Evicted. Twice

Wednesday night, 9 pm, two men come and knock on the door.  They are here to change the locks.  What? You haven’t paid the rent for the last two months.  What? Sure we did, here are the receipts.

To make a long story short, we had to evacuate.  Although the landlord admitted we had done nothing wrong, they wanted more money, and would not allow a moving truck to come on the property. We needed out, quietly, and soon. We checked into a hotel ASAP.

Over the next two days, we packed, hauled and unpacked approximately 50 big suitcases.  We were afraid security would be told to stop us, but they actually helped roll the luggage over the bridge.  Try and hail a cab when you have 8 humongous suitcases while waiting on the sidewalk.  Piece of cake, the cabdriver sees white people on the way to the airport and can see the dollar signs floating around us.  The Pudong Airport is an hour away, a nice little financial bonus for them.  But no, we are going ten minutes away, so they refuse the ride and leave us stranded.  Desperate, tired and mad, we resorted to the old trick of bribery: hailing a cab with money in our hands.  We paid 10 times the usual price.  Like I said, we were desperate. 

The whole move took 6 cab rides and the help of people (some in high places, it helps to know people!) who felt sorry for us and loaned us their friends and personal drivers with big SUV’s.  The Clampetts, 21st century style.

Try explaining to the hotel staff why you keep showing up with extremely heavy luggage, and leave a couple of hours later with the same luggage, empty.  But they helped.  And got tipped.  I do not however know what the housekeepers think of the state of our current room!


But I said we were evicted twice.  Because this is only chapter two of the “we will never rent again from a landlord in China” saga. 

I was not in Shanghai when it happened the first time in early December.  E. was here alone.  Once again, through no fault on our part, he was asked to leave the apartment.  The fact that we had a lease, a contract, a paper that usually is considered binding all over the world’s jurisdictions, here, was useless.  He was given less than 48 hours to vacate.  Fortunately, we had rented the apartment with the help of an agency, and they found us another apartment, though smaller, not as nicely furnished, and on a lower floor (what choice did we have?  Have you ever heard of being “shanghaied”?) and sent four women to move to another building in the same complex.

Our lease, we gather, was bought by another landlord.  And this explains why we were kicked at the curb the second time.  Like I said, we did nothing wrong, but the second landlord was unhappy with the terms of the buyout, and poof, we’re out.  Does this make sense to you?  To me, it doesn’t.

So here we are, having breakfast on the 44th floor of a nice hotel, looking at the dense smog covering the city, listening to a female Chinese singer’s version of HaHa’s “Take me on”.  Yesterday it was Serge Gainsbourg.  I am ok with that.

 

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Miss Dumpling and speaking Mandarin

I don’t speak any Chinese. My vocabulary consists of 5 spoken words (hello, thank you, small, big and tea) and 4 written characters (person, big, middle and small). I get along fine. I gesture a lot, point to what I want, and often have E. around, whose Mandarin, though not boardroom efficient yet, does very well for everyday life. I still regret not learning more Kannada. Not that it was necessary to function, but it demonstrates an interest in the people’s lives and culture. Hence, I have decided to learn some Mandarin (and yes, the 5-year old in me still giggles at the thought of a language named as a fruit!).

I will be bad at it, and I don’t care. The perfectionist in me will have to take the back seat (I understand Spanish but only speak it in emergency situations, which has been a total of twice in my adult life). I do not intend to make speeches but to understand, and be understood on the streets, in the shops. What worries me are the tones. There are three ways of pronouncing “ma”, one meaning “mother”, the other “horse”, and the last “to beat”. I barely hear the difference between the three and have found myself incapable of replicating them. I need to find someone who will explain them to me. Then I will learn vocabulary. I will probably remain illiterate, in the sense that I won’t read the characters, but that’s ok. I don’t plan on writing Mandarin, but converse with random people.

What motivates all this? A cat of course. Her name is Dumpling. She’s a little tabby that lives on our block, between the fancy hair salon and the pet store. Smart kitty! She now trots towards us when she sees us and eats out of our hand. And she meows the cutest meow. We feed her treats that we buy at that pet store. They are not exactly cheap but it puts us in good graces with the store owners (though we started buying some at Carrefour, the French supermarket in town, when I realized we were feeding the stray cats about $4 of kitty candy a day!). But the strays on our block are not starving. Lots of people feed them. If you take a stroll around 6pm, you will meet two ladies on a bicycle leaving little plastic containers of rice and “human food” under the bushes. We, foreigners, get treats instead. It’s yummier, and it’s a way to entice the cats to come closer to us.

