, and you knew that didn’t you, this wouldn’t be worth reading if it all went smoothly.
The estate agent then opened the first of two doors, the first being a netted screen door to keep out mutated mosquitos, and behind it, a heavy wooden door, which had a coating of moist slime from the humidity and pollution.
I had then stepped over more trash bags that lined up inside the door and was greeted with a strong mouldy odour, that was so apparent my senses were overwhelmed. My manners couldn’t bear up, leading me to bring my hand in front of my face, cupping my nose and mouth, and by doing so, Daisy and the estate agent giggled, as if I was an overdramatic foreigner.
He showed me around the apartment, which was divided by bedding sheets, like I’d be fooled into thinking that it consisted of more than one room. The sheets themselves were green and blue with furry mould, and I know I could have just taken them down, but what came next put me off entirely, so much so, that I had no desire to even consider a clean-up.
I asked, “how long has it been empty?”, but the estate agent didn’t answer.
I asked, “who was the last tenant?”, in a bid to at least find out something about this place.
The estate agent replied, “dead”, pointing at the corner of the room.
I’ll just skip past that.
The kitchen was the most rancid, rusted, cockroach infested dump I had ever seen, more so than my hotel, and the toilet was nothing more than a hole in the ground. Adjacent to the toilet was a five-foot gas canister that sat in a brown puddle of stagnant water, and directly above the canister was a tube without a shower head. So, to wash, you would need to stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, to avoid falling into the toilet, a toilet which looked as if someone had tried flushing down the last tenants remains.
There was only one small square window in the room, and I knew from before I entered this apartment that it wouldn’t suffice. I wasn’t looking for a palace, but I wasn’t looking to live like a pauper either!
After visiting a few more unsightlier properties that were offensive to the senses, and clearly irritating Daisy for being “picky” (yes, she called me picky), we had gone back to the language centre to meet with everyone else for dinner.
Later on, we had arrived at the restaurant and I sat with Donatello around a very large circle table consisting of fifteen or so chairs, and each seat was occupied by a Chinese member of staff (no westerners). I had assumed that I would be meeting with other teachers, but at the very least, I was meeting new people regardless. I didn’t want to only surround myself with other westerners, because at this point I really wanted to integrate myself into Chinese culture much more than before (maybe I started to relax).
During our thirty or so course meal, I had engaged in chit-chat with a Chinese member of staff named Ralph (as in Ralph Lauren), and I had told him about the properties I had seen. He seemed annoyed and frustrated, as if he knew that they weren’t acceptable, “I will help you find a place, don’t worry about it”, he said very confidently whilst smiling at me. I believed him too, there was something about his swagger that made me think, “he knows what he’s doing”.
Jump ahead, and I had met with Ralph that weekend, he told me that Dick, our boss, would no longer cover my hotel expense, so we had to find a place for me that very day. I know what you’re thinking, “that was nice of Dick to cover the hotel expense”, but firstly, it was no more than two or three pounds per night, and secondly, he told me confidently, that I was staying in a flat with other teachers, and I still hadn’t received an explanation as to why this never happened. So, in my mind, I was happy for him to cover my hotel fee.
Out of curiosity, I had asked Ralph, who seemed more open socially than the other staff, about this apparent ‘teachers flat’, and he replied, “there used to be a ‘teachers flat’ a long time ago, but no, not now”.
So, let me just reiterate myself, yes, I was happy to let the big Dick pay for a hotel, after he clearly deceived me, to what I can only imagine, make the transition of coming to China more appealing and alluring for someone like myself, who was palpably nervous by it all.
We continued our search for properties with a slight bump in the price budget myself and Daisy had set, and I was met with an upgrade, from sh*t to crap. Ralph had told me that my budget can get a nice property, it’s just that the area we were looking in was expensive, and that if I wanted better, I’d have to raise my budget even higher.
Adamant though to keep the price down, I had asked him to help me find something within my price range, and that a different location was more than acceptable. He then took me a little further out from where we were initially looking, and after visiting some visibly superior apartments, and having Ralph by my side, I started to feel more confident that I would find a suitable apartment.
But before I was to make my choice, Ralph had told me about one more place, just outside of the city, “the area isn’t great, but it’s near my home and the building is new”, he had told me.
Unfortunately, he informed me that we would have to go and look in two weeks’ time, as he was very busy, which meant that I was technically homeless.
“I think you can stay with me and my wife and daughter”, Ralph had said. But of course, I really didn’t want to burden him and his family with my great big lumbering rucksack, and cluelessness on how to do anything.
