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Pulp Fiction and Apartment hunting in Beijing

Yeah, this post is a little out of character and a bit too long but it’s….cathartic.

YJ and I just spent four days in Beijing apartment-hunting. It did not go well. After trying to decide between two apartments (the cozy love nest or the mack daddy shack) we decided to stall a bit and look some more. One of our agents, Miriam, called us on Saturday, the day we were to leave, with news of a great apartment that would be perfect for us. The following series of events takes place over the course of 24 hours and is so banal and yet so twisted and stupefying that I thought I would let the master, Quentin Tarantino, take a crack at scripting what took place:

I’m American, honey. Our names don’t mean shit.

Miriam was wonderful, sweet, and honest which meant she was a really good person and totally unqualified to work in the Chinese real estate market. Her default expression in conflict/negotiation situations could only be described as “Rabbit versus Mack truck.” She also had the annoyingly common habit of asking YJ questions about me in the third person. This after we had long established on the phone and in person that I spoke Chinese AND that she spoke English. “What is his name, again?” “Where is he from?” Hello. I’m standing right next to you. Big, dumb, white dude, second from the left.

Hamburgers! The cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast!

God I hate McDonald’s but when you’re running from appointment to appointment it’s the only guaranteed “fast” food in the city. The only time we broke this rule was when we ducked into a little jia chang cai place for a quick lunch between meetings. Sure enough, two bowls of noodles took over a half an hour to make and we were 20 minutes late to our next appointment. From then on out, it was McD’s all the way. By the end of the weekend I felt like I was carrying Verne Troyer around in my colon.

Normally, both of your sorry asses would be deader than f——-g fried chicken by now, but you happened to pull this shit while I’m in a transitional period so I don’t wanna kill you, I wanna help you.

Before Miriam, we worked with an agent from “Very Large Chinese Agency” and she was great. She was a woman in her late 50s who was…actually both honest AND efficient or maybe she just felt sorry for us. The problem was she had no taste in apartments. She was the one who showed us “Mack Daddy Pad” which I liked but which YJ suggested looked like the decorator had been fired from the set of “Boogie Nights.” God bless this particular agent, she’s still calling us with suggestions. In fact, right now, she’s the ONLY agent we’ve worked with in Beijing who is still returning our calls.

Warm… warmer… DIsco.

Saturday afternoon, Miriam calls us about the new apartment. “Wangfujing,” I say, “That’s thirty minutes away. I’ll be there in ten.” We walk in and it is perfect. Right next to Wangfujing, five minute walk to the archives but off in a quiet hutong with both north and south windows and every inch of the place brand new. All for the same price as some of the older places we looked at in Dongcheng and much less expensive than “Mack Daddy.” We were stoked.

Get it straight, Buster. I’m not here to say please. I’m here to tell you what to do. And if self-preservation is an instinct you possess, you better f——g do it and do it quick. I’m here to help. If my help’s not appreciated, lots of luck, gentlemen.

I like to compliment people on their homes, pointing out nice features as a way to make our hosts feel more comfortable. DO NOT DO THIS WHEN LOOKING AT APARTMENTS IN BEIJING. Earlier that weekend, Miriam had said, to YJ not me of course, “Every time he says something nice, the price goes up.” Did I listen? Of course not. Why? Did I mention that I am, in fact, an idiot?

Bring out the Gimp.

The landlord was sweet as pie. She was wonderful. Her boyfriend was charming, all smiles, a real modern guy with “Starbucks” latte in hand. And then in walked “Auntie.” She was a dumpy, troll-like figure with a sour, peasant visage that betrayed no sense of warmth or mirth. It was quite a miracle when I saw her face actually begin to brighten into a grin when she met me…if only I knew.

Zed? Maynard. Spider just caught a couple of flies.

YJ and I looked at each other and said this is the place. Smiles all around. I turned around to tell YJ to go into the bedroom, call our other house agent and to tell her that we’d found a place and wouldn’t need to hold the other place any longer. And then I felt a tingling sensation that ran from the back of my neck to my toes. It was the old lady: mentally greasing up my backside…and aiming for penetration.

Well, let’s not start sucking each other’s d–ks quite yet

First the apartment lacked some of the basics and when we suggested that these would need to be provided, the old lady began to fidget and twitch at the unreasonable demands we were making for things like a refrigerator and to turn on the water. It was a new apartment and hadn’t been lived in yet so it had a kind of “clean but unfinished feel” that should have made us more cautious. Miriam, our agent, said that she could take care of these details later and that we should leave. I should have listened. Actually, I should have taken Miriam, shook her, and asked her questions like, “Do you think we can get this place?” and “Do they actually OWN the apartment?” But I didn’t. Yeah, I know, I am an idiot.

English, motherf—-r! Do you speak it?!

