And Then We Found An Apartment

A friend said this to me via email, “You know, you’re not selling Beijing to me. You really aren’t. To be fair I never had much of a desire to go there before, but now? Not at all.”

Okay, does this do it for you?

That’s not an overexposed shot, that’s the view from my desk. According to BeijingAir right now it’s “unhealthy” levels. Last night it was perfectly clear and rated “good”. It comes, it goes, and after a month of living here, it’s as much a part of our life as the weather. Is it sunny out? How’s the air?

I thought about leaving, came close to doing it, until I researched other cities in China (like Harbin in the north) and Beijing isn’t even the worst.  It’s not even in the top 10 for worst air quality.  I could go south, but then I’d be in areas where Cantonese is spoken on the street, not Mandarin.  It’s only six months.  It might cause me to have a cold longer or aggravate my allergies, but from everything I’ve read, spending six months here won’t do any permanent damage, even for small children.

So we decided to stay.

Why? I think I’m slowly becoming charmed by Beijing.  I like the idea of going somewhere unpopular but culturally important.  I feel like I’m on an adventure.  If nothing else, I’ll learn a lot.  Plus, we finally found an apartment.

I had no idea how unprepared I was to live with an almost 2-year old in a hotel room for a month.  He needs space!  Or at least warm weather.  If he doesn’t have either, he’s kind of a mess… bursting into tears when we put on his clothes, clinging to me, refusing to walk anywhere, just wanting to be at home, with mom, in bed.  So I did that.  It’s not his fault that I wanted to go to China, so I made myself as flexible and malleable to his desires as possible.  We snuggled.  I stayed in.  I sent Drew out for food and read books while Cole used my body as a jungle gym.  Slowly he’s been adjusting, but the biggest breakthrough came when we stepped into our new 2-bedroom apartment.  He can be naked.  He can run!  He can climb things!  He can have his cut-up bananas on the sofa and watch cartoons.  He can shove his toy cars under the couch and then throw my books off my desk.  There’s drawers for hiding mom’s shoes and full bathtub for mini-swims.  We’re back in business.

Granted, our apartment hunt took a long time, even if you let me play the “But I’ve got a toddler!” card (you are letting me play that, right?). I had a lot of people giving me advice, but the first thing you should know: I’m cheap.

I really don’t like the idea of paying an agent a month’s rent (or $1000) to find me an apartment I’ll be in for six months. Plus, landlords in China want a few months rent in advance for a year rental. For short term rentals, they often want the entire rent (all six months in our case), plus a month’s rent deposit.

Apartments are kind of expensive here. For us that means at least $1000 but realistically more like $1500. So that’s $9000 for rent, $1500 for the agent, and $1500 for the deposit. Oh and they want that in cash — in this case, all $12000 of it. Which means doing a wire transfer to a bank in China and withdrawing it here (not even sure how that would work) or trying to take out that money via ATM which at $300 withdrawal per day, it would take me 40 days just to get the money on hand (assuming I spent nothing else). I’m sure I could have worked it out if I had to but I wanted to avoid that. Second thing you should know: I’m stubborn.

Finally, Beijing is big. It’s about an hour cab ride from one end of the city to the other, and that’s not even all the way out to the suburbs like Shunyi.  I really hate the idea of being stuck somewhere lame, so I wanted to find the perfect place that’s close to everywhere, cheap and has flexible short term living arrangements.

To modify a popular expression in graphic design (cheap, good or fast): There are three things you can have in Beijing:

1. Cheap
2. Good location
3. Clean, nice apartment

Now, pick two.

Third thing about me: I can be obsessive.

So we started in Wangfujing (near the Forbidden City) and moved hotels every couple of days, checking out different areas, coming close to staying in Haidian (near the universities), then perhaps Xidan St. (nice apartment, but located in the middle of a mall), then near Sanlitun (too expensive) and finally Wangjing (Koreatown, a hike from downtown but cheap).

I was determined to find a place that met all three. I’m cheap, stubborn and obsessive. I failed, but I did get a month-long tour of Beijing, and I’m sort of pleased to say I know my way around the different districts pretty well now. (I can also find the silver lining in just about anything).

In the end we went for the big, clean, nicely appointed apartment in Wangjing, in an area that fits us well (mostly locals living here, an art scene at 798 Art Zone and a great market next door) but we’re about a $10 cab ride from any of the tourist-related activities, a concession since I’d still like to visit the old Hutongs more and take some cooking classes, but one I felt the best about making.

It’s a serviced apartment, so we’re renting month to month. It’s still pricey ($1500/mo) but if you factor in agent fees and deposits, then it’s not bad compared to straight rentals for short term leases. (Sorry I won’t share the name of the place until after we leave, but you can find similar places online).

Resources:

Timeout Beijing has an excellent housing guide which is pretty damn accurate about the pros/cons of different areas. Their color-coded map of Beijing is practically a guide to everywhere we looked: here’s the map.  The Beijinger is a good resource, but chock-a-block full of scammy listings where the photo isn’t real or the agent does a swap (“Oh that place *just* got rented, but here’s a twice as expensive option”).  Craigslist, Homeaway and Roomarama weren’t helpful.  For agented rentals there are these sites: Beijing RelocationFangeasyHomelink. Ctrip and Agoda are good for finding hotels, although check both, sometimes the price is cheaper on one or the other.  They also list serviced apartments or hotel rooms with kitchens or multiple bedrooms.  Student and Beijing resident Nate Nault recently wrote about his experience “Finding My First Apartment Abroad” and Timeout Beijing also has a round up this month called Apartment Horror Stories.  For any of the listing sites, using the map feature will help you pinpoint where you’re looking until you start getting a hang of neighborhood names (the same area might be called a few different names depending on the site).

And that, my friends is how I found my Beijing apartment.  I’m going to take a nap now.

33 Comments

  1. nice to hear that christine! for a city relatively close to beijing with better air quality, i actually recommend changchun in the northeast, but it is probably too cold to be there at the moment. see if you find it interesting later in spring :)

  2. I’m really glad that you finally found a place that all of you can enjoy.

    By the way, what’s Drew’s opinion of Beijing? If momma’s happy (and Cole) everyone’s happy?

    I appreciate your honesty about the negatives as well as the positives…that makes for a more realistic travel experience. :)

  3. I think it’s a good thing to be stubborn if you know it.
    I was thinking of you this late days as I try to plan 1 months in Japan with a baby (she will be 9 months) and I want to rent a flat. I was wondering how you do to find rent. Do you always wait to be there ? If ou have any tips, I’ll be glad to read them.

  4. That sounds absolutely awesome. What a great way to learn your way around the city. Cole looks like he’s happy!!

  5. christine, the hubby and i always enjoy your posts! it tickles me when i hear myself talking on a first-name basis about a family i’ve never met living on the other side of the world. one thing i keep wondering — china seems to have you on the defensive a lot with family and friends. do you think that’s because we as americans have been so … uh, shall i use the word brainwashed?? — in regard to big bad communist china?

    • I wouldn’t say brainwashed as much as people just don’t know. We (americans? westerners?) don’t know China as well as we know other parts of the world. I could have had the same problems in say, Naples, Italy, but people can picture Italy, they can understand that it’s different but not a disaster and that we’ll be okay.

      A lot of time I’m writing to be funny, I’m laughing at it, I’m not putting it in the best light, I’m just letting it all hang out — TRUST ME, this is not the best way to manage the expectations of your family back home. You’re supposed to say, “Everything is wonderful, thanks for asking!” not post pictures online of dingy smogscapes. So yeah, I invite the questions. And I do appreciate the concern! There’s nothing like moving to China to find out how many people are worried about you and your baby (well mostly for the baby).

    • nah not brainwashed. if people want to, we can actually get information about what is going on in china whereas there own citizens dont. most dont even know that there internet is censored, including teenagers/young adults. i’ve showed friends pictures from the tiananmen square incident with the guy in front of the tank and my friend was like, “what is that? some parade?” haha

      the news they receive also makes a lot of them dont like Americans. 4 separate occasions i have had people come up to me and say, “i used to like america. but now i hate it.” i was like, derp thanks?

      it is scary tho because a lot of people over there will take their interactions with foreigners as ‘foreign affairs’ and ‘diplomatic relations’. i remember one time in a shanghai there were fighter jets doing maneuvers, i asked what they were doing, was there a base near shanghai, and i could not get one single person to acknowledge that there were even jets in the sky. insanely loud, would wake me up at night, and during the day i’d point and people would respond without looking up “what jets? there are no jets”

      definitely is a different world over there… but i guess that’s what makes it fun

  6. I was wondering about the health risks of all that smog! Good to know there shouldn’t be any long-term effects from only 6 months of exposure. I can only imagine what local lungs look like, though. =/

  7. I think it would be cool to learn Cantonese but then, I like to be contrary! I heard they are not even teaching Cantonese in Hong Kong schools any more, just Mandarin and English. It’s cultural subjugation.

