While my first night in China was a little less than welcoming, I woke up the next morning excited to finally get settled. The nice thing about jet lag is that it makes me a morning person! -Which I am most definitely not in real life. Mark works from 9:30-4:30 Monday through Friday, so I was left with the day to myself to get settled. My first stop was finding internet. Mark’s apartment still didn’t have power or internet the next morning because the neighbors “stole their electricity card”. Apparently electricity cards are a thing in China? So to escape Mark’s boiling, internet-less apartment, I grabbed my computer and headed to Bridge Cafe, just down the street. I purchased a cup of overpriced coffee, and contacted my mom, who I had promised to email the night before… whoops. It wasn’t my fault!
After checking emails and getting in touch with a few friends, I headed to my old school: BLCU. The plan was to get a SIM for my phone, and meet up with my friend Will for lunch. Will studied abroad with me in Beijing last year as a sophomore, and is back again for this summer and fall. What can I say? We all just keep coming back! I ran to the BLCU “Friendship Store”, and after much confusion, finally purchased a pay-as-you-go SIM for my iPhone, as well as an umbrella to avoid the intermittent monsoons. The complicated thing about SIMs in China, is that your SIM becomes long distance once you leave the city where you purchased the SIM. This means that you’re charged more per text and phone call. Because of this, I decided to go with a pay as you go plan in Beijing, and I’ll see if I can get a real phone plan once I get to Ningbo. I pay one jiao (Chinese name for 10 cents) per text or minute on the phone, which is roughly two American cents.
After purchasing my necessities, Will and I finally met up for lunch. After over a year of not seeing each other, it was just like old times! We had lunch at a fancy Chinese restaurant on the 5th floor of the BLCU cafeteria, and ordered all of my spicy favorites. YUM. Eventually Will had to go to class, and I decided to give Mark’s real estate agent Rainbow a call. I desperately wanted to unpack, have my own space and sleep in a bed that didn’t smell like dude-sweat.
Rainbow answered her phone right away, and we planned to meet in a half an hour near the subway so that she could show me a few available cheap apartments in the area. For some reason I was expecting Rainbow to be in her mid-forties, mainly because most real estate agents in the US seem to be older- Which is actually a complete fallacy because I got my Washington State real estate license at 19. Rainbow was a young, pretty woman in her late twenties with long black hair tied back by a bow barrette. Apparently she is THE real estate agent for ALL of the waiguos (my own personal Chinglish for waiguo ren, or international people) in Wudaokou. Rainbow’s name definitely fit her girly personality.
Rainbow took me to a large neighborhood behind the main street of Wudaokou called Huaqingjiayuan. Mark originally lived in this neighborhood… until the roof of his top-floor apartment began leaking so badly that it was basically raining in his room. After a half-hour screaming match between Rainbow, the maintenance worker and Mark’s land lady, the land lady was forced to move Mark into a much nicer room in a different apartment complex for the same price as his old room. Therefore, Mark is paying about half of what his room actually costs. Lucky!!
Rainbow lead me through the massive expanse of Huaqingjiayuan to building number 10, in the very back of the complex. We entered into a concrete dungeon of a first floor, and climbed up the dimly lit stairs to the second floor. This is to be expected in China: even nice apartment buildings look like they are condemned from the hallway. After fumbling around with the lock for a solid five minutes, we finally entered into a tiny apartment. There was a small kitchen, damp bathroom and four bedrooms all connected by a long hallway. The hallway was so humid and hot that sweat was dripping down my face as Rainbow tried every individual key on her key chain of literally 50 keys. Eventually a girl emerged from her room, and we explained to her that I was looking at the apartment. She was from Thailand and studying in China for the year. She told me that she would go back to Thailand in a week, and let me see her room. Eventually Rainbow gave up trying to unlock my door and handed me the keys. I opened the door on the first try.
The room was covered in clothing and suitcases. Apparently the guy living in my room was leaving today. The first thing I noticed was my own personal air conditioning unit in my bedroom. SCORE! I was already sold. The room was just the right size for one person, with a small bed and nightstand, a mini-sized desk and a bright green wardrobe. I was assured by Rainbow that this was the cheapest room she had available, and it would be 2,300 kuai for the month ($370). While it was a little pricey for my taste, I was staying for a little less than a month, which meant that most land lords would make me pay per day rather than per month, which is insanely expensive! When I divided the cost by the number of days I would be in Beijing, I found that it would cost $16 a day to stay in the apartment. Seeing as the cheapest hostel I could find in Wudaokou was $10 a night for an 8 person mixed dorm… I think I got a good deal. I had to pay a bit extra for wi-fi and electricity, so altogether it was about $380.
