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Foreign Babes in Beijing

What is life like for an American expatriate — turned Chinese TV star — living in China’s capital city?

August 30, 2006

What is life like for an American expatriate — turned Chinese TV star — living in China's capital city?

Foreigners were allowed to live only in “foreign-approved housing,” and most approved apartments were upward of $3,000 a month. Students and young foreigners with internships or poorly paying jobs lived in dorms or illegal Chinese apartments.

My housing allowance was $1,000 a month — more money than any of my Chinese colleagues could imagine spending on rent, but too little for a legal apartment.

So when I moved from the Huarun into my first apartment, it had to be an illegal Chinese one. I picked a complex called Fangzhuang, “Suburban Farm,” where my rent was $800 a month, because I knew of one other foreigner, a redhead who worked for Ford Motor Company, living there.

She said that she and her American boyfriend, who studied pandas, had lived there for over six months and not been evicted. I was sold.

The compound itself was a sprawling maze of gates, construction zones and identical government-issue high-rises growing from the ground like chalky plants. I lived on the 18th floor of building number four.

Apparently, the number four had decreased the amount I paid in rent, since si, four, is a homonym for another si, which means death. One and four together suggest imminent or impending death — which is why no Chinese building has a 14th floor.

In spite of the dramatic and unlucky number of my building, I had trouble remembering which one it was. My windows looked out on dozens of buildings just like mine.

Included in my rent was a priceless course in local Beijing life. The elevators were turned off every night at 11 p.m., which meant that almost five nights a week I climbed 18 flights of stairs. The cement stairwells were unlit, so I carried a flashlight in my briefcase.

This was a new building and the elevators were automatic. But when running, each had an operator, because they were not only elevators, but “iron rice bowls” — stable jobs that citizens have forever.

Everyone needed a job. At 11 p.m., the operators and the elevators went to bed. At five a.m., they woke. I had the same conversation every morning with one of them.

“Your hair is wet,” she said each day. (“Yes.”) “Did you just wash your hair?” (“Yes.”) “You’re going to work.” (“Yes.”)

Chinese small talk is not about weather. It relies on comfortable statements of obvious facts. When I got to the office, my colleagues shouted, “You’ve arrived,” as a way to welcome me.

It’s nice when people acknowledge general, factual aspects of your presence. It confirms that you exist.

In order to make my illegal apartment more livable, I hired Xiao Gao, an unregistered woman from Anhui province, to help me.

I had sworn when I arrived in Beijing that I would not hire a maid, called affectionately ayis (aunties) in Chinese. But then basic life proved unmanageable.

All the other expatriates I met had ayis. I attributed this to the spoiling of wealthy people who live in a poor country, but also came to understand that ayis were the only ones able to take on impossible administrative tasks.

These tasks had to be done dozens of times a week between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., when I was imprisoned at the office or the studio.

These included paying the phone and water bills, changing the cooking gas tank, waiting for water deliveries and la’ing guanxi, or “pulling a relationship” with the landlord.

Someone had to be in the house when bill collectors, whom I could neither understand nor trust, pounded on the door to ask for cash. I never had any idea what they were charging for. Xiao Gao could tell the legitimate ones from the cheaters.

By my standards, the Fangzhuang apartment was frightening, but in Beijing it was luxurious to live alone. Many of my colleagues still lived with their parents.

I clung to some sense of accomplishment at getting an apartment for a fraction of the prevailing foreigner’s rent, but my sense of ineptitude was exacerbated by the apartment itself.

I slept in a bed I made from a pile of suits, until Gary helped me get a mattress. My kitchen and bathroom had floor-to-ceiling mirrors. When I tried to remove them, I discovered that the walls underneath were covered with holes as big as extra closets.

So I left the mirrors intact, greeting myself as I walked through the apartment, which I came to consider a kind of funhouse. They days were thematically consistent, all about watching and being watched.