First of all, I’ve decided that it is in my best interest to never use Chinese in any situation involving negotiations. I think it’s better if I just sit there and pretend to be a Wookie. I have absolute faith that if YJ and the agent had gone into another room and left me standing there with a dumb grin on my face, the auntie and her family would have gone on talking about how best to screw the idiot foreigner and his hai gui girlfriend. This would have saved us a lot of trouble. But no. I like to show off that I can speak Chinese by saying helpful things like “Wow, this place is really convenient to where I do my research” and “What great light! I really want to live here.” (Sound of forehead hitting desk over and over again.)

I Love You Pumpkin. I love you, too Honey Bunny.

Finally, we were hurried out of the apartment by Miriam. Not good times. We bailed on two apartments we liked and which were already in the bag for a really cool place, the deal for which fell apart about 75 seconds after we said we would take it. YJ and I went to the Novotel Hotel to drown our despondency. As I was giving my despondency its second drowning in five minutes, Miriam called. The landlords had agreed to all of our demands (for a fridge, a television, a washing machine, etc). YJ and I felt like we had just won PowerBall. We had successfully negotiated a sweet apartment at a sweet price only 30 minutes after we had practically been tossed from the building by the landlord’s aunt. They had agreed to all of our requirements and didn’t bother with a counter-offer on the rent, all we had to do was meet with them in the morning. We changed our train, booked another night at the Home Inn, and ordered another round to celebrate. Now, anyone who has done business in China (or seen Goodfellas) knew what was happening. Of course they agreed. They never had any intention of ever renting us the apartment. They’d have agreed, in principle, to letting us plant the auntie in a tub of loam as a Christmas tree…‘coz they knew they were never going to see us again. Oh yeah, did I mention they neglected to set a time to meet us in the morning? Yeah. I know.

“Does Marcellus Wallace look like a bitch?” “No.” “Then WHY are you trying to f–k him like a bitch, Brett?”

The next morning we call Miriam to find out when we can sign the papers and she tells us that the morning will be “inconvenient” because the Aunt is in the hospital. I’m not buying this. So I call back, actually the apartment certificate (proving that they really own and can rent the place) is in the uncle’s house but when they went to the uncle’s house, the aunt was sick, so they can’t get it. Three hours later, they said that they couldn’t get the apartment certificate because it is not convenient today. By the second call, I knew we were getting screwed around. By the third, I asked Miriam point blank: “We’re not getting this apartment, right?” Miriam: “Probably not.” Standing right at the top of Wangfujing I let fly with a loud exclamation that rhymes vaguely with “another trucker.” YJ tells curious passers-by that I am a lao wai interested in the Chinese practice of lian sangzi.

Yeah, we cool. Two things. Don’t tell nobody about this. This shit is between me, you, and Mr. Soon-To-Be-Living-The-Rest-of-His-Short-Ass-Life-In-Agonizing-Pain Rapist here. It ain’t nobody else’s business. Two: you leave town tonight, right now. And when you’re gone, you stay gone, or you be gone.

After I had raged on the sidewalk for a few moments, I slumped to the curb and realized that nothing could be done. Yes, the old woman and her ‘nice’ relatives were lying and conniving peasants. Somehow, YJ and I had convinced ourselves that since Beijing was so much cleaner and had a decent bagel place with prompt friendly service and everything that things had changed. No, not really. The three of them never had any intention of giving us such a good deal, certainly not with a lao wai involved, but neither were they ever going to lose face and actually tell us this. Why bother? Just string us along like the dupes we are. It was, in fact, almost an epiphany. So I picked myself up, wiped the spittle off of my clothes, and we took a taxi to that center of Zen-like relaxation: The Beijing Train Station on the Sunday before Chunjie. Oh yeah, we’re coming right back in two weeks to do it all over again. Pretty smart, eh? Yeah, pretty smart.

11 Comments on Pulp Fiction and Apartment hunting in Beijing

  1. 無名 - wu ming // February 13, 2007 at 2:33 am //

    i know it’s impolite to laugh at another’s pain and all, but damn, that was funny. in an “i feel your pain” sort of way, of course.

    did i ever tell you about our taiwanese landlady, who was a suanming jia-slash-stockbroker? who lost a bundle in the tech crash, and tried to squeeze us to make up the difference?

    ah, renting. they get really cranky when the laowai argues rent issues by quoting from the chinese rental agreement.

    this is all karmic payback for your getting such a sweet post-SARS crash pad the last time around, you realize.

  2. Ouch.
    The girlfriend and I are going to be moving in together soon, and I’ve decided to leave all matters of house-hunting to her. The official reason is that I’ve got a day job and won’t be able to go around visiting places, but really, it’s just to avoid stuff like this. I learned my lesson from the last time I went apartment hunting: I had an agent who kept taking me to International Chateau Luxury Rome Cappucino Towers-type places that were well out of my price range, even though I kept telling him that they weren’t even possibly an option, and after I switched agents and found someone who took me to apartments that were pleasant and affordable, I could still see the dollar signs coming into the owners’ eyes whenever I walked in the door, and hear the cash register “cha-ching” sound effects going off in their heads. Speaking Chinese does help a little, I find, but not all that much; they’re still out to skin you.

