Hello Uncle Foreigner

apartment

Sep 13, 2016

Home for the (hot, hot) summer

And it’s time to pay the bills

Our Luzhou high rise

Take a video tour of our new apartment complex in Luzhou.

We’re going on our sixth year in China, but this is actually the first time that we’ve spent an August in Luzhou. Previously, we’d always arranged to travel during this month — or move cities entirely — because locals assured us that August is unbearable.

Having lived it this year, I can report that “unbearable” seems strong. But between the heat and humidity, it is, like, three-shower-a-day weather. Showers seemed like the best solution, given that this, our first August in Luzhou, is also our first August in Luzhou that we are paying our own electric bill.

It feels good to pay our own electric bill, though. It feels good to be in charge of all of our own utilities ‘n’ stuff, actually. After living the life of a kept pet on campus at Tianfu Middle School for our first four years, it feels like we have more of a grown-up life. Like we’ve graduated.

But renting in China is not really at all like it is in America. In fact, renting in Luzhou is not even like renting in Lijiang. And moreover, we know from our initial online research, how we do it out west is different from what goes on in Beijing and in Shanghai. Yeah, we’re one country/one timezone and all that, but regionality isn’t going away.

Let’s talk Lijiang. Our apartment there was in a small complex on the edge of the city — goats were our neighbors — and it was beautifully furnished. Our friends lived in the same complex, and they spotted the landlord’s phone number on a “For rent” sign on the apartment window. We handed over a year’s rent, plus two months’ deposit, and then didn’t see our landlord until we moved out a year later. (When she gave us back slightly less than out two months’ deposit, because we had burnt a hole in her couch with a space heater.)

As far as utilities went, every three months, the guard at the front gate of our housing complex would flag us down to pay our water and electric bill. And every six months, he’d add in the maintenance fee. In his little hut, I’d pay the property manager — who was just kind of always hanging about — then sign my name in the book and get my receipt. Propane for the stove was delivered by a man on a motorbike strapped up with way too many tanks; we’d just call in an order when we were running low. And phone and internet were taken care of in one yearly payment at the China Telecom store. All of this was done in big, fat wads of cash, by the way.

We were so proud to figure all this out. Now we know how the Chinese go about the business of living!

And then, in Luzhou, none of that applies. We found our wonderfully spacious apartment here through a broker who went to school with one of my coworkers. This apartment is also furnished, with pieces that are just slightly not falling apart. (In fairness, yesterday the landlord installed a brand new light fixture in our living room — because the old one had blown up.) And rent is payed quarterly.

Electricity — we have a little card that we can put money on at any bodega that has a State Grid sign out front. There’s one pretty close to our apartment, and we just re-up whenever we’re running low. For our internet and phone bill, we go into the China Telecom store once a month to 交费 (pay the fee). Water and maintenance are also monthly, at the property office at our apartment complex; but because more than 2,000 people live in our complex, it’s up to us to remember to go in. Gas for our stove and hot water heater … we haven’t figured out how to pay our gas bill yet, but I think that I saw someone do it at our grocery store.

One thing is the same, though: Cash Rules Everything Around Me.

Actually … another thing that is the same is that because this is just the way that everybody does it, no one really offers to explain how any of this works. It’s so basic, they just assume that you know. (Even though it’s all done differently a province over.) For example, here’s how I figured out how to pay the Luzhou electricity bill: My landlord handed over the card. My coworker said, “I think you can 交费 at that supermarket.” That supermarket said, “We don’t do it here. But maybe you can go to the bank.” And then, walking around our complex, I noticed a little store that had a small sign that matched the logo on my card. And now I just know to look for the sign, and I never have to think about it again.

In this RPG we call China, it’s all part of the … life, I guess.

Nov 10, 2012

The new digs

A look inside an American-Chinese apartment

The living roomThe kitchenThe bedroom
Our apartment building is just next to the student dorms.

You get little sympathy when you complain about a free apartment, I know, but our old campus apartment was (and still is) a bit of a wreck. Everything that can leak does — shower, ceiling, toilet, sinks, refrigerator, air conditioner — and no one’s really invested in fixing it, because at some undefined point in the future it’s all coming down.

Which is why we were thrilled to move out to a brand new place in the countryside, even though it means that Sticks is no longer a five-minute walk away.

