Apartmental, a part mental

As regular readers will know, Imagethief has been on cross-assignment to his company’s Shanghai office in recent weeks. The company is, meanwhile, attempting to persuade me to consider semi-permanent reassignment to Shanghai. I have not yet made a decision about this (and if my landlord in Beijing is reading this, we’ll talk).

In general, I really like the company I work for. They’ve taken good care of me, provided training, put up with my idiosyncrasies, and were patient with me while I spent my early months wrapping my head around the cataclysmic, nationwide fun-house that is the Chinese media. Because of that I was willing to listen to when they suggested that relocation to Shanghai might be good for my professional development.

They say that whichever Chinese city you come to first is the one you build an attachment to. I suppose this argument might break down if your first port of call was Linfen. But I came to Beijing by choice, and I’ve certainly become affectionate for the city. Beijing, for all its impersonal ministries and immense boulevards, has an intimacy and a grungy, eccentric streak that really appeals to me. In a little under three years, I’ve really come to think of Beijing as home.

It doesn’t hurt that I’ve been surrounded by old Beijing-hands who are naturally contemptuous of Shanghai (Schwankert, I’m talking about you), or that I’ve been writing about the city’s eccentricities for That’s Beijing semi-regularly. So I came to Shanghai with the casual, Shanghai? Pfeh! disdain of the confirmed Beijinger.

Imagine my surprise at discovering that Shanghai is really not bad at all. It has a very different feel than Beijing, for sure. As David Wolf said to me over lunch Friday, in explaining the difference, “Beijing was created to be an imperial capital. It has always been a Chinese city. Shanghai was created to be a treaty port, and foreigners have always been a part of its identity.” He also advised me to make regular trips back to Beijing for sanity checks. Fair enough. But I’ve quite enjoyed the time I’ve been spending in Shanghai, and the city has its own personality and charm, if that is the word to use. My office and apartment are both in a very pleasant part of town, which does help.

Speaking of my apartment, however, I have some complaints.

The company provided the apartment for me to use during my cross-assignment. A previous expatriate employee of ours had lived in it for about four months and had then left China. The week before my Christmas break I had quick look in the apartment to see if it was habitable. It was, depending upon your point of view, a relatively high-end local apartment, or a relatively low-end international apartment. Perhaps the latter, given that it had international cable TV channels. It had plenty of room for me and occasional visits from Mrs. Imagethief. My conclusion was that it was generally fine, although I would have to bring some bedding from Singapore. I told our Shanghai office manager she didn’t need to have an ahyi work it over before my return. That was an inexcusable, rookie error. What can I say? It was night, I was rushed. My due diligence was not superb.

I returned from my Christmas vacation in the US on Saturday, January 6th. On the 7th I flew to Shanghai and went straight to the apartment. There, alone with a suitcase in the dark of a Shanghai winter evening, jetlagged into irascibility, the flimsiness of my earlier appraisal became clear. As did the bachelor existence of the previous occupant. I had not bothered to open the refrigerator during my brief, pre-Christmas visit. Monumental mistake. The entire contents consisted of two rotting, three-week old pieces of meat and a box of Ferrero Rocher candies now infused with the smell of decaying flesh. The rest of the food supply was two things of instant noodles and a huge pile of little sugar sachets stolen from every restaurant and bar in the French Concession.

Three years ago when I first moved to China and did my Wordlink Education language program, they put me up in a very similar two-bedroom apartment. It was fine, but made no provision for the fact that some people might like to cook and eat at home. The total kitchen implements consisted of a frying pan, a chopper, a cutting board, two bowls, two Chinese soup spoons (the boat-shaped ceramic ones that are hard to use for sugaring coffee) and some chopsticks. I had to go down to the CRC supermarket in Wudaokou’s Huaqing Jiayuan apartments and buy a saucepan, fork, knife, round-bottomed pan, plastic colander and a plate. (And I only got this far after several tragic days of trying to eat salad with chopsticks. Oil-slicked cherry tomatoes are a bitch to eat with chopsticks, no matter how dexterous you are.)

Buying forks and can-openers when you’re in the heady rush of fresh-arrival and wide-eyed, goldang, lookit that! culture-shock is fine. It’s all part of the adventure. And I was surrounded by threadbare college students, so living like one was a blast of juvenile nostalgia. I went through a somewhat more substantial stocking of my own apartment in Beijing some months later, culminating in the shipping of my accumulated household worth of stuff from Singapore when my move to China become final.

You forget when you’ve lived in a house or apartment for a while just how much stuff accumulates. Some of it is junk, but some of it is really useful. The great thing about my apartment in Beijing is that it has everything I need (and plenty that I don’t): Dishes, utensils, tools, cables, connectors, bric-a-brac, Q-Tips, spare Kleenex, nail clippers, scissors, scotch tape, shoe polish, laundry detergent, a sewing kit, and so on off into infinity. The apartment in Shanghai had a wok, four bowls, four plates, Chinese spoons, chopsticks, a chopper and cutting boards. It also had, inexplicably, an upright piano. I don’t play piano.

Barring the piano, this was so close to the contents of my Wudaokou apartment that for a moment I thought I had slipped back in time.

And here is where I get cranky. I am now thirty-nine and a (semi) respected China business professional. I have lived here for three years. My wife and pets are here. I have a network. I can get around in Chinese. I did not want to have to relive my starving student days by buying a fucking can opener. I believe that if you are trying to woo someone into uprooting themselves from city A and shipping their wife, worldly possessions and fuzzy kitty cats to city B, you need to do everything possible to make that person think city B is paradise on earth. Three months in a luxurious service apartment refreshingly free of carrion and stocked to the gills with conveniences seems like a good place to start. Once they sign on the dotted line you can always pull a bait-and-switch. But remember, it’s bait first then switch.

I also had to come to grips with the legendary consequences of the south-of-the -Yangtze government heating edict. This is one of those remnants of central planning that make China fascinating at an academic level and a pain in the ass at a practical one. My apartment in Beijing seals like a spaceship (although, like a spaceship, you can also run out of air and die if you don’t ventilate it from time to time). I don’t even need to turn the marvelous central-heat on. The apartment stores solar energy.

My temporary Shanghai apartment, however, leaks like a straw hat and is apparently heated by a small man from Guangxi who rubs sticks together somewhere in the duct-work above the ceilings. At least that’s what it sounds like. He needs to rub the sticks together for four or five hours before they generate enough heat so that my breath doesn’t fog in the living room. I needed to sort out the arcane timing system which is based on oracle bones and bedsprings. Apparently I am supposed to set the timer to turn the heat on about one hour after I leave the house in the morning. That will ensure that the apartment is damply tepid about the time I get home, rather than arctic. I think the answer is a vastly larger television that would generate supplemental heat, but for some reason the company isn’t buying my arguments.

I can’t imagine why not.

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