In late November, 2003, John and I stood before this shadowed, six-story housing complex that looked more of a Gotham City glum than Shanghai, with a soundtrack of scooters, motorcycles, car horns, and bar hoppers playing all around us in the streets. A fifty-something man with a greased Elvis-style do and dull gray button-down shirt, exuding overconfidence like bad breath, led us towards this urban planning nightmare. The whole scene felt more like a trap — the kind you don’t survive — out of a Hong Kong kungfu movie.
I looked at John with one of my desperate, please-can-we-get-out-of-here glances. The thing is, we both knew this was a dead-end. Not the killing kind of dead-end — but the apartment-hunting kind.
“Now, Taoyuan Xincun,” Elvis said, referring to this glum complex, “used to be a residence for high-level officials.” He smirked proudly about the pedigree of the place, but used to be was the operative word here. The blemishes on the wall, dirty air, and the scream of traffic out the window made it clear that no high-level official would ever live here, even if he got the apartment for nothing.
Over and over again, Elvis nudged us to make a decision — now. “These apartments are usually gone within a few days.” We wanted to be gone from this apartment within a few minutes of seeing it, and our only commitment was a thought — that “we’ll think about it.” Of course, in this case “we’ll think about it” is my code for “this apartment sucks.”
The following night, Elvis gave us a second performance at Taoyuan Xincun. But since we hadn’t given him a standing ovation the night before, he decided to get a second opinion from the audience — and brought along a young Chinese fellow.
Elvis threw around superlatives and praise like confetti all over the apartment, hoping, once again, we wouldn’t notice what a rat-hole it was. But the windows still blared noise from the city. And, this time, even the bathroom made a statement — with a cockroach that strutted brazenly across the toilet during our tour. No, and no.
Just then, I got a call from an old friend, a European who happened to be in town. I sat back by the windows, as if I was just hanging out at someone’s house and not looking for an apartment, and barely noticed Elvis and the other Chinese guy in the corner, talking about the utilities and the water heater and everything else I didn’t care about in this apartment.
As I hung up and prepared to leave the place, Elvis confronted us. “So, what about this place?”
I could have told him hundreds of things wrong with it. The noise level. The cracks in the walls. The poor air. The cockroach in the bathroom. But why create a fuss over an apartment I don’t even want? Instead, I went for the indirect refusal, smiling politely. “We’ll think about it.”
Instead of a polite goodbye, or an invitation to call him again about an apartment, the jumpsuit truly came off. “Well, I’m fed up with your indecisiveness. This guy is already discussing renting this place. If you can’t make up your mind, I don’t want your business.” Well, that’s one way to say goodbye, for good.
As John and I rushed down the stairs of Taoyuan Xincun, I kept running through the past two apartment visits there in my mind, wondering what I’d done to deserve that comeback from this landlord with the Elvis hair. Was I really that cruel? Should I have just refused to come after that uninspiring view of Taoyuan Xincun?
“Don’t worry about it,” reassured John. “He’s probably just annoyed that you didn’t respond to his sales pitch. Maybe he’s always used to getting buyers the first time out.”
Well, he did get me, all right — get me to never, ever look at a place like that again. 😉
Have you ever had a frustrating experience finding an apartment or home in China?
Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or browse the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.