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Dumpling and her friends

Lots of people stop when they see us play with the cats. They are usually older people, perhaps on their nightly constitutional. If they stop, smile and stare, I put a couple of morsels in their hand and gesture towards Dumpling, who comes and eats out of their hands. That always makes them giggle. There is this older woman, with no teeth, who laughs her head off when the cat licks her fingers. These are what I have called the one-minute friendships, and I would like to expand my vocabulary to make those into 3-minute friendships, learn their name, where they come from, about their family. It is those people I want to engage in conversation.

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Miss Dumpling hiding from the rain

And Mister Hubby is looking into making Dumpling an inside cat.

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Gimme a treat

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A primer in Chinese renters’ rights

Unlike many new comers to Shanghai, we did not have a problem back in July finding an apartment (money helps). What we have had is a problem holding onto the said apartment (money doesn’t help). We got “evicted” a couple of days ago, with a 48-hours notice to vacate. When you are given two days to move out of your apartment, find another, and move your belongings into the new one, in a foreign country, you freak out, you get mad, you threaten behaviors that could send you to jail in either country. Then you calm down, handle the situation like a mature adult, and later call your wife, who’s warm and cozy preparing for Christmas at home in Texas, to tell her what happened to you in the last few hours.

To add a little bit of spice to the situation, let me recap the last five days. E. flew into Shanghai on Tuesday. Before takeoff, he had the pleasure of waiting in the plane on the tarmac in San Francisco for three hours (the airline said it was mechanical. E. believes they were waiting for another plane to fill the first one). He gets to the apartment after a 12-hour flight (+ 3 hours of waiting = 15 hours on the plane), late in the evening, and there is no power. Nothing. It’s not just the heat that is not working, it is zero electricity. Why? In our apartment building, the electric bill is prepaid. Did we not pay enough? Did we underestimate the amount of units required? Did the refrigerator, which was the only appliance still on while he was gone, eat up all our units? Was there a problem with the fuse box?  Where is the fuse box? It’s night in China and nobody can help my buddy. Luckily we haul enough blankets around the world, and he has socks and sweatpants and sweatshirts with hoodies to survive the night. It’s not Beijing therefore it is not below freezing. It is, at night, around 40°F/5°C. In other words, it’s livable. The next morning he is being told that since he did not pay the bill, which he had been told was prepaid, his power was cut off.  A paper bill, of course, was never found in the mailbox.  With the help of his colleague (since we do not have a Chinese bank account yet) they paid the bill. We owe Kevin $12.00. All is good. For a few hours.

I cannot even go into details over the situation because I do not know them, nor understand them.  From what I can gather: ONE – The landlord puts their property for rent through an agency.  TWO – Back in the summer, we hire the agency to help us look for an apartment and sign all the paperwork.  THREE – The landlord is unhappy with the agency and fires them. FOUR – Trickle-down effect, we are “fired” too.

That’s how it works.

No matter what the landlord thinks of the agency, we had to rehire them. They told E. at first not to worry because they had about 20 vacant units in the same apartment complex and would be available the next morning to help him visit them. Overnight, the Chinese magician made 19 of those units disappear. He had a choice between one apartment in the same complex or another one in an area a few blocks away in a dull neighborhood. So, I got to visit the one apartment through WeChat Video, and helped decide between one choice and the same choice. In a sense we were lucky.  The agency sent five guys  for free, in an hour the old apartment was completely packed, and within two hours everything had been moved into the new apartment. Efficient. Again, here comes the amazing pleasure of having to unpack everything. The second time within a month.

Now, instead of having a view on traditional Chinese dwellings on one side, and on skyscrapers from the other window, we have view on a nice commercial street and the Fen-Shui pond in the complex. We have also dropped from the 16th floor to the 7th, and I am a bit concerned about the noise at night on the weekends. I will be there in a few days, and I will make sure to bring my noise canceling headphones!

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View from the old apartment during a storm

I do not claim to understand anything about Chinese real estate law, or renters’ rights, if there are any. What I do understand is that what happened to us is legal, yet unusual.  Renters are usually given a few weeks notice. We were not afforded that privilege.

My husband now says that our next step is to buy a condo in Shanghai. Owning real estate in China has never been, nor really is, on my bucket list.

What happened to the goood old Communist creed that landowners are evil?!