    • I’m curious to see what happens. While Mandarin is the official language, it doesn’t seem to be stopping people from speaking Cantonese (or other dialects). Kids aren’t taught it in school but they all speak it. Maybe they are making a generation of bilinguals.

  8. Hooray for an apartment! I’m so happy you’re starting to feel some Beijing love. I have a love/hate relationship with China, but I still plan to spend time there this year.
    I admire you for staying in Beijing for 6 months. I’m not sure I could do it. The air quality makes it hard for me to breathe at times. I guess that is why I love Xi’an so much. The air is a bit better there.
    I was going to Beijing in August, but I’m tempted to come in May as well. Is it bad that I’ve already started my shopping list? LOL

  9. Congrats on finding an apartment. If you get to a point where you can no longer tolerate Beijing, but still wish to work on your Mandarin, might I suggest Taiwan?

  10. I think we all feel like a nap after following your Beijing adventure so far. Enjoy yours! So glad you found something that works.

  11. Tina Wichmann

    Christine-

    The three cities which are considered to be the best for air quality are: Dalian, Qingdao, and Xiamen (we use to live there) and they all speak Mandarin.

    Give China a chance, it’s not your typical Asian country, as there is a lot of history, and with this, the customs that go with it.

    Hang in there!

    • I looked up those cities in my research and I thought they spoke a different dialect in those places than Standard Mandarin. In Dalian, it’s Jiaoliao Mandarin, in Qingdao, it’s Qingdao dialect and in Xiamen, it’s Amoy. Granted everyone speaks Mandarin also, but that’s what I like about Beijing, what you hear on the streets is always standard Mandarin (with the Beijing accent).

      • Oh I wanted to add: THANK YOU. Because while I won’t necessarily move from Beijing to one of these cities (I think we’re staying put for now), someone else planning their trip and reading this might be interested in an alternative to Beijing. Cheers!

      • I think Tina’s just trying to state that Mandarin is the standard language spoken on the streets pretty much everywhere within China – the older generation that spoke the local dialect as their primary language are few are far between, and even with our limited Mandarin we had no problems anywhere we travelled within the mainland. When we first moved to Xiamen we did worry about the fact that most sites mentioned that they spoke a different dialect, but with the amount of movement of people within China the previous 20+ years have pretty much driven everyone to use the common Mandarin. In Xiamen their original language is Minnanhua which is the same as what was spoken in Taiwan, but it is something that you rarely hear on the street…

        Wish you a lot of luck with getting the language down, it seems a lot more intimidating then it really is – that first hump of learning may be a struggle, but once over that you’ll be speaking to your neighbors in no time, and we found that in general everyone loves to help out when they know that you are serious about learning…

      • actually you’ll be surprised to find out that no one speaks standard mandarin, not even in Beijing! Beijing is just the one that is considered the closest, but the standard mandarin that was established to teach students/foreigners is technically not used by anyone 😛

        you’ll find out after studying for about a year that you can understand chinese perfectly when spoken by teachers but every single city/region has its own dialect that influences the mandarin they speak, even in Beijing 😉

  12. mengmeng

    beijing can be really harsh in winter and it is too big to tour around…and it is a place where you have to pick 2 out of 3. once i had a friend (who’s a ‘foreigner’ himself)said only the abnormal foreigner (laowai) survives in China. he’s true in a way that everything here looks the same, mcdonalds, starbucks, ikea…however it all played different rules from that of he rest of the world. i think that’s the issue, the seemingly-alike and the difference underneath. hope you will enjoy the rest of the time in Beijing with the family. for what’s worth, it can only make you stronger:) stay warm stay tough! xin nian hao!

  13. I’m so glad you found an apartment — a steady place to rest your head, so to speak. It’s the silver lining (in the clouds amongst Beijing smog!) and I think you son will learn such bravery and openness from you. That’s what we hope for our son too, while we tour the US with my husband’s show. Check out our blog – we just started and would love to know what you think!

  14. I envy you for being able to spend that much time in Beijing. I was there four years ago for about a week and wished I could have stayed longer, and delved deeper, but it wasn’t possible. A great place we went to was Lijang, an incredible old city down south outside of which you’ll find the Naxi minority, the only matriarchal society left in the world. It’s really fascinating place — and beautiful. They are very kind people.

  15. WOW! That’s so intense! I don’t think i could drag myself to Chine ever, either! Expensive and poor air! At the same time it makes me grateful to be living right by the beach with fresh air 24/7.

    Great post & great blog! Just came across it and so glad I did!!!

    Sending you and your family many wonderful thoughts!
    -Molly

  16. The air quality in China has been killing me too. But it has gotten better since making it to Yunnan.

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