The nice thing about renting apartments in Wudaokou (and possibly the rest of China, I’m not really sure), is that you can rent individual rooms in the apartment directly from the land lord, meaning you are not responsible for finding roommates. This is pretty much what all the Waiguos in Wudaokou do, especially people who are planning on living here for less than a year. While this set-up is great for short-term housing, it can also be an issue because you have absolutely no say in who your roommates are. Good thing my bedroom door locks!
I couldn’t move into the apartment until the next morning, so I decided to head back to Mark’s apartment and see if his power had been restored. I arrived at Mark’s to find a pretty Italian girl lounging on the couch in the living room fanning herself. After explaining who I was and why I was in her apartment, we chatted a bit about the power. Mark is the only one out of his five roommates that speaks decent enough Chinese to communicate with the land lady, and this poor girl had been sitting on the couch for hours waiting for her to show up. Eventually around 4pm she had to leave for a yoga class, and I told her that I would stay and wait for the land lady.
After she left, I texted Mark about the situation, and he called her again for the third time that day. Eventually she showed up, and I awkwardly explained myself in Chinese, “I’m Mark’s friend, I told him I would wait here for you..”. After fiddling around with a unit hidden behind a painting, she mumbled something and walked out the door. With no internet and nothing to do, I played some music on my phone and took a little nap. What can I say? It was a long day! After about an hour, Mark returned home from work. The land lady didn’t come back until about 5:30, at which time she mumbled things in incoherent Chinese and wandered in and out of the room. Eventually the electricity came back on, much to the relief of everyone. “Air conditioning!!!” we screamed, as we basked in its cool, fresh air. The land lady eventually left, but not after collecting 100 kuai from everyone to pay for the stolen electricity.
That night Mark and I had dinner at a hole-in-the-wall xiaolongbao place near BLCU, and feasted on tiny jiaozi dumplings and wonton soup. After dinner we headed to the new restaurant-bar on the Wudaokou strip called STEPS. Previously named “Laowais”, STEPS recently underwent a brand change, and is attempting to compete with the restaurant-bar “La Bamba”, which serves “Mexican-American” cuisine. Both places have Student Cards and Ladies Cards (because ladies can’t be students), which have great deals on food and drinks. The Ladies Cards from both STEPS and La Bamba are bright pink, of course.
Mark and I headed up the narrow staircase to STEPS and had a few 5 kuai draft Tsingtao beers while we waited for Mark’s friend Suzzy to arrive. Suzzy is a Tianjin native who goes to school in Indiana, and is here in Beijing taking a French class for the summer. Mark met Suzzy and her best friend Lynn out in Wudaokou a week earlier. The group of them hit it off, and while Lynn had already returned to Qingdao, Suzzy and Mark still stayed in touch.
After meeting Suzzy, I have to say that she is one of the kindest, most hilarious people I have ever met. It’s always great having Chinese friends, and since she goes to school in America and Mark and I both studied abroad in China, we had plenty of things to talk about. We ended the night dancing to K-Pop and current American music at Sensation, a bar/club just down the street.
When we headed back to Mark’s apartment at the end of the night, I was excited for it to be a bit cooler this time around, however, unlike the rest of the rooms in his apartment, Mark does not have an air conditioning unit in his bedroom. Apparently, Mark’s room was once part of a large living room, and in an attempt to make more money, the land lady built a thin wall through the middle of the living room, creating Mark’s bedroom. One of Mark’s roommates told us that when he visited the apartment at the beginning of the year, one of the reasons why he chose the apartment was because of the huge living room. The land lady told him to wait a week before moving in, because she needed to install air conditioning units. When he moved in a week later, she had built a wall through the living room and hadn’t bothered to install any of the air conditioning units. He had already signed the contract and paid the money, and now his living room was half the size with no windows, and he had to share the bathroom with four people instead of three. Typical China.
The next morning Mark left for his internship bright and early, and I set to work organizing and repacking my things so that I could carry them to my apartment. I knew I would need to take two trips, because there was no way I would be able to carry two huge suitcases and two backpacks all the way to my apartment. As I was just about finished, I received a call from Rainbow,
“Jiang Lan, are you in your apartment??!”
“No.. I thought I couldn’t move in until today?”
“Oh…. Well we need you here right now. The land lord wants rent and your passport!!!”
“Okay, well I can be there in about an hour if that works, I still have to run to the ATM”
[panicked breathing] “Jiang Lan, we need you here right now, the land lord has to leave for lunch!!!”
Lunch at 11am?
“Okay… well I’m at Mark’s packing right now, I can be there in a half hour at the soonest”
“Okay, sooner than half hour is better. Give me call when you are at apartment.”
