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Paper Tiger
by Valerie Sartor
2008-04-04 09:17:04
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I am a woman who is easily duped. Moving to Beijing drilled this character defect into me after months of being tricked, cheated and laughed at by my Chinese landlord. It all started when I came to Beijing, China's capital city, late last summer in order to take a post as an English editor. The company driver and a co-worker met me at the airport, deftly stuffed my bags into a van and sped me off to my new digs. "You have a luxury apartment," my new colleague Lee He told me primly. "You'll be living in a place I can only dream about. You're very lucky to be here."

The van pulled up to a large group of high-rise apartments. An old man wearing a shabby military jacket swept open the lobby door and nodded, then spit. Nobody said anything; we filed into the hallway, which looked pretty normal, and pressed the button for the elevator. When the bell dinged I got in, shoving my way through a mass of residents. Somebody had evidently been eating garlic. I wondered what kind of jobs they did to live in the lap of luxury but decided not to ask Lee He about that just yet.

At the sixth floor we got out, and Lee He flourished a key to unlock the door. "Here you are," he announced, "Luxury!"

I wandered in, looked around and shrugged. My new domicile was a one bedroom flat, smelling of mildew, with cheap linoleum and cracked caulking around a greasy looking tub. "Hmnn," I responded diplomatically. "I guess it will do."

Within a week I learned that I had roommates: thousands of little roaches, who seemed to wait for me every night as they congregated by the microwave. The bathtub leaked and the toilet had an ominous sound upon flushing, which I did protractedly in order to make sure everything went down and away. But it was livable; the neighbors seemed quiet enough and I only knew I had neighbors by the greasy cooking smell that wafted regularly from floors above and below. Besides, it was just for a year.

Imagine my surprise when seven weeks in acclimation a la Chine Lee He told me that I had to move. "The owner sold your place, so he broke the lease and you have to get out. You have about a week to find another place and you're lucky: the Golden Week holidays are coming so you can use that time to look for another place." It didn't seem to matter to anyone that I'd hoped to go on vacation during that time.

"Can you please help me?" I asked him timidly.

"No, I'm busy," he replied. "With your income you can manage to find a place, and I could never afford to live where you live. Good luck," he replied, turning his blank face back to the computer screen.

At that time I did not realize that Lee He had been assigned to help me, nor did I know that his resentment might be impersonally directed at "rich" foreigners in general, despite the fact that Beijing has more millionaires than any other city in the world – and they're all Chinese. Crestfallen, I decided to house hunt on my own; I knew that realty agencies existed. That seemed smart and efficient, after all, that's how we do it in the US. So I asked a foreign friend to recommend an agent. She did, and even went with me to shop around. We spent a frenzied weekend; I was tired and frustrated. "Every price they quote is way beyond the standard," my friend quipped, "You should have had a Chinese do this and paid him, because, as it is, you're going to get cheated. It's part of the game here because Chinese feel that all foreigners are rich and deserve to be milked."

"I'm too tired to argue anymore," I replied. "This place looks ok, it's small but not far from my work." And so I signed the contract that I came to regret with all my heart and soul. The real estate agent took as his cut the amount of the first month's rent and then he made a lease stating that I had to pay 3 months at a time. As everything was in Chinese I could not see that I was liable for everything; if anything broke after one month they would do absolutely nothing.

"You used an agent?" Lee He said. "So expensive!" He declined at that time to tell me that real estate agents were notorious for dishonest practices and that most Chinese sought to rent from people they knew.

The first thing I discovered was the broken washing machine. Three times the real estate agent said he'd fix it; three times he stood me up. The month of liability lapsed. "Sorry, no fix, your duty," he said curtly when I called the fourth time.

Angry, I complained to my colleague, "You know I'm having some trust issues here, Chinese businessmen are not very reliable."

"How can you insult my country?" he retorted. I'm Chinese; it doesn't mean all Chinese are like your landlord. By the way my landlord threw me out of my apartment too, you're not the only one to suffer being kicked out."

"But what about renter's rights?" I responded.

"This is China, the real estate men have your money and the power. Don't pay them, they'll change the lock and throw you out. We are still a developing country. Please allow me to continue my work."

To live in a foreign country one must be stoic. I've lived in primitive conditions in Africa and in Korea but that was thirty years ago. China is booming and rich, progressive enough to hold the Olympics? So when my electricity went off I decided to go to the boss. "They never gave you an electric card, how odd," she murmured. "I'll check into it."

After three nights of living by tallow candles another real estate agent came to restore electricity: in China you buy electricity from the power company. They load your wattage in a credit card and you put it in the electric meter designed to read the card. "I'll just keep that card," the new agent told me. "You give me 200 RMB, now."

I did, he imperceptibly smiled and walked away whistling. At least I had power again. When I came to my desk the next morning my boss walked over and said, "So how much power did you get?" I told her 200 RMB and she asked me for the receipt.

"He didn't give me one," I answered. She looked grim. Later she called the agent repeatedly; he had "lost" the electric receipt.

"Please don't pay him anymore for electricity until he gives you a receipt," my boss said quietly.

Winter arrived. Spring Festival approached. It was cold but my fridge was not. Lee He called the realtor. "Sorry, no one can fix this for ten days, we're all going on holiday," he said and hung up. Patiently I waited; after all, it's China's biggest holiday. On the eleventh day I called and he promised to send someone out. Again no one came. I called a second time the following day. This time a young boy, pedaling a rusty bicycle and smoking a filter-less cigarette, showed up.

"This fridge is junk, not worth fixing," he said, "but I can fix the washing machine, 80 RMB." I agreed; he fixed that.

Now my next rent installment was coming due. "I'm telling them you're not paying unless they replace the fridge," Lee He said. He'd been ordered again by the boss to "help the foreigner" because they evidently wanted me to extend my contract.

Incredibly, another used fridge arrived soon after this conversation. "We will walk you to the bank to be safe since you are paying three months rent again," said the real estate agent's assistant, another strange, scruffy looking young man. I nodded happily. As soon as I handed over the money the young man blinked. "Bye," he said, reaching for his cigarettes.

The second fridge did not work.

"You paid him without checking?" Lee He said to me, rising out of his chair.

"I trusted him," I replied, feeling angry and foolish. "I guess I'll never trust a Chinese businessman again."

"How dare you insult my country," Lee He replied. "I will tell the boss you are a racist."

"And I'll write up the story," I retorted, just as angry.

"You cannot criticize China, this is only one small incident. We are a developing country. Every developing country needs time to make adjustments to the new reform and opening up. It is a rude move on your part to write anything."

"Every day after editing stories about China becoming a democracy and a people's paradise I go home to a shoddy, incredibly overpriced Chinese apartment. Every day I understand that I have no rights: as a renter, as a worker, as a foreigner: the real estate guys have screwed me, your company could fire me, the government could even tell me to leave in 12 hours. You call me a racist for losing my trust; at least I do have the right to report the facts," I answered him curtly.

"But you are racist. These kinds of things happen all the time to many, many Chinese; it's not because you are a foreigner, it's just the way things work here," he responded. "Maybe it's just easier to fool you than to fool a fellow Chinese."

"You're exactly right," I agreed sadly. "Ordinary Chinese people: migrants and poor, and patsy foreigners, who you perceive as rich, we have no rights at all, reforms or no reforms." Lee He stared at me; baffled by the way we had closed our discussion.

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Get it off your chest
 (comments policy)

Simon2008-04-04 19:03:06
Hope you are ok now

wonderlane2008-04-05 09:58:05
the way things don't work.

LL2008-04-14 04:07:44
I keep thinking about your story

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