I decided to politely reject his kind offer, and before settling for another hotel, Ralph then told me, “maybe you can stay in one of the centres”. Now, if you remember my fourth chapter, I had explained a little about centres and where they’re located, if you didn’t, here’s an excerpt:
“These language centres are run from within privately owned buildings, rooms, or more commonly, a single apartment, in a communal building, i.e. a block of flats.”
In this case, Ralph was talking about a centre operating out of an apartment, located in a block of residential flats.
I accepted the offer, and back at my hotel, I packed my bag and smiled sarcastically at the rude receptionists as I waved them goodbye (they didn’t wave back). Guiding myself about the metro, by asking young people, “where’s this?” *pointing at a piece of paper*, I had eventually arrived at my stop, ‘Chigang’, which would eventually become my place of work too.
Just briefly, I want to offer a top tip for all of you considering travelling to Asia. Ask young people for help, usually, they’re politer, and speak more English than the middle-aged and elderly (yeah, shock horror, young people are friendlier).
With my big bag once again pulling down on my posture, I had made my way to the centre in question, following a map Ralph had drawn me (it was surprisingly accurate). Locating the building, and then using the key card to get in (fancy), I took the lift to the twentieth floor and walked to the end of the corridor in search of the room number, “6… 6… 6, here we are”.
I put the key in the door and entered the apartment, which was decorated in the style of a small education centre: reception desk, waiting room, promotional material, and two classrooms. I had slung my bag off from my shoulder and onto the waiting room sofa.
I got myself a drink of water from a dispenser situated in the corner of the waiting room. The gulping sound of bubbles rippling through the water as I pressed the valve was loud, but not loud enough for it to disguise the sound of footsteps coming from behind me.
Before I could turn, I heard very aggressively, “who the hell are you?!” (yes, in English… well, American English).
I was told by Ralph that no one was in the centre, so as you can imagine, I was shocked, to say the least. I reacted with an involuntary contraction of the muscles, meaning that my plastic water cup was squeezed to death and the water had run down my leg.
I turned around and stood there, was a short, bandana-wearing western man, sporting a heavy metal t-shirt that clung to him like cling film. I had told him who I was by listing as many identifying factors as I could, as for each one I told him, seemed to gain his trust ever so slightly more than the last.
“My names Lee. Ralph sent me. I’m a teacher. Eh, I’m staying here… my names Lee”
After inspecting me by looking me up and down, he shook my hand by squeezing it with male dominance (and all that neanderthal’ness).
To describe this man, I really don’t need to say more than to reference a character from the beloved Napoleon Dynamite movie, ‘Rex Kwon-Do’. Check out this link if you don’t know who he is, and I assure you, this guy looked and acted identically. He had revealed himself to be another teacher working for Dick, the now third westerner that I had met. He told me that he was the main teacher for this centre and that he had just finished a class of adults.
He subjected me to some more intense peacocking displays of dominance, by essentially threatening me with, “don’t piss around” and “take this seriously”, whilst having no regard for my personal space, and pointing his finger into my chest.
The only way I could end this immensely awkward and uncomfortable exchange of pleasantries, was to act as if I had submitted. No, I didn’t lie down on my side, nor did I let him smell my behind like a dog, I simply said, “I understand, I won’t let you down”. To those of you who know me, you would have spotted that my words were sarcastic, but fortunately, he didn’t know that, even though I was gesturing with two thumbs up.
Satisfied then, that I succumbed to him, he took his motorbike helmet from the staff kitchen, pulled up his skeleton neck scarf and left the apartment. At this stage, it was around 10 pm, and I was completely alone, of course not being able to unpack my belongings, I laid down on the sofa and tried to sleep (yes, I slept on a sofa in a language centre for two weeks).
I recall my first night most vividly, as it kept me awake for the duration of my time there.
Trying to locate a suitable position between the springs, I had eventually rested in a mangled way that looked as if I was caught in a mouse trap. As I finally began to sleep, I heard a scurrying sound coming from the floor around me. I sat up quickly fearing it was a rat, and had squinted my eyes to see in the dark, only to reveal that a cockroach, the size of my fist, was scuttering around with its antennae studying the environment.
As soon as I had sat up, the cockroach had stopped and mysteriously drifted into the darkness of the room. Being too exhausted to discover its whereabouts, I lied back down and tried to ignore it. My eyes began to shut, and as they did, the sound of the pitter patter of cockroach paws began shuffling around once again, though this time, I remained still.
