You’re broadcasting a message to your Chinese friends with your apartment whether you know it or not. It’s a message that locals understand loud and clear, because many Chinese homeowners — especially the kind foreigners are most likely to rent from — use their apartments to send a message on purpose.
This was confirmed for us yet again by a Chinese friend of a friend who was over the other night for our mutual friend’s birthday party. The group was mostly foreigners. Someone mentioned how much he liked our apartment, especially some fancy shelving in one of the walls (like many so-called middle class Chinese, our landlady had played interior design with the place when she lived here, so there’s lots of conspicuous design elements around). Jessica said, “Yeah, I really like that, too, but I wish that some of the other things in this apartment weren’t quite so fancy.”
“Why?” he replied, “It looks nice!”
“Well, it’s just that some of these really fancy design elements give people a certain impression here, like we’re really really rich or something…”
But before Jessica could respond, a Chinese guy whom we had just met that night jumped in and said (emphasis mine), “Yes! When I walk into this apartment, my first thought is that the owner is really, really rich. And also well educated. I would think he or she is maybe a teacher, might know about art, or has relatives or friends that know about art and design.”
Jessica told him he was right, that our landlady is a teacher at one of the local universities. He said, “See? You can just tell by the design that this is the home of an educated person with lots of money.” He continued, “I would also guess that he or she is short,” and pointed out a number of the design elements that definitely don’t take height into consideration (in my 6’4″ opinion, nothing in China takes height into consideration! :) ). Jessica laughed at his observation because it’s true — our landlady probably barely clears 5′ tall in heels (though she towers over the landlady we had in Taiwan).
Chinese D.I.Y. Interior Decorating
This kind of interior decorating is a way for “middle class” Chinese to express their enhanced station in life — status symbols, essentially. It can range from the mildly (unintentionally) eccentric, to what you’d expect from a high school design student in terms of taste, to the extravagantly ostentatious (I’m thinking here of one apartment a foreign friend almost rented that had a raised, transparent, orange-lighted living room floor with a rock garden underneath — the son wanted to have goldfish in it but his mom made him compromise).
In the 80′s wearing a watch and leather-looking, non-”Liberation shoes” meant something (it used to be common for people to look down at your shoes after greeting you to gauge your status — that’s only happened to me once here), so did owning appliances like a T.V. or fridge. In the 90′s it was things like electric bikes, pampered pet dogs, and private cars. But as each status symbol becomes too common, people with money have to find new ways to distinguish themselves. Hanging out in ridiculously-priced $tarbucks, buying ridiculously-priced hand bags, and having an interior-decorated apartment shows you’re a step up with money to burn. These things are meant to send a message, but foreigners aren’t naturally tuned in to all of them, especially things like watches, ‘normal’ shoes, and an apartment that isn’t a white-washed concrete box.
Not Our Ideal
We didn’t choose or really even want this particular apartment, although it is really comfortable. Our friends found it for us while we were in Canada with our newborn baby in neonatal intensive care. It’s lower-average for the kind of apartments foreigners rent in Tianjin (our previous apartment made some of our foreign friends uncomfortable), but we weren’t about to tell our friends ‘no’ and ask them to go apartment hunting for us again while we were in Canada; they’d already done us a huge favour. We moved back to China as overwhelmed first-time parents with an infant; just getting here was a serious hassle and we weren’t about to pick up and move. The apartment wasn’t ideal but at the time we had more immediate concerns like how to get safe baby formula and worrying about the air pollution. Since we aren’t planning to settle down here, we decided we’d live in this comfortable, foreigner/’middle-class’ Chinese apartment for now.
When we first arrived in Tianjin, we wanted an “average” apartment. There’s a few reasons why that doesn’t make a lot of sense (“average” means less given the stark economic disparity between social classes, for example). Nonetheless, we wanted an apartment in which our Chinese friends would feel comfortable, one that they would feel is normal, one that wouldn’t scream “rich, privileged foreigners.” We arrived with this mentality and were more-or-less successful in finding that kind of place. (More about how that played out here, or at the link below.)
Honestly, that old apartment was ghetto — that’s the adjective the average North American would likely use to describe it, and they’d mean it literally. As far as physical facilities was concerned, it would have been in the worst downtown East Vancouver neighbourhood. (This comparison isn’t really fair, though, because while the building and apartment was physically at the standard of a North American inner-city ghetto, the neighbourhood and community was safe, friendly, and generally pleasant, