In August we decided to break our lease at Chengji three months early and get the heck out of there. The apartment itself was beautiful inside, but with daylight only in the two bedrooms, and none in the living rooms, as well as the fact that we shared what had dwindled to 3 working elevators with 1200 apartments (some of which housed as many 30 construction workers), and all the other nasty things about it, like the roaches, the dog poop and pee in the hallways, and the “quirky” elevators (to put it mildly – I am happy to report I have gone from having 4 elevator-plummeting nightmares a week to zero since moving), we were so ready to get out of there (along with a lot of other expats who lived there). With the help of our amazing friend Echo, a student of Brian’s, we found an unfurnished, three-bedroom apartment on the top (26th) floor of an apartment building a block away from Brian’s work in a beautiful, two-year-old development called Yi Jie Qu or Jing De Hua Yuan (depending on whether you read the signs on the buildings or the signs on the gates – apparently many Chinese housing developments take so long that by the time they finish, they’ve often changed their minds about what they’d like to call it).
We decided we wanted it, after looking at a lot of other options that weren’t even close to what we wanted, and went to negotiate with the landlord. He didn’t want to budge on the price, as he felt he could get even more for the place and was just helping the previous tenants, who had 4 months left on their lease, recover some of the money they’d paid him, but that was fine with us, as the association fee that was extra ended up being less than we expected (I guess you only pay half if you are on the top of the building for some reason), and the whole rent would be 3885, which is still 700 less than we were paying at Chengji. Then we found out he wanted a year up front (not unusual in China), which was just off the table for us. Even 6 months up front was impossible, as we were only prepared to pay 3, but for some reason the negotiations didn’t end them. All the Chinese people around us (the agency representatives, the landlord, the two girls who still had a lease on the place, Echo, and my student Sunny and her dad) kept talking, though we kept telling them we couldn’t afford it. Finally they took us at our word and we walked out the door and stood around in groups talking, and then Sunny’s dad asked if we really didn’t have the money or if we just didn’t like the place. We said it was the former, and he said, “Well, if you like it, I want you to have it, and in China, if we need money we ask our friends, and I have the money and you can pay three months and I’ll pay the rest.” We took him up on it. He’s amazingly generous. That scammy, grungy, cheating Chinese English school that placed me with their family is the best thing that’s happened to us in China. (Of course, now I’m teaching her 50 times (a year of Saturdays) to repay him, which is his generous way of enabling us to save up the next 6 months of rent to make the next payment, instead of having to owe him again the next time rent comes due.)
After that was over (which I am guessing was all a long-drawn-out Chinese negotiation where the intent all along was for us to take the apartment, though we were tired and were truly ready to wash our hands of the matter well before it actually ended), we had to go to the apartment, get the keys and check everything over. It wasn’t far from the agency, but the landlord, not a local resident, didn’t have a car and the two agents were riding together on a motorcycle, so we piled into Sunny’s dad’s car, me in the front with Sunny on my lap (she is not small) and the landlord (who looks slightly like he’s from the mafia and is not a small guy) squished between Echo and Brian in the backseat. It was pretty funny. Echo told him we could just take the deed, the money we’d just paid him, and the keys and no one would be the wiser :). She has a sense of humor that would fit in well in America (something that isn’t always easily come by in China).
The landlord was kind enough to allow us to sign the lease and take possession on August 22, but not to begin the leasing period until September 1 (we wanted to lessen the amount of time we were paying rent on 2 places, as we’d paid rent until September 8th on the old place). This also enabled us to move very, very slowly from our old apartment, with Brian bringing over a suitcase or two each time he went to work, and meant that we made the entire move on moving day in just two loads in Zhao’s tiny car, and only used the suitcases we had and no boxes.
We’ve had to do a lot of work on the place to get it livable since moving in (we still haven’t gotten the kitchen drain sorted out and I have been draining the sink into one of the children’s bathtubs and lugging it to the bathroom to pour it down the toilet), but we finally have bars on the kids’ windows, gas in the kitchen, a washing machine that doesn’t flood the bathroom, and the promise of curtain rods in the bedroom. Thank goodness we have good friends and I have a husband who has a very un-Chinese aptitude for DIY.
How is this place better than our old place? Let me count the ways. There only 26 floors (we are at the top and still actually lower than our position in Chengji by 13 floors), 3 apartments per floor, and 2 elevators that seem much smarter than Chengji, and in which we almost never have company. Our neighbors on this floor are two nice ladies who are living in Tianjin so their children can go to school, and one of them has a golden retriever that is a sweet slice of America for my homesick-for-the-not-insane-dogs-of-China heart (Bobi is the dog’s name, which would rhyme with Toby if you said it with a heavy Boston accent). We have access to the roof, which is surrounded by a wall almost as tall as I am, and we have big dreams of a rooftop garden, patio set and grill in the spring. Our bedroom, an addition after the building was completed, has a real roof on which we can hear the rain falling, something I think is pretty hard to come by in China. We have windows on three sides, north, east and south, as compared to our two windows on the north side of Chengji, blocked by the building right next door. The gardens are fabulous and beautiful and do something to ease the longing for nature that one cannot help but feel in a Chinese city, and also include an actual playground. There’s an outdoor fruit and vegetable seller by one gate and two super markets, one on the first floor of our building, and one on the first floor of the building next door, and both have sandwich bread that is just like American bread (not sweet), and spaghetti noodles, something I couldn’t find anywhere around Chengji. We are a 5 minute walk from Brian’s work and a ten minute walk from a development chock full of expats, with lots of friends for the kids to play with. We are also a 15 minute walk from the British international school where several little girls who are just Piper’s age go, and who can come over after school for much-needed playdates. We are 5 minutes from Da Hu Tong, a massive cheap shopping area that is like Tao Bao Jie, only immense and categorized, of all things. We can buy our new favorite breakfast outside on the sidewalk every morning if we want to, a wrap filled with fried chicken pieces, lettuce and spices, for 4 kuai. Across the street, in the alley behind Brian’s work, is all the street food you could want, including a guy who is practically in a portable box who cooks up amazing food as you watch, and another guy with all kinds of meat and vegetables on sticks, and you just choose all the sticks you want, he grills and seasons them, and you have dinner. We can eat dinner with food to spare as a family for less than 30 kuai, which is the exact right price for me. If it were just one of us, dinner could be 9 kuai (about $1.50). My favorites are the chao mian (fried noodles) and doujiaorousimian, a fried green bean and pork thing with rice, as well as the grilled cabbage, egg plant, green beans, tofu squares and chicken. The guards here are so kind and friendly and love the children. On one side we have the Drum Tower, an old part of Tianjin with lots of touristy things for sale, as well as yummy food and beautiful old buildings, and on the other side Ancient Culture Street, which is the same as the Drum Tower, only more crowded and bigger, and with no Drum Tower. Behind that is the Hai He, with a beautiful foot bridge where my kids love to play and you can buy floating lanterns for 10 kuai. We can see these lanterns going up from our windows most days, as well as the beautiful lights of the ferris wheel and the fireworks that happen almost nightly. We are also within a block of 2 great indoor play places. Oh, and it’s clean here.