The sound came to a sudden stop, and with it, so did my breathing, as I tried to hone in on its location. After a few seconds, it started again, sounding closer than before, and then it stopped. Giving up, I put my headphones in and started listening to a podcast about a hilariously stupid mancunion, which unfortunately for me, was a mistake, a very big mistake.
As my ears were otherwise occupied, they could no longer act as my guard or my satellite for intrusions. As I laid there giggling to myself, a feeling of rough scaly skin had slithered under my leg, brushing through and nesting in my calf hair. As I perched up, I looked to see that a cockroach had mistakenly taken refuge under me.
Maybe, it had never smelt a westerner before, or maybe through lack of movement, it had thought I was a corpse, whatever the case, I got up faster than Viagra, and began shuddering as my crippling fear of… well everything, took a firm grasp of me.
Fast forward through those two weeks of no hot water, calf-colonizing cockroaches, and having students sitting on my temporary bed with their shoes on, the time had come to finally visit that building in Chigang that Ralph had told me about.
Now, it’s at this point that I will warn you, it does get darker from here on.
Happy to see Ralph, the only person I really got along with at this stage, we took the metro in the searing heat and made our way to his neighbourhood. It’s a difficult transition to explain, but the metro stops have different vibes entirely to one another as if each one belonged to a gang.
Chigang felt brighter, blue in colour, and the people dressed moderately acceptable (in terms of ironing and washing their clothes), but as we were approaching Ralphs neighbourhood, there was an apparent degeneration.
The metro had made five or so stops at stations along the way, and with each stop, the men and women gradually became visibly dirtier, ill-mannered and loutish. I would even go as far to say that they had a total lack of civility and hygiene.
The men illustrated this with two-inch long nose picking talons, which they used without inhibition, and long pubic like hair, coiling out of their large brown face moles. Might I add, pubic hair which they twirled around their fingers out of boredom; instead of opting for the more socially acceptable, ‘tapping on an inanimate object’. I can say that it’s unhygienic because it’s not my opinion, it’s fact, ask a doctor or scientist, it bloody well is.
Nose picking and mole twirling weren’t limited to just the men either, as the women were indulged too in such displays of public indecency. Though, the women seemed worse, as if they were disguised as ‘wewe ghosts’, with large drooping breasts.
To make sense of that strange statement, the women were, of course, braless under their stained t-shirts, with loose, probably pissed soaked trousers on. Their hair was either in the form of a mullet, or sat unbrushed, and unwashed atop their heads.
The worst and most apparent part was their feet, which looked like a custard cream biscuit, smashed by a hammer, dry, broken and crumbly, with cream coming out of them. Usually travelling in a pack, the volume in which they communicate is ear piercing, literally shouting at one another.
Now, let’s re-join the commute…
As we came to our stop, I noticed that the station was a dusty orange in colour and that the lighting seemed dimmer. Before the doors opened, a passive “ding-dong” chimed out as a reminder that we were coming to a stop, and as soon as the doors had begun to open, it was if a flood came squeezing in.
The slightest gap gave way to arms and legs, as people frantically tried getting on before we had even gotten off. The ‘ding-dong’ then, should instead be replaced with an air raid siren, to prepare you for what looked like an apocalypse of rotting dead, trying to get on in an emergency.
They were hitting and pushing, shoving and shouting, and behaving in a way that resembled a scene from Godzilla, all running away from a massive fu*king lizard. Except there wasn’t a lizard, in fact, there was nothing unusual about what was happening, this was just the norm for Chinese commuting.
After escaping with all my possessions ‘unpickpocketed’, we made our way up the escalator to get to the street level, and we saw that the sky was a dismal polluted grey and that the rain fell heavy.
“It won’t last long, no worries”, Ralph said, maintaining his confident and positive attitude.
He pointed up and said, “that’s the building.”
It stood just two or so minutes from where we were standing, and he was right, it was a new building.
After waiting a few minutes or so, the rain came to a drizzle and we made our way out of the metros entrance, leading to a few steps that met with the street. These steps had a handrail, which I passed through my hand because of the slippery tiles beneath my feet and the mass of people pushing, and as I did, a piece of string had caught around my wrist.
I looked down, and what I saw was probably one of the most disturbing images I’ve ever seen. This piece of string was tied to the rail, and at the end of it, was a rat, choking in a noose.
Panicking, I flung my wrist about in a desperate attempt to shake off the choking rodent, one that was kicking its feet about and squealing through its suffocating neck. I was faced with a perplexingly difficult situation, as I’m sure you can imagine, this wasn’t something that I was familiar with.