And the apartment itself is really nice. As I said, it’s brand new, so hardly anything is broken yet. (There was an issue when we moved in that the bathroom sink wasn’t connected to any drain so the water just splashed out all over the floor, but workmen were still on the premises and it got fixed right away.) It’s smaller than our other apartment, but that apartment is absurdly large for the two of us; we had three rooms that we never even used. One bedroom and a large living/dining room area is good enough for us.

There was no official moving day. Over the course of two months, we moved in by two backpacks at a time, once- or twice-weekly carting a load of our things across town on the bus. We didn’t stick out too much all turtled up with our stuff, however. For many of the locals, it’s a normal thing to do.

We’re still working on it, but each week, the apartment is getting more and more comfortable, and we spend more and more time here. These days, our old damp box is just a place to crash.

Apr 6, 2012

Our latest purchases

A basket and a computer

Our new computerOur new laundry basket

In the past week, we’ve made two purchases that spanned the continuum from the most hi-tech — our new 27-inch Mac — to the most lo-tech — a hand-woven laundry basket. Both have improved our lives amazingly.

OK, the laundry basket just means I’ve stopped throwing my dirty clothes on the floor, but if you’d seen the size of the spider we saw crawling around our room the other day, you’d know it was a major life improvement to have the clothes contained. Because I heard that spiders don’t like baskets. If you’ve heard otherwise, do not tell me.

But our studio has come a long way. We’ve added amps, speakers, a space heater and now a huge computer. Which we never would have been able to afford living in New York. China is treating us well.

Dec 28, 2011

Our new coat rack

We’ll take that to go

Coat rack

We bought a coat rack yesterday, so now we can stop just throwing out coats on the table and couch by the door. It’s great, except now I keep seeing out of the corner of my eye and thinking there’s a giant lurking by the door.

In Luzhou, you pretty much have to carry home anything you buy yourself, unless you have a car or motorcycle. Things we’ve seen people carrying on their back: A hot water heater, a washing machine. We also saw a woman carrying home this same exact coat rack while riding back seat on a motor bike.

Nov 7, 2011

It just keeps getting better

Revisiting the studio

Now we've got chairs

We bought a space heater and moved the comfy chairs into the studio. This is now far and away the best room in the house.

Oct 28, 2011

Snaps: The studio, in its full glory

A place to rock and roll

Our studio

Oct 20, 2011

The plumbing saga

Where the heck's the toilet plunger gone?

The story of a plunger
(Photo illustration by the non-graphic designer of the house, FYI)

Yesterday, we were having some trouble with our toilet. I like to be a fix-it-yourself girl whenever possible, so before calling for help, I went out to see if I could find a plunger. This turned out to be harder than I thought.

I looked up the Chinese translation for plumber and I armed myself with my trusty notebook (fig. 2). I wrote out both the characters and the pinyin, just in case my characters were actually meaningless scribbles to a Chinese person. I also drew the top plunger as a visual aid.

My first stop was the hardware-looking store right next door to our school. I showed the shopkeeper and another customer the characters and the drawing. Blank looks. The shopkeeper went into the back to make change for his customer while she continued to try and help me figure out what I was trying to say. I did a little pantomime of plunging, and made a “pchew, pchew, pchew” sound. Suddenly, comprehension. She shouted back to the shopkeeper in Chinese. After he sent her on her way, he started looking around for something for me. Nails. Unfortunately, the woman interpreted my moves as hammer and nails. So I did it again for him. He had a realization, and wrote down the characters on the slip of paper in fig. 3. I think the second line was an address.

I took off in the direction he had pointed, excited that I was probably hot on the trail of a plunger. I saw another, more industrial-looking hardware store across the street. I showed the girl at the counter my paper, but she just shook her head. I noticed it was pretty much all lighting supplies, not really general hardware. Not the place to have a plunger. (Or a bicycle pump, as it turns out I was really asking her for, stay tuned …)

Nearby, there was what looked to be the equivalent of a dollar/variety store. I show the proprietor fig. 3. She nods and goes to get something: a bicycle pump. (There it is.) Oops. So I show her my original drawing, to which I’ve now added the squat toilet on the bottom left. She shakes her head no.

I continue on to a toilet supply store. They have both squat and western-style toilets, so I show the woman working there my notebook, and then do my miming over an actual bowl. She nods in recognition, but then indicates that they do not sell plungers. But she does say “zhu sai,” which is what Google translate said that I was looking for.

Moving on. Inspired by the toilet store, I do the drawing on the bottom right of fig. 2. I come to another hardware looking store and show her the whole thing. She does recognize it. But they don’t have it. She gives me directions in Chinese, though, indicating that somewhere back the way I came I can find what I need.

I turn around and go back the way I came. At this point it’s been an hour, but I’ve confirmed that I can communicate to a Chinese person that I need a plunger (and I’ve found where to buy a bicycle pump, should the need arise). I veer off onto a side street and find another thing shop. I show my notebook to the man here and he nods and goes back into his store. Success! He comes back with the item on the left of fig. 1. It’s brittle plastic and costs about $.30. I’m pretty sure this will not be effective, but I pay the man and take my prize.

Tired and discouraged, I head for home. Coming at the entry of the school from the other side, I see right in the front of another general thing shop an honest to goodness recognizable plunger (fig. 1, right side). Elated, I purchase it.

It’s also kind of crappily made, but I set out to buy a plunger and by gum! I got one. Those of you who know anything about plumbing and toilets can already guess how this turns out, however.

After a failed plunge and some research, I discovered that this is not the right kind of plunger to use. I tried the little plastic one for fun - and it was not that fun - which also didn’t work. Given how hard it was to find these, I decided against going out again and called our boss lady to say, “Help! Our toilet’s clogged!”

They sent over a pro, who got the job done in two minutes with some fancy snake machine.

The grisly conclusion: I suspect that, despite it’s modern, western look, our toilet may not be up to the task of handling toilet paper - I’ve seen it before in developing areas that you have to throw your paper in a waste basket, not the bowl. The pipes just can’t deal with it. But, as has been our mantra thus far, we didn’t move to China because everything would be the same …

Oct 15, 2011

A very fine house

Upgrading the kitchen

The kitchen, beforeThe kitchen, after

Today we finally had the time and the tools to do a deep cleaning of the apartment. Everything looks and feels infinitely better (Peter says we’ve stepped up from camping to living), but the kitchen is where the most dramatic results are seen. Above is a before and after.

And while every mundane thing has been more fun just by virtue of the fact that we’re doing it in China, housecleaning is housecleaning all over the world.

Oct 3, 2011

Our little Luzhou apartment

Come inside

The exterior of our first apartment in Luzhou
Check out our album of photos of our apartment.

Here’s a slideshow of our apartment. We live on the third floor of a small building, and look out over a beautiful little park. Our campus is right in the middle of downtown Luzhou, but as we’re nestled among so many trees, we can barely see it.

Oct 1, 2011

Work is done for the week, let’s fix up the apartment!

It’s our first day with no classes and/or meetings, and we’re taking the opportunity to get our apartment in order. We washed all of our bed linens - which will, with any luck, be dry by tonight (it’s supposed to rain all day and the air is really damp) - and we’re on our way out to the market to buy some cleaning and cooking supplies. The floors especially could use a good washing.

Let me tell you about our kitchen: We have a small fridge, a sink, a two-burner range, a microwave, a rice cooker and an electric kettle. The small laundry machine is also in the kitchen. Our cabinets are all on the floor and the counter is really low, which works for me, although Peter might want to get a little stool so that he doesn’t have to hunch over while he works. They left us some dishes: small deep bowls that we use for drinking tea and having soup, and larger shallow bowls that we use for rice and other dishes. They also supplied us with chopsticks and a Chinese soup spoon. We brought our own pint glasses (they have our favorite Marvel characters on them). After using these supplies for a week, we’ve decided this is probably sufficient in terms of dinnerware. We just need a new wok (the one they left us is pretty gross and the Teflon is crusting off. Quick aside: We suspect that in Chinese culture they don’t really throw anything out. Our apartment is all furnished with hand-me-downs, some of which are still useful, but some of which are actually garbage. We have a storage closet that looks to be full of busted junk. We may be adding to it soon.), a good knife and cutting board. Then we can start having meals that aren’t instant ramen (though the Chinese version is a little more robust than the American version) or rice.

But it’s not all chores. Today is National Day, which is actually a week-long holiday. We’re not really sure what this means, but we’re planning on going out tonight, and I’ll report back on what goes on.