Two Years in China

Chapter 1: Finding a Nest


After three weeks of touring Indochina with my father, I found myself in the humid, busy city of Shanghai. It wasn’t what I expected at all. I had remembered that when my father and I had landed in Hanoi, Vietnam my first reaction was “I could live here.” I didn’t look like them, but I moved like them and I loved the lack of cars, the simplicity of the technology and the friendliness of the people. In Shanghai, I had been plunked right down on West Nanjing road, which I would later come to know as one of the most Western streets in the whole city. All I knew  then was that I saw fancy store fronts with Dior and Prada, wide sidewalks packed with people in Western clothes and streets clogged with cars jammed like a crayon box after an impatient child has tried to stuff all the colored wax sticks in with disregard for how they fit. This ultra modern, trendy crowded city did not look like the exotic China I had hoped to find.

At the moment we were apartment hunting, which was an experience. I use the word ‘experience’ in the same way that many people like to cloak less than enjoyable things with the word ‘interesting’. Pan, the person I would be rooming with, had done some shopping around before I got there. She thought she had a place all picked out. 

Pan and her friend Wister met my father and me at the hotel. Wister had grown up in the same neighborhood as Pan and they had been friends for years. He held a job in IT at local university and kept odd hours. Pan had taken advantage of that fact and asked him to help my father and me take care of some of the basics of settling in, like getting a cell phone and a bank account. He was a soft spoken, inquisitive person and very polite. He had made the mundane tasks, alien and confusing in a new country, fairly painless events.

Wister and Pan guided us through the confusion of what then seemed like an overly complicated subway system to the apartment complex. I don’t remember anything about getting there except a sea of people. The real estate agent was preoccupied and told us we could just show ourselves in. I was impressed by the outside. Everything I had heard about China suggested that apartments were dingy little rat holes with none of the amenities an American would expect. As a result I was very excited to see that the apartment building was in a courtyard with lots of greenery. I’d never lived in a big city and feared that they were deserts of concrete. I was equally thrilled with the balcony inside the apartment.

But that was about all it had to recommend it. There was a small dingy mud room with peeling linoleum that branched into two bedrooms and a “kitchen”. To call it a railroad kitchen would be too generous. I’ve seen Port-O-Potties that take up roughly the same amount of space. It had a rusty sink, a hot plate and an entire wall of sticky yellow grease stains. The bathroom, about half the size of the kitchen, was off to the right. It had a rusted out tub barely bigger than the sink and a toilet better left un-described.

The bedrooms were under lighted and over furnished. Each one had a large couch, a bed, a desk, a TV and an air-conditioning unit. There was so much extraneous furniture that the floor was hardly visible in either bedroom. Pan had explained on the way over that all apartments in China were furnished. This was to be expected. You could not expect someone to move into a house with no furniture. Personally, I wish other countries would imitate China and at least include bare necessities in the apartments they wished to rent.

 There were tenants currently in the apartment. They smoked, were slobs and told us we didn’t even need to take our shoes off to enter the house. This was the sign of a truly low class place. In good houses all over Asia, it is customary to remove your shoes at the threshold to keep the inner sanctum clean and free of the pollutants from the outside world.  Dad kept pointing out how grubby the place was and Pan would cheerily say 

“Don’t worry the landlord will clean it before we move in.”

“You don’t know that for sure,” my father would caution.

Pan asked what I thought. What did I know? It looked better than what I had expected and she was the local. I had moved to Shanghai because she offered to let me share an apartment with her and help me adjust to living in a new country. I should trust her. I gave her a crooked smile and said “Let’s take it.”

Dad was not so convinced. He went to inspect the air conditioners. He made the male tenant turn them one. They were pathetically weak. Daddy furrowed his brows and told us frankly 

“This doesn’t get very cold and in the summer this place is going to get hot. I think maybe you should look around a little more.”

“But we won’t be able to find a better place with our 2,000 yuan budget and it is right on Line Two. That is the new line and not so crowded as Line One. Besides it is a very convenient location.” Pan protested

“Can you get a nicer place for another thousand yen?” Daddy asked.

“Yes,” Pan confirmed, “but 2,000 is the highest rent that my budget can afford.”

“How much is 1,000 yen? 120 dollars, right? Don’t worry, Sunnie and I will send Marjorie the money for that. I just don’t think you will be comfortable in a place with bad air conditioning.” 

And so Daddy made the decision for us to live better. Dad’s always like that. He always insisted that I set my goals higher and expect the best. This attitude has had quite an impact on my life, always for the better. 

In the end it was a good decision. I was sick, so I stayed in the hotel the next day. Pan had to work and so it was Dad and Wister who did the looking. I took time while recuperating in the hotel room to contemplate what I was doing there. I had just graduated from college with an independent degree in East Asian cultures. I had decided to move to China in order to improve my Chinese and learn what I couldn’t get from the textbooks. I suppose most people would have joined a program, but I had just bought a ticket and come. The only safety net I had was Pan, my big sister’s friend from grad school, who was a native of the city and could theoretically help me out. So here I was 23 years old, a small town Mainer moving to one of the biggest cities on the planet, with literally a suitcase and a dream. Perhaps this was shear lunacy, I wasn’t sure.