The Landlord and I
In daily life in China I am constantly reminded that, no matter how long I’ve lived here or how diligently I study the language, I am in China’s house, and the house always wins. I’m also reminded of this in my interactions with the locals. By far the most frustrating and masochistic relationship I endure in China is that with my landlord.
She disliked me and my roommate from the start. First she refused to rent to us, then refused to negotiate on the price or necessary repairs prior to us moving in. Plus, we had made the rookie mistake of tipping our hand—she knew we wanted the house badly, and therefore called the shots. She had stated from the start: foreigners are messy and loud and she wanted no part of it. Looking around at the dimly-lit kitchens belonging to our neighbors, meat hanging from the windows, walls crawling with cockroaches, it was hard to imagine what mess we could possibly contribute. We finally settled on a deal. She would continue to hate us but would rent us the house as-is, filthy, in desperate need of repairs, and without a single piece of furniture inside.
My roommate and I signed up for this huge undertaking simply because we had so naively fallen in love with the house. It was an old lane building with antique-looking windows and wood floors—exactly the kind of hidden treasure that foreigners seek out and the locals want to demolish. It was drafty, crumbling, impossible to keep in working order, and completely charming. The repairs needed were constant. Frozen pipes, scorched fuses, broken toilets, and peeling walls were all things that I grew accustomed to encounter at least once a week. There was a silent understanding that whatever help we needed, our landlord would most certainly not provide.
The only other source of inconsistent, unreliable help in our arsenal was our real estate agent. I tap danced between the two women, thinking that surely if I got on one of their good sides, the other would soon follow. Phone calls placed to either woman only resulted in being told, “Why are you calling me? Call her.” After months of asking nicely and speaking to them only in a high-pitched friendly voice, I finally got wise to the Chinese way of doing things and bought the real estate lady a gift. I had her attention at last. She promptly placed a phone call to the landlord to help me get reimbursed for some repairs I had paid for myself. Not yet being used to the very blunt manner in which Chinese people will often address one another, I was appalled to hear my real estate lady screaming at the landlord over the phone: “How are you so dumb? As you get older you just get more and more stupid!” The shouting continued for several minutes until apparently an agreement was reached. Hanging up the phone, the real estate lady once again lowered her voice to speak with me, “Ah, that landlord is so cute. Really adorable.”
As years went on the landlord grew to like me. She even made a trip to the house to help with repairs and, seeing what we had done with the place, seemed grateful for the serious upgrade. I felt secure in our relationship and no longer feared that she would evict me on a whim. Recently, when the power went out in our house, I felt confident that I could call the landlord and have her bring her trusted repairman back around. When I told her of our predicament, she burst out laughing. When her laughter subsided, I asked again what she thought we should do. “Yeah…” she replied, “I can’t help you with that. Call the real estate lady.”