Aug 29

(Letter) One of the things we love about living in China: our neighbours

Written by Joel on Friday, August 29th, 2008 at 7:25 am
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This is a happy China story that also happens to have some fun cultural elements in it.

When we moved into this neighbourhood a year and a half ago, we’d just begun language school and could hardly communicate at all (now we’re fluent in Chinglish). We picked this neighbourhood because it has a great outdoor community atmosphere and it seemed to be average (economically) for Tianjin: not the poorest hutong (some of which recently got bulldozed) but also not a newer development. It’s mostly danwei apartments.

A couple weeks ago our landlord ‘Aunty Wang’ phoned out of the blue and told us that when our contract expires we have to leave because they want to move back into this apartment. So the first thing we did was put the word out in our neighbourhood that we needed to move and were looking to rent an apartment, in the neighbourhood if at all possible.

This conversation happened yesterday, and is excerpted from Round 5.5 of our Negotiating Rent in Chinglish series. It was just another reminder to us of how out neighbours look out for us.

‘Grandpa Liu’ (刘大爷), our first floor neighbour who’s looked out for us in the past, just this afternoon motioned Jessica over for a hushed conversation outside our stairwell. Apparently he’s been waiting to bump into me for a couple days.

Grandpa Liu: “I hear you guys are looking for an apartment.”
Jessica: “Yeah, the landlord said they want to move back into our apartment.”
Grandpa Liu: “Not necessarily.”
Jessica: “Oh yeah I know. Maybe it’s just an excuse” (to get us out).
Grandpa Liu: “No, it’s just that all the prices in this neighbourhood have gotten higher.”
Jessica: “Oh really?”
Grandpa Liu: “Yeah, and she’s too embarrassed to tell you that she’d like more rent.” (Especially after our negotiations a few months ago.)
Jessica: “I don’t know, she sounded pretty certain that she wants us out.”
Mr. Liu asks how much we’re paying for rent (1100元 = $168).
Grandpa Liu: “I think you should phone her and offer her another 200 ($30) or 300 kuai ($46). The cheapest you’re gonna get in this neighbourhood now is 1400 ($215) or 1500 ($230) for a two-bedroom.”
Jessica: “Oh, so that’s how it is…”
Grandpa Liu: “Well unless you want to move, you at least ought to give it a shot, because you probably won’t find a cheaper place and moving’s a lot of trouble. So give it a try!”
Jessica thanked him for his help and said she appreciated him telling us because we don’t always know how things work…
Jessica: “…because in America if the landlord says they want you out, they really want you out.”
Grandpa Liu: “Oh, not here. She’s just too embarrassed and can’t directly ask you. We Asians can’t be that direct. In this aspect we’re not so good.”

I assume he’s just being polite with that last remark. And of course it’s possible he knows our landlord and is helping her out by cluing us in. Either way, it makes us feel good when our neighbours take the initiative and go out of their way to help us clueless foreigners out, or make us feel at home (we have many examples of this: drinking with the old boys and sharing Chinese New Years, for starters).

Sure, what is said in the media and online matters because it influences peoples’ perception, and we’re no exception to that. But the biggest influence on our view of China and the Chinese people are the people we live with daily. We know that we’re awkward for them, with our bad Chinese and cultural cluelessness, so little gestures like these go a long way.

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5 Responses to “(Letter) One of the things we love about living in China: our neighbours”

  1. Glyx Says:

    Apparently Grandpa Liu is helping the shy landlord. But this is a story filled with warmth and goodness. ^^ You know, it’s time to talk about the money now, Mine apartment had just rised 200

  2. Chinawatcher Says:

    What an endearing narrative! It’s interactions like these – with ordinary folks – that make China special, in my estimation. Thanks for sharing this.

    P.S. So, did you make ‘Aunty Wang’ an offer she couldn’t refuse? Did she let you stay on?

  3. Joel Says:

    Honestly, this apartment isn’t worth 1100 kuai/month; I don’t think these things weren’t built with the concepts of “customer” or “satisfaction” in mind (old danwei apartment). We stay because of the location (super convenient) and the neighbourhood and neighbours (super friendly). I actually wouldn’t mind rolling the dice on another apartment in the same neighbourhood.

    That said, what they’re asking is fair for Tianjin’s rental market right now. Tianjin housing is just overpriced. We’ll probably wait a bit just to see if anything better drops out of the sky, and it not then we’ll offer to pay more. We’re out of town for the net couple of days anyway.

  4. Michelle Says:

    Wow… 1100 a month! Seems so cheap!… but i’m sure i can picture the function over form style of your flat. Used to live in Tianjin, the people were really great…

  5. Joel Says:

    That’s a major reason we picked Tianjin over Beijing – cheaper cost of living.

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