Though I had wanted to help this victim of sick fetish, I was afraid to touch the rat for fear of contracting a disease from its scratching claws (believe me, you don’t want to go to a Chinese hospital.)
The moment itself didn’t last more than a few seconds, as the rodent had been in this trap for a short while before I’m sure, but nonetheless, those few seconds turned to minutes. I stood with my arm out straight, like gallows, looking away with my eyes tightly shut, wincing at the very thought of what hung just a mere metre away.
Around me, the bustle of everyday life continued, as people shoved and pushed on by, unwilling to help. Unacceptably, they took more interest in me, the foreigner, and belly laughed as I suffered the burden alone.
Peeking to see if life had left this victim, I saw its eyes turn red as its body erratically swung and bounced about, making the most disturbing of sounds.
Painfully, and most sadly, I stood waiting, for a suffocating rat tied to my wrist, to take its last breath, and die.
After it stopped moving, I was able to get myself free, and I turned to Ralph in a state of panic and said angrily, “what the fu*k!”, and even Ralph, the cool and confident man that he was, had nothing more to say than, “we should go”.
Personally, I was more disturbed by why someone had done that, more so than the asphyxiated rat.
We walked through an alley and I was greeted with stares and people shouting out to me, but Ralph wouldn’t translate. Down this alley, I recall seeing a most beautiful and ancient tortoise, being held upside down, dangled by its feet, as a man tried to flog it. He grinned at me through his toothless, smoke-filled mouth, and I felt that in that moment if he could of, he would’ve hung me upside down and tried to sell me too.
Myself and Ralph remained silent until we got to the building, I knew that he was aware I wasn’t at all comfortable with what had just happened. I also knew that, in an unfortunate way, he was used to it, not okay with it, just… used to it.
Arriving at the building, and the juxtaposition between what just went on outside, and this building, was incomprehensible. It was as if it was a mirage, a modern building completely isolated within a barren, lawless wasteland.
Waiting for us inside, was a landlord whom Ralph had arranged to meet with, he seemed genuine and respectable, and was happy to show us around the advertised apartment. After inspecting the room, I was genuinely impressed with what was a modern, clean, and brand-new fully furnished studio apartment.
I walked to the window of the high-rise building with my hands clasped behind my back and looked out to what was below, like a King in his castle way up in a beanstalk.
I took the contract and signed my name.
I believe at this time, my morals were dealing with a paradox, feelings of compassion, mercy and disbelief, yet at the same time, feeling decadent and lavished, as I stood in what had been the best-looking apartment so far. Most importantly, I was homeless, and it seemed that no matter where I went, rats would occupy the space with me somehow, be it in my mind, or in my home.
Within the first two weeks of living in this area, I had witnessed some of the most utterly atrocious, and openly accepted acts of disgust and violence that you could not comprehend.
I recall seeing a man excrete onto a handkerchief in front of a shop, publicly, as people walked by like it was as normal as me taking a call. I recall seeing a man hit a cat with his car and continue driving without a care in the world, as it screamed, trapped and dying. I recall walking past a woman who was kicking a homeless dog to death as if it were a soulless, characterless, unlovable sack of fur. I recall a man smacking a woman across the face whilst other men watched, and then lifting her unconscious head, and then slapping her again. I recall seeing a small boy with no hands, begging, a boy who I later found out was kidnapped by a gang, mutilated, and then sent to beg so that the gang can profit from him. I recall seeing a baby lying in the street, suffering from a bloated, bulbously swollen head, as it was poisoned from a counterfeit baby formula.
I recall losing all faith in humanity.
I believe that if I were to give these people a picket sign and a pen, they would write, “NO CIVIL SOCIETY”, and be actively proud of it too. The violence seemed senseless, and at the same time, utterly natural.
If you think I am dramatizing, I invite you to watch this horrifying link, and by doing so, you will know that what I saw is nothing in comparison and that in some places (not all), human life has no value.
Before finishing, I’d like to take a moment to say that although these experiences are truly horrific, these appalling and dreadful events took place in a particular area. Therefore, today’s story does not reflect, nor generalise China as a whole, so please do not consider my experience, to be the only experience available.
Though I do hope, as someone who experienced this and far more, you feel as angry and as upset as I do. I wanted to share these moments because I know that they would never be reported, but, it does happen, and it deserves to be known.
Next Thursdays post is on the lighter side, I promise, as I share what happened when I started teaching full time in a Chinese public school. Don’t worry, you’ll be chuckling at my expense when I recreate my work life of fifty or more children assaulting me, and when a madman, wielding power tools, entered my classroom