    Also: Bagels? Where are you getting bagels?

  3. 花崗齋之愚公 // February 13, 2007 at 6:48 pm //

    Thanks. It’ll be funnier when we have a place to live. Hey Brendan, what it’s like over on your side of town?

  4. Oh, Hon’ (as they say in Baltimore)… I’m so sorry you had to go through that. How exasperating.

    It’s times like these when I like to ask myself: “What would Hef do?” You know?

  5. Not too bad — rents in Ju’er Hutong are pretty steep, but I’m looking at stuff in the general area – either on Jiaodaokou Dong Lu or Andingmen Nei Dajie – and finding some plausible looking stuff. (At the moment, it’s just online hunting, but there’s a xiaoqu (官书院小区, if I recall correctly) near Andingmen – about 5 minutes from the subway and another 3 minutes from Guozijian and the Confucian Temple – that I remember liking a lot when I looked there a couple of years ago.

    I quite like this part of town — it’s gentrifying, and far away from bagels, and to the best of my knowledge there aren’t any super-lux places here, but hey – it’s near Gui Jie, it’s got trees, and it’s pleasant.

  6. I guess trying to find an apartment in San Francisco isn’t as bad as I made it out to be. At least not by comparison.

  7. Okay. That was hilarious.

    Having just gone through a long apartment hunt in Beijing as a laowai myself, I can comiserate. But, I have to disagree with the view that you and some commenters have about the screw-the-laowai outlook on Beijing real estate.

    I went into a number of agencies last month. The two times I was shown more expensive places, they were the first places agents showed me and the 装修 was great. I saw one bedrooms at the Jianguomen stop for 1700/month and two bedrooms at the dongzhimen stop for 2500/month. I was clear about my price range, only spoke Chinese, and told them that I would not pay any agent fee. That was that.

    Most likely you didn’t get the apartment because the landlord realized the price was too cheap. Prices go up 20 percent after spring festival, so why rent it now for 20 percent less? If you really want the place, call them, say you understand this and that you will pay more. Most likely, however, it’ll be hard to get along with the landlords afterwards.

    In Chinese culture (and American culture too I find), people lie to save face. No, the auntie wasn’t in the hospital and the deed wasn’t actually hard to get, but that has nothing to do with your being a laowai. It is just Chinese culture to tell obvious “lies” to get out of commitments. And in Chinese culture this isn’t “说谎”, this is simply the polite way to save face for everyone involved.

  8. 花崗齋之愚公 // February 16, 2007 at 7:38 pm //


    Thanks for your kind advice. The post was a kind of lark. But being serious for a moment, I think the biggest problem was that they didn’t really own the apartment, they were subleasing it and didn’t have the apartment certificate. You are right about landlords and agents. I have rented many apartments in Beijing and Tianjin over the years from both landlords and from agents, and not all are out to screw you. (This group however–and you really had to be there–was kinda special.) But some (many?) do add a “laowai surcharge.”

    Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Perhaps in the enlightened north the “laowai surcharge” is on its way out, but here in the south it is thriving. The anxiety of my own apartment hunt was somewhat eleviated by my boss’ offer to cover my living expenses, so I didn’t really care about the +200/month they were obviously adding on (on a side note, my landlord told me the other day that after I negotiated him down to 1700/month, the agent called him and told him to make an excuse and raise it back to 2000 because “I could afford it” and she wanted a higher commission charge) because of my foriegness.

    My friend also used a number of different agents who, although he only wanted a simple studio apartment, just couldn’t seem to find anything less then 1200 (this is in Guangxi!!!). Later he asked a local girl he knew to help him out. After doing some checking around she claimed to have found the perfect place, and very cheap at around 650. When he went to see it, it was the same one he had just seen with an agent, and whose landlord at the time swore it couldn’t possibly go less than 1000 becuase of the new water heater, furniture and bathroom decoration. And when my friend walked in the landlord switched into 老朋友 mode and told him “OK le!”

    And as far as the speak or not to speak Chinese during all of this goes, sometimes its better just to sit there and swear a lot in English. Most Chinese people can understand us when we’re a cussin’, and sometimes this helps…not really, but its fun to watch them flinch as the explicatives reverberate off the empty walls.

  10. This reminds me of our flat hunt in Shanghai. Being the one with the unflexible day job, my white, not-the-best-Mandarin-speaking boyfriend did most of the apartment hunting. He found a lovely place in the older of a group of “new” complexes near a light rail station, but the landlord’s intermediary (an aunt, I believe) refused to come down on the price. A few days passed, and he visited a different agency in the area, which mentioned an apartment in that complex 1000RMB cheaper. Of course, it was the same apartment.

  11. // August 28, 2007 at 2:27 am //

    Thanks. It’ll be funnier when we have a place to live.

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