If there is one thing I will never understand about China, it is the expectation that you should just magically be able to drop everything that you are doing at a moment’s notice. Had she asked me the night before, or even given me an hour notice, I could have been there with the money in hand at any time the land lord wanted, but instead I was forced to throw some random clothes on, and with no makeup and hair in a messy pony tail, I rushed out the door. I literally ran to the ATM, where I proceeded to withdraw $400 in cash. I felt like I needed a briefcase! I then ran through my neighborhood to my building and was there within 20 minutes. Pretty good, considering that it takes about 15 minutes to walk to my apartment from Mark’s. It was also extremely humid and pouring down rain, of course.
After handing over what felt like my life savings in cash, I decided to wait out the rain before I moved all of my stuff, and grabbed lunch with Will and some of the Alliance kids at BLCU. The immediate reaction when I told them my name was “Didn’t I talk to you on the phone or something??”. In addition to interning for the Alliance, I was also an Alumni Ambassador, and personally called and emailed every person from the Beijing summer program. So, of course, they all recognized me. The awkward thing was that they all remembered me, but I had talked to about 50 different students from the Beijing and Xi’an summer and fall programs and didn’t really remember any of them. Awkward.
After lunch, I made the long walk in the rain back to Mark’s apartment. After attempting to wait out the rain for an hour or so, I eventually gave up and started the move. I grabbed the largest suitcase and my small, heavy school back pack and made my way through Mark’s neighborhood. About half-way to my apartment I began to struggle. My stuff was so heavy! I had to stop about every 20 feet and catch my breath. Once I entered into my neighborhood, an extremely nice man offered to help me with my suitcase all the way to my building!! He was American, and had been teaching English in Beijing for the last eight years. If there’s one thing I love about China, it’s that us waiguos really look out for one another. At the moment when you’re the most frustrated or upset, people will step in and help you because everyone has been in that place at one point or another.
After dropping my stuff off in my room, I headed back to get the next round of luggage. I thought it would be a good idea to take the larger, heavier suitcase first, but my arm was so sore from the first trip that I could barely make it five feet in Mark’s neighborhood without having to stop. It didn’t help that for some reason the wheels of my smaller suitcase really disliked the stone path. I eventually gave up on the idea of carrying it all the way to my dorm, and made my way out of his neighborhood to the main street and hailed a cab. It was a good life choice.
Once I had all of my things in my room, I went through the painstaking task of sorting though everything. I put all of my things that I didn’t want for the summer into one suitcase, and organized my clothing, toiletries and other items. After I finished moving in, I took the best shower I have ever taken in my entire life. Sweaty and sticky from moving, with frizzy hair from the rain, I also reeked of cigarette smoke from the bar the night before. Lets just say the waiguo didn’t help me with my suitcase because I was lookin’ cute.
After moving into my apartment, I noticed a few interesting things. Firstly, someone had applied thin strips of wallpaper to one and a half walls, alternating between neon green and floral pink. I’m sure the guy that lived in this room before me loved that. Underneath the wallpaper there was a row of anime posters. At first glance they seem innocent and cute, however, many of them are in extremely provocative potions. In addition to the sexy anime girls, my wardrobe has a map of the US, listing NBA teams. I couldn’t help but notice that Bellingham is in the complete wrong spot, and Portland is spelled wrong. There is also a HUGE spider that lives in our hallway between my door and the Thai girl’s door. I considered killing it, but it always seems to stay in the same general area, and only changes its position slightly at night. I started calling him my pet spider and named him Alfred. A couple of days ago, Alfred disappeared and I didn’t know whether to be happy or scared. I eventually settled on happy because I haven’t seen him since. Finally, the bathroom is a bit weird. Normally the shower tends to be in the back of the bathroom so that you don’t have to walk through a soaking wet floor to get to the toilet, however, my shower head is right near the door. To take a shower, I have to stretch the shower head across the room and hang it on the opposite wall. It’s a bit awkward, but it works.
I’ve been in my apartment for a little over a week now, and I have to say it’s going pretty well! There’s definitely a feeling of independence that goes along with having your own, real apartment and paying for it yourself. I have three roommates: the Thai girl, a Chinese girl and a Chinese guy. The Chinese girl speaks almost perfect English, but I’ve actually only met her once. Both she and the Chinese guy have full-time jobs, so I don’t really see them around. Even though I’ve lived here for a week I still haven’t met my guy roommate yet, but I know he exists because he always leaves the toilet seat up.
Overall, I’m having a great time in Beijing, and I wish I had more time to spend here. I’ve been pretty busy this last week; I found a job teaching English to little kids and I went to Tianjin with Mark and Suzzy last weekend. Look out for posts about all of these things, as well as neighborhood Wudaokou photo tour, which I will be taking pictures for tomorrow.