August 6th, 2011
“Where will you live when you get there?” everyone asked.
“Oh, we’ll rent an apartment,” I’d say, then go on to describe the different neighborhoods we could choose from—the expat enclave in Beichen, the narrow streets around Green Lake Park in the center of the city, the newly built university area in Chenggong county, just to the south.
But really, I had no idea how we’d find an apartment. When we’d visited in 2010, we’d wandered around looking at ads posted in the windows of some of the city’s many real estate offices, but as none of the real estate agents spoke English, I was wary of walking in and inquiring about any of the apartments. After all, I had no real idea of what kinds of questions I should ask or what problems I should be on the lookout for, and no sense whatsoever of what fair rental terms would be. And I certainly wouldn’t be able to read a lease or even understand the legal jargon if the agent read it aloud to me.
So when we arrived in May, I immediately started looking at our options. I posted ads on Kunming’s English-language website, GoKunming.com, and combed their listings for suitable apartments. I read every inch of the weekly email newsletter KM Swap, which is run by the local missionaries and notes when “brothers” and “sisters” are looking for good tenants. We walked through the local home improvement store, writing down the average costs of sinks, showers, flooring, stoves, and water heaters to see if it would make sense to take an unrenovated apartment or one that asked the tenants to do the “initial set-up” (installing everything from flooring to showers) in exchange for two years of free rent. And then, finally, Josh and I started walking into real estate offices near the street where we wanted to live and asking to see two and three bedroom apartments. Our conversations with the various agents were difficult, but they were as eager to make a commission as we were to find a place, so we all forged ahead as best we could. The first few places we saw were, however, not encouraging.
The first apartment, a fifth floor walk-up above a loud street packed with student-friendly restaurants, had a large living room and two decently bright bedrooms, but the kitchen was bare, save for a stove so old I would have thrown it out immediately, and the bathroom was so small that the shower consisted of a handheld faucet placed directly over the toilet. Ten years ago I might have happily leaned over the toilet to wash my hair, but somehow I couldn’t see myself doing so now or asking my parents to follow suit when they visited. The second apartment had a better bathroom, but it was located on the second floor in a narrow courtyard and was so dark that even at three-o-clock in the afternoon we had to turn all the lights on just to get a sense of the place. Apartments three, four, and five, presented problems of bathrooms, again (squat toilets that would be difficult to replace with western-style ones) and furniture—one three bedroom apartment had a total of four bunk beds, rendering most of the rooms unusable to anyone with fewer than six or eight children, another had so little furniture that we would have had do spend an extra few hundred dollars before we could even move in. Others were in such a state of disrepair that I didn’t feel comfortable sitting down.
A couple weeks into my search we finally looked at an apartment that seemed promising, a three bedroom furnished place that an American graduate student had been living in for a couple years. She and her landlord met us there and showed us around. The apartment was fairly bright, the bedrooms comfortable. The kitchen was even a decent size. Despite the over-sized pleather couches and chairs that dominated the living room, it seemed like a pretty comfortable place, and it would be helpful to have a former tenant who could help us figure out where to order bottled water and pay the electricity bills. But there were a couple problems: just a couple of days earlier, construction had started on the building opposite the kitchen and bedroom windows, and the apartment did not have a gas water heater. Like all apartments in Kunming, it had a solar water heater on the roof, but as we’d experienced first-hand living at our friend’s apartment, there were plenty of days when there was not enough sun to achieve more than a lukewarm trickle. With winter temperatures in the 40s, I didn’t relish the idea of living without a reliable source of hot water. So we kept looking.
On the seventh floor of a nearby building we found an apartment with three tiny bedrooms and equally bad furniture but an amenity that seemed like it would make up for that and then some: private roof access. The roof wasn’t a deck, by any means, but by carefully walking around a bank of solar heaters, we could make our way to an open spot large enough to put a table, a few chairs, a grill, and maybe even an umbrella and some potted plants. We excitedly negotiated a rent we were comfortable with and were about to head back to the real estate office to sign the papers when we heard it: a large water pumping station in the middle of the courtyard had started up, and the thrum of the pipes reverberated up the building until, by the time it reached the seventh floor, it had been magnified into a loud whine so aggravating that within five minutes it had made us crazy.
Then, finally, we found something that seemed promising. The apartment was on Luofeng Jie, a small, curving street lined with small shops, restaurants, and fruit sellers just a couple blocks from Cui Hu, or “Green Lake,” park that we liked for its friendly feeling and the large wet-market. It had a large, open living room, two bedrooms, a closet exponentially larger than anything we’d ever seen before in China, and a kitchen that looked like it had just been renovated. The furniture was fairly minimal, but what there was was actually much more beautiful than we’d ever expected to find, and the entire apartment had been decorated with dark carved-wood screens and light fixtures styled like ancient lanterns. One wall of the living room even boasted an intricate carved mural depicting a village scene. The only problem: the apartment turned out to be more expensive than the broker had thought and just outside of the budget we’d agreed to. But the agent seemed confident that the landlord would come down in price, so we began negotiating. We offered the landlord, or at least the woman who said she was the landlord’s agent, the price we had originally discussed with the broker. She said no. We raised our offer by a couple hundred kuai. She wouldn’t budge. The broker got into it with her. “The apartment has been empty for more than a year!” he argued. “There are other apartments this same size nearby for much cheaper.” The landlord’s agent wasn’t swayed. “If I have to, I’ll wait until next semester to rent,” she said. “There are lots of universities around.” I tried pointing out to her that by waiting even one month she’d lose more money than if she just gave us the discount we were initially looking for, but she wasn’t swayed. Josh and I walked away, feeling defeated, and mulled over our choices. Based on what we’d seen, good apartments were going to be harder to find than we’d initially thought, and since we both needed to work from home, settling for something without good light or near a construction site was not really an option. Also, the amount of time and money we’d spent taking cabs into the center of the city and looking at apartments was starting to add up. If we continued to look, the process would only get more expensive, and we couldn’t guarantee that we’d find something we liked for exactly the price we were hoping. Finally, I began to wonder whether it was actually monetary concerns or simply pride that was keeping us from paying the price the landlord was asking for. After all, converted into US dollars, we were arguing over a difference of only $70 per month. So we came up with a new plan. We told the landlord that if she would put in a washing machine and supply new mattresses, we would come up to her asking price. Finally, she agreed.
Of course, nothing is easy in China, and in the end it took more than a week after we’d signed the lease for the apartment to be ready for us—the hot water heater had to be replaced, the kitchen needed a new refrigerator, the television needed to be fixed. The woman who we’d negotiated with (who turned out to be the landlord’s mother) met us there every afternoon for nearly a week, bringing handymen and new equipment in. But by June 10th we’d moved all of our stuff and our cats into our new place, and discovered some hidden perks. A Buddhist temple just under our kitchen window hosted meditations twice a day, and the sounds of chanting and cymbals floated up to us every morning and afternoon. The restaurant across the street had some of the best food we’d found thus far in the city, and the girls who worked there were very happy to wrap it up for takeout. And at night the hotel across the street lit up with an array of gently glowing lights that shifted through an entire rainbow of colors and back again every few minutes. Well, we thought, sitting at our table the first night, watching the light show outside our window, it actually happened: we really live in China now.
Photos: Georgia Freedman (8); Josh Wand