Guest Post: Merry on “China being China (or, “Hello from Beijing!”)

Merry is behind the Chinese firewall, so I am posting her latest missive here for her:
I’ve got a little mini-revival of my old-school mass mailings here; I can’t blog it, as I can’t access my blog from China, so I apologize for cluttering up your email inbox and feel free delete (or request removal from the “list,” such as it is – though I apologize, I can’t remember who I used to send it to). But for anyone who hears a lot about the modernization and westernization of modern China or the so-called “rapidly emerging Chinese threat,” I think some of my mundane little stories about the reality of day to day life in China could calm their fears.

Though it is a mere eleven months away from when I left last time, I had somehow forgotten about the Chinaness of it all. I don’t mean the Chineseness – to me, that word represents language, culture, and history that stretches across time and geographical space. Chinaness, on the other hand, refers to the ability of seemingly mundane tasks to become absurdly complicated in part because they are being undertaken in Mainland China. When you’ve spent enough time here, it just doesn’t faze you anymore; you encounter something ridiculous, think “ah China,” and move on. All of which is to say that I should have been more prepared for my Sunday/Monday/Tuesday adventure than I actually was.

The back story is that I used an online booking service to reserve a studio apartment in the Chaoyang district of Beijing for the month of June. It’s a short (1.3 mile) walk from there to the archives, next to a subway, and just generally much nicer and more convenient (not to mention cheaper) than being stuck in a hotel for four straight weeks. Before I left the US, I asked them about what I needed to get to the building when I arrived, and reminded them that because my flight was landing at 11:30 p.m., I wouldn’t get to the building until around 1:00 a.m. No problem, the friendly booking agent told me, just give the address and directions provided to the cab driver, and they’ll be waiting up for you.

Hah. First the cab driver found the directions nonsensical, then when he tried to call the “24 hour” rental office in the apartment, nobody answered. I alternated calling that number and the two for the booking service, and finally got a live body to explain to the cab driver what to do. He let me off at a dark intersection with a vague instruction to go around the building until I find a door, then drove off. When I entered the lobby, there were two reception desks: one housing a sleeping night guard, the other saying “short term apartment rentals.” I tried them both, but neither had ever heard of my booking company. When I called the office again, they told me to go directly to the third floor, because their reception desk is there… but did not tell me anything about how to deal with a controlled access elevator and a night guard unwilling to take me up. I finally coaxed him into it – I may have flirted just a little – and miracle of miracles, found an office. After pounding on the door repeatedly, another sleepy soul – this time a woman around my age in head-to-toe pink bunny rabbit pajamas – opened the door and informed me that she thought I wasn’t coming (despite my Paypal deposit), so she gave my room to someone else.

That sounded worse than it was, actually, since they have a number of other rooms, so she just put in me one of them temporarily with the instruction to come back to the office at noon the next day to switch rooms. At noon the next day I met the entire office staff, who then matter-of-factly told me that the interloper was still in my room – he’d been staying there a while, and he wanted to stay just one more day. I pointed out that this was a different story than they’d given me the night before, and the truth came out: the guest could not speak Chinese, and as it turns out, none of them can speak English. So he’d been with them for a while, but they’d had no way of telling him that the room had been booked by someone else. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the marvel of international commerce that is Beijing. They dragged the flighty European into the office, at which point I explained things to him and he promised to leave the next morning. So night two in temporary housing, but an end in sight.

At this point, I should explain that temporary as it may have been, the room I’d been in was lovely – bright, airy, and with an almost Scandinavian feel (someone was making good use of the Ikea in Beijing, though I drank coffee out of a small ceramic planter this morning which someone must have thought was a cup). It had all new fixtures in the bathroom, a nice new LG washing machine, and plenty of space to spread out. Clean swept wood floors with a broom at the ready. It was a little rough around the edges – there’s no molding around the door (seems like a work in progress), and there were some tape marks on the bathroom tile that may or may not be permanently attached, but the apartment was pretty much as advertised.

I mention this so that you can understand how it was that when I went down to the office to move on Tuesday, I could have made a classic, rookie mistake. That is, I completely and totally forgot to lower my expectations. I know, I know. How much time have I spent here? But I was lulled into a false sense of security, and failed to take a moment to eliminate all assumptions. (For the uninitiated, the lowering of one’s expectations is a useful exercise undertaken before the start of any new experience while traveling – and not just in China. Stand comfortably with your feet shoulder-width apart, and then raise your hands up over your head. With your palms parallel to the floor, imagine the space between your feet and your hands filled with high hopes, then take your hands and slowly push those ideals further and further down, until your hands are even with your thighs. If a situation has the potential to be particularly dodgy, you may continue pushing all the way down to the floor, ending in a crouching position. With your expectations suitably lowered, you are now free to embark upon your adventure prepared to be delighted by whatever oddity pops up in place of what you’d have pictured.)

The nice office ladies brought me into my new room, and I was, um, taken aback. It’s hard to know how to do it justice here. Picture the castle early in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, then translate it to a tiny room in a Beijing apartment complex. Huge wrought iron chandelier with half the bulbs missing that takes up half the ceiling? Check. Dark, velvet-like wall coverings? Check. Entirely too many pieces of black furniture crammed together leaving but a narrow walkway, all covered with a layer of dust? Check. Carpet covered with a bizarre pattern of former stains that are probably coffee but which to an overactive imagination that has been watching too many episodes of Bones looks like blood spatter? Check.

It was bizarre looking, but on closer inspection, it was stranger still: the room was, of all things, a former jewelry showroom hastily converted into a little apartment. How did I know this? Well, for one thing, they left the framed posters of diamond cuts and styles on the walls of the entryway. And then there was the fact that the rest of the walls were lined with empty, built-in glass display cases, half with broken locks, of course. It looked like some sort of sad, run-down jewelry store that after being robbed, had been left to go to seed. I walked into the tiny bathroom – a step and a half in any direction and you hit a wall – and quickly registered the shower fixture built into one wall, opposite the pre-liberation washing contraption and (sigh) squat toilet. Would I have loved the place if my expectations were completely lowered? Probably not. But the disappointment would probably have been more bearable.

I went out for a while and tried to talk myself into it: who’s never wanted to live in a jewelry store? (Well me, but never mind that now.) I can keep all my odds and ends in handy glass cases for easy access and decorative display! I returned to look at it again, opening one such glass case and watching a velvet panel below it pop out and drop to the floor. As I bent to retrieve it, I noticed something that I hadn’t the first time: the carpet was really dirty. Not just stained – that can’t be helped – but gritty, covered with fuzzies and with random hairs. Ugh. I went out to my friends at the front desk and asked them if they could clean the carpet – I thought they’d be willing since they knew I didn’t like the place, but they were trying their best to make me comfortable with it. (They had already tried to sell me on the hygienic benefits of the squat toilet – “It’s cleaner!” “Not if you didn’t grow up learning how to aim,” I retorted.)

First we paused so I could offer my interpretation services for their interactions with a very nice but increasingly frustrated Saudi businessman (seriously, they should be paying me – they did put my new Beijing cell phone number on speed dial). Then, in response to my carpet-cleaning request, they answered “No problem!” They all joined in, reassuring me that of course they could clean the carpets; in their haste to get the room ready, they had probably just forgotten. At that point, the woman at the desk offered to come with me right then to clean them. As she stood up, she opened a drawer and removed… a lint roller. One of those hand-size things you use to pull lint off a silk sweater. I gave a slightly alarmed laugh, and suggested that the carpet was in need of more intervention than that. But, she explained, they don’t own a vacuum cleaner. They run an apartment complex that includes at least one room with carpeted floors – all the halls are carpeted as well – and don’t own a vacuum. They do, however, have a nice long handle that attaches to lint roller, so you can stand in place and roll away. Can you imagine what all has accumulated in that carpet over years of sporadic lint rolling?

Finally – finally! – I put my foot down. I have severe allergies, I explained. I’m deathly allergic to dust and mold and pretty much the entirety of the former jewelry-store/studio apartment. I have an aversion to home-use squat toilets. Out and about that’s fine, but in the middle of the night when you’re sleepy and unbalanced? That’s just begging for disaster.

They tried to present me with the impossibility of moving – they’re all booked up for Dragon Boat Festival this weekend (“Do they even celebrate it much this far north?” I asked innocently). Finally she laid it on the line: I could have the room I stayed in when I first arrived, but I’d have to pay an extra 1000 RMB for it. She really stressed the 1000 RMB, clearly expecting that I’d balk and turn, dejected, to settle into my little jewelry store. Instead, I gave her an immediate, “Ok! When do you need the money? Today? Is tomorrow okay?” Seriously, it’s worth US$150 not to have to live like an abandoned teapot from Beauty and the Beast. I realize there are some great musical numbers in it when guests come by, but I’m willing to forgo that for the duration.

So in the end, I moved back to my temporary digs and this time had the wholly novel pleasure of unpacking. I think I appreciate it even more now that I’ve seen the alternative; in fact, I think it would be a great business tactic if they simply never rented out that room, but used it to scare guests into paying the extra 1000 RMB. Frankly, I think they low-balled it – they could have gone higher, and I’d have cheerfully coughed it up.

So now I’m finally getting settled into a workable routine, getting up at 5:00 to run four days a week (it’s the only time when the pollution and traffic is almost bearable), spending the day at the archives (hardly arduous, since they’re open from 8:30 to 11:30, close for an hour and a half for lunch, then reopen from 1:00 to 4:00. They’re also off this afternoon and again on Monday for the Dragon Boat races that are largely taking place in other cities), and then wandering around to find something for dinner. As it turns out, my “fully equipped kitchen” only contains a microwave, hot water kettle and a rice cooker, so I will inevitably be getting a little creative over the coming weeks. But that is as it should be.

Question of the day: Was the kid (20-something) walking down the street today in a t-shirt that read, in English, “1984: Big Brother is Watching you!” an example of :
A.) Subtle protest
B.) Ironic hipster fashion
C.) A general cluelessness toward English language and literature


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