The expatriate life is much harder than the glamor that many imagine. The problem of living in a country where the language bears no resemblance to any you’ve ever learned is that a simple activity can become a real nightmare. As I said before, I have been living in China for seven years. I’ve already taken private classes, attended the language course offered by the university, downloaded some apps on my phone, and asked my co-workers to help me. Today, I consider my Mandarin mediocre, which means I can survive here, but I’m far from comfortable when I need to use the language.
There are many hilarious situations that happened and still do. Like this week, my neighbor knocked on my door to return some money I had paid from the elevator we have in our building. It took a few minutes for me to understand that she wanted to give me money. And it’s exactly when something related to where I live happens that my stress level goes through the roof. My home is an environment where I can forget that I’m not thousands of miles away from home, I speak the language that I want, I celebrate the holiday I want and I seek peace.
But calm down, before starting the troubles, you need to understand something about apartments in China.
- In old buildings, the external part is not highly valued and there seems to be no great concern with small details, pipes are exposed, and the corridors are not painted (everything that touches the wall, turns white). The impression is that they were concerned about having the space for people to move and everything else would be resolved in the future (but they never were done).
- The apartments are sold only with the structural pillars, you can build in the way you want. It’s not surprising to take an elevator and stop on a completely abandoned floor, just pillars and nothing else, and upstairs to be a four-star restaurant, or a KTV (karaoke), or a residential apartment. Especially in old buildings, the apartments are not the same, because the owner built it the way they wanted.
- The Chinese did not have the habit of renting a house, because, in a not-too-distant past, they were in another economic and social moment. Today, it’s common but still different than in Brazil. Here most apartments are fully furnished and it’s no surprise when there are personal items like clothes and shoes inside the closets. Few apartments are rented through real estate, but any problem is resolved directly with the owner and the real estate agent works more as an intermediary to find the house.
My first apartment in Tianjin was in a small community with seven-story buildings and no elevator. I lived on the first floor (ground floor) and my apartment had a bathroom, bedroom, and a hallway with a kitchen in the back. I didn’t need more than that. I remember it took a long time for me to consider the house clean. It’s as if no one has ever dragged the furniture to clean underneath, the sheets have been on the bed for months for sure. There was no sink to wash or scrub anything heavy (clothes, shoes, or anything that I used to clean the house), the washing machine was inside the bathroom, which did not have an area for the shower (it was water everywhere every time I took a shower).
I lived alone and didn’t cook much, I remember buying a knife, a fork, a plate, and using everything else the landlord left there (it wasn’t much). I spent a few hours removing the jackets and coats from the closet, folding them carefully, and finding a different space in the house to store them, I believed someone would come and get them (they never did).
I remember the day they knocked on my door six months after I was living there, it took a good five minutes before I understood that the person wanted to go into the house to look at the water meter. After six months, she did the reading, entered the data in the device she had, and I paid the bill to her, 15 RMB (at the time something around $3.00). I swear I showered every day and once a month I washed the house with buckets of water.
One day I arrived at work and my boss said they needed the key to my apartment because there was something to be done and she didn’t know how to explain it to me and that they wouldn’t wait for my time off to continue the work that would be done in the entire community. I didn’t quite know what to expect. She didn’t know how long the work was going to take, but they said two days, she couldn’t guarantee it. I don’t know how to explain my reaction when I got home after their first day of work.
I wanted to cry, but at the same time, I laughed at finding myself in such an unusual situation. My only certainty was that I couldn’t have a stomachache, not that night. Today, I might have had the maturity to book a hotel, tell my boss to find a solution since she was responsible for my housing, but I still didn’t have enough experience to know how to act in such a situation. The next day they finished working on my apartment. In the community, it still lasted a few more weeks and I never knew, with absolute certainty, what was the reason for the work. I suspect it was something sewage-related, but I’ll never know.
Four months before returning to Brazil I moved to another apartment. I was on the seventh floor, another week to clean everything up, and when my boss’s mom came to visit she would run her hand over the kitchen tile and be amazed that it was clean. After a few weeks living there, my boss said that the downstairs neighbor had a complaint. Her kitchen had been flooded and she blamed me. I was waiting for a plumber to come to visit my apartment and solve the problem, but instead my boss, her father, her mother, my neighbor, her husband, and one other gentleman came to solve the problem. Everyone was talking, pointing, going from one apartment to the other to make sure, and they decided I couldn’t use my machine at full power, and nothing else would be done. My washing machine was in the kitchen. As I didn’t have anything too heavy to wash and I was about to leave, I didn’t want to make a fuss, after all, it wasn’t my apartment that was under threat of being flooded.
All the apartments I lived in Tianjin I didn’t have the opportunity to choose or visit before I moved, my contract included an apartment, my only request was to have a toilet like ours (because in some houses they only have a Turkish one ). When I moved to Guiyang, I was able to visit some apartments and choose which one I would live in. My first apartment here had two bedrooms, a large living room, and a more organized kitchen. The washing machine was in the bathroom and I had to dry the bathroom after showering, but I liked that house.
The couple who rented the apartment was newly married and their parents had helped with the house, but the wife got pregnant and with the baby on the way, they decided to live with her parents (it’s a cultural matter, maybe I can talk more in another post). As the apartment had been renovated for the new couple and they didn’t live there for long, the house was clean and I didn’t have much work to clean when I moved in.
There was no internet and a technician had to come, someone from the internet company. I was there when he came, but he was having an issue, and I couldn’t fix it. He called the owner to explain that the building did not support the wire he had to use. According to him, the conduits were already overloaded and they needed an alternative to the wire. The young man hung up the phone, said that the owner had agreed with the solution he had proposed.
When André came to live with me I moved to another apartment, by the way, I still live in the same place. The owner was friends with some people from work, she had never rented her apartment, but I have no problem with it. During our lockdown time, she was very generous with me and with the whole situation around here, and since I moved she has already changed the fridge, the bathroom water heater and helped me with everything I asked for in the house. Before moving (I live on the seventh floor) she said they would build an elevator for the residents of the building, my neighbors are elderly and they don’t want to move (I confess the location is great).
I moved to the seventh floor and carried my bags using the stairs. André and I sometimes didn’t go ride bikes because of the trouble and effort of carrying the bikes using the stairs. A year later the elevator was finally completed, and today, when any courier calls and says they can’t find my building (the condo is huge) I tell them to look for the only building with an elevator outside. Does it completely clash with the community-style? Yes. It stops between floors and you still need to go up or down stairs? Yes. Does it rain in the hallway they built because they forgot that wind interferes with rain? Sometimes. However, when I arrive home after shopping or tired from work it’s great to know that I don’t have to climb seven flights of stairs.
I don’t intend to belittle Chinese construction, I have friends who live in apartments that were built not long ago and they leave nothing to be desired compared to our standards or style. In fact, they have been looking for international professionals to help design and execute real estate projects here. Still, I wanted to share some of the surprises I had with the apartments I lived in and the solutions found, or not, to the problems I had.