We arranged to see yet another apartment in Shanghai, one dreary Friday at noon in late November. John and I stood at the intersection of two streets just blocks from Xintiandi, the very intersection the real estate agent had designated as our meeting place, and stared at our watch as the minutes ticked past noon, with no sign of an agent.
The agent is late. People arrive late in China all the time. But this followed a string of disappointing apartment visits, with Taoyuan Xincun the nadir. This wasn’t a late agent, but a foreshadowing of failure — our failure to find a good place to live.
After 10 minutes past the hour, a harried, lanky Chinese man in a long trench coat stepped out of a taxi and approached us. “Sorry I’m late. But, don’t worry, this will be fast. The place is just down the street there, that entrance next to the bicycle store.”
I peered down the road at where he had motioned, and groaned within. Only 50 meters away from where we currently lived? John and I had visited several other places in the area,
including an attic apartment that felt like an abandoned antique store, its depressing wooden floors and walls strewn with hard wooden furniture, cobwebs and holes. When it came to budget apartments in our neighborhood, the lanes of Shanghai longtang homes — in all their glory, decay, peddlers, and pests — were the only possibility. Or were they?
We passed through the gate into another lane with concrete, three-story buildings, the first floors with a courtyard and often osmanthus or pipa trees that stretched their limbs into the second floor level, a comforting patch of green in the city. And as I looked around, I felt as if it was all too familiar.
“These used to be Shanghai longtang homes, but they were renovated into something more modern,” explained the agent. No wonder. It was like my current apartment, but in concrete.
But Apartment 203, tucked near the back and left of the community, wasn’t like my current apartment at all. I walked into the living room, besot by the sunshine embracing the living room and its gleaming wooden floors, whitewashed walls, and inviting leather couch and queen bed. The kitchen had new granite countertops, the bathroom a tub, and the other room golden carpeting (which I had never seen before in an apartment in China). Outside, a pipa tree gently nudged up against the small balcony, and all around, a rare quiet shrouded the whole neighborhood.
We leaned into the couch, the sunshine reflecting on our faces as we met the landlord — a dimunitive, fortysomething Chinese woman with permed shoulder-length locks and professor credentials at an agricultural university. We talked details, for the first time — rent, utilities, deposit, furniture included, terms. But we talked because we had to, to play the part of the discerning prospective renter. The thing is, the apartment already had us at clean, quiet and sunshine. Minutes later, we signed a lease.
But even though the agent’s tardiness never came to curse our chances for finding the perfect place, it cursed me — with lateness. I slipped back into my office, 10 minutes late, just as my boss was probably checking her own watch, wondering where I’d been.
Fortunately, I had a good excuse. 😉
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.