 

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Buying an ugly cat

It’s a teapot, not a real cat. An ugly teapot. The kitschiest, nastiest thing on earth. It’s filthy, still has the tea ring inside proving it was once used as intended, and has a perpetual frown due to being hand painted by someone probably in the mist of a hiccups crisis. Otherwise it is in great condition, not a scratch, not a nick. We found it at a flea market in Beijing, more specifically the Panjiayuan Antiques Market, also called the Dirty Market. I had read about it in a travel book, and we rode the scooter to get there. Actually no; the first day we took an Uber cab, who couldn’t find where to pick us up, nor could it find the market, and we reached 30 minutes before closing time, which meant that most stalls were empty. The next day we took the scooter, under a light misty rain. Most stuff there is about as antique as me (no comments there!) and it’s not dirty at all. It might have been decades ago, or maybe they refer to the dirty tactics. In any case, we loved it. And we love that nasty cat!

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Meow

We are mastering the art of the one-minute friend: make contact with a random stranger, preferably a merchant, or a family with a tiny kid, and “talk” to them. Since my Chinese is non-existent, that makes for interesting conversations, but the main point is that we both are trying to connect as humans. I tickle the babies, I make faces, I make a fool of myself.  It works. I have yet to be thrown out, or spit at, or any nasty thing. I am still not very good at haggling. I still hate it and I know I am being rooked at every corner. I actually paid more for a hairpin at this market than at the tourist store downtown. Frown. But I made a minute friend, and that is priceless (or so I try to convince myself!). My mother was a stamp collector. Like everything she did, it was splendid. Her collection spans at least 150 years. So, when I found a raggedy plastic binder full of stamps arranged in a willy nilly fashion, I bought it. The haggling went something like this:

Old lady: Ah, yes, stamps, good. Many. Look. Ah.

Me: Yes, what price.

She gets her calculator out and types 350. I take the calculator, press the “C” key several times and type 200. She takes the calculator back. 300. 220. Shakes her head. 280. At this point I am already bored, but I want to win the game. 279. She looks at the number and bursts into laughter, opines, and laughs some more. You can hear she’s telling all her friends around about the foreigner’s tactic. The funniest thing she’s heard this week, haggling for a measly yuan, about 15 cents. I give her 300, she gives me back my change: 21 yuan. Uunlike India, they do have change here. And we both leave happy. This morning I took a detailed look at those stamps and I am proud to say that I believe I got an incredible deal. Most of the stamps are Chinese, or other communist countries such as the USSR, Cuba, Vietnam, and some African countries which political regimes I need to check.  Many are first editions in excellent condition. E. bought, and haggled over, Mao’s Little Red Book.  Viva El Capitalismo, Chinese style!

In the meanwhile, our big one decided to express her discontent at being left in the house by tearing our rug apart.  That’s ok, it’s just a rug.

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A home in Shanghai

For years now, E. has been telling me about “the magic of Shanghai”.  So we came here, and I saw… a city.  A nice city, modern and shiny, but just a city.  Magic is a subjective concept.

Fast forward a few years, and we are now moving to Shanghai.  The last few days have been a house hunting trip, and an attempt to gauge our new home.  We visited dozens of apartments, walked miles and miles in scorching heat and humidity levels that have, for the first time in my life (and mind you we live in Houston) turned my hair into a gigantic poodle!  I have stepped in garbage, smelled back alleys that make me miss the horrid smells of India, had people spit in front of me, I have had water from old air conditioning units fall on my head (or was is a bird?), I have had “chicken water” thrown at my feet (don’t ask, there is also “fish water”), I have thrown a temper tantrum worthy of a 5-year-old.  And yet I have fallen in love. 

It’s not India.  My connection with India is an unconditional bond with its people, its land.  Shanghai love is city love.

E. had a few tricks up his sleeve to get me to like it here. Our hotel is a skyscraper, nothing that original in this city, and our room is on the 51st floor. The city goes as far as the eye can see.  Shanghai doesn’t have a skyline: Shanghai is a skyline.  360 degrees of skyscrapers all the way to the horizon, and beyond.  It’s rather monochrome, grey and light beige, with a surprising high number of patches of green which are small parks.  If you’re afraid of heights, stay home.


Then he introduced me to some amazing people.  I had the privilege to meet two men, one American and one Australian, who have seen China pull itself from the Cultural Revolution to the economic mammoth it is today.  They have witnessed one of the fastest social turnaround in history.  And they are men of my generation, not old grandfathers telling stories about “when I was a young lad…”.  It makes history fun, alive.  And it reminded me that I need to brush up on my Chinese history.  The difference between the Ming dynasty and the Tang dynasty?  I will get back to you on this one one in a few weeks!

The apartments we visited were much nicer than I expected (granted the price tag can make anyone choke).  I had been told the homes were tiny, but what we found is very reasonable.  I never got the feeling of revulsion that I did a couple of times when we were house hunting in Bangalore.  At the end of the day, there were 2 units we liked.  One is a normal apartment in a local neighborhood, the other is a superb apartment in Pudong, in an expat compound, in a high end residential area, with an artificial beach resort (yes!) and a magnificent view on the Huangpu river and the Bund, Shanghai’s version of Nice’s Promenade des Anglais.  After a lot of soul searching (don’t we “deserve” this kind of luxury at this point in our lives?), we opted for the first one, in a very quaint neighborhood.  We have already made the mistake of living far from the city center when we were in Bangalore, we learned our lesson.  We went back to our future new place yesterday to get a better feel for it.  I bought Band-Aids at the pharmacy by showing my booboo, we got a foot massage where E.  fell asleep, had lunch in a New Zealand café, and discovered an Indian restaurant.  All of this within walking distance of our new home.  We made friends with two stray kittens.  That’s always a good omen.

And the cherry on top of the cake: night drinks at the Hyatt with one of the best city views in the world. 

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China, you’re growing on me.

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The puppies. A (sad) update.

Facebook was kind enough to remind me of what happened a year ago. It posted the first picture of Jadoo, our puppy. A year ago, that adorable fleabag entered our lives by wagging its little tail. A few days later, on my birthday, he got his sister to play with. We took such good care of those puppies, brought them to the vet, got them vaccinated, took Puppy Girl to get casts on her front legs that were as brittle as twigs. We fed them. We played with them.  We ran with them.  We loved them. And we know they loved us back. We left them in the care of wonderful caring people.

But we forgot about how the hierarchy of power and frustration works in India. If something bad happens to you, blame someone, someone lower on the totem pole of power. There is always someone lower than you. If you can’t find a human, blame a dog.

Our puppies lived in the clubhouse of our compound. They had several acres to run around in. The clubhouse was (seldom) used for parties, and they taught swimming at the pool. When the rich kids figured out how cute and friendly the puppies were, they renamed them (Jadoo become Leonard, whatever!), brought them treats… We reminded the kids to reassure their parents that the dogs were vaccinated, there was nothing to worry about in that respect.

Then we left. Heartbroken. But we had to.

A few months later, while visiting the Smithsonian in DC, I read a text from India, sat down, and cried. The puppies were blamed for being dogs. And removed from the premises. Lost. Stolen. Dumped.  Maybe killed.

An old auntie walking her obese dog suited for the Arctic fell in front of the clubhouse. She claims blah blah blah. I have no interest in the story. She does not know how to walk her dog. She fell. She’s humiliated. She gets someone to share her pain with: she had the dogs removed. Radha and Jiothi pleaded to keep them, to keep them on the leash, but one morning, the dogs were gone.

When I went back in November, I contacted several people, nobody knows anything. Nobody wants to know.  I had a plan to get them a safe home.  But no one helped. 

But the irony, what makes me even more mad at that woman, at the system, at everything, is that two puppies were brought in to make up for those “vicious” dogs that were deemed responsible for that woman’s loss of balance.

And they have no shots whatsoever.

Sometimes, India, I don’t like you at all.

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My hubby got a shot

No, my husband did not get shot.  He got a shot.  By a doctor.  A Chinese doctor.  In China.  Because apparently we have a thing for visiting medical facilities in emerging countries.  Not as visitors, but as patients.  That’s what we do, and we do it well.  And often.

E. got a booboo on his arm a few weeks back while in Houston. Muscle tear or tennis elbow. Or bone cancer if you believe WebMD.  It got from bad to worse and his pain was becoming so intense that it was turning him into a person I do not like.  He probably didn’t like himself much either.

We do not have Sathya, our beloved trusted advisor, to guide us through the medical world of Beijing.  We have the Internet.  And Mr. Tony, one of the managers of the apartment complex where we stay.  He wrote in Chinese characters the name of a hospital close by where the staff speaks English, and, as a bonus, is open 24/7.

I did not take details notes as I had after E.’s first Vespa accident (note the “first”, as there were several!) but all went very smoothly. The nurses wore paper face masks and were dressed in white with lavender cardigans.  E. got a shot of steroids I think (“you would not have liked it” he said leaving the room) and after paying about $40, we left with a baggie of medicines and cream.

The western medicine doctor, a young man from South West China (“close to Tibet” he said) suggested acupuncture as an additional form of treatment.  I like the seamless combination of all forms of healing that you find outside the Western world.

This afternoon, my husband will get to be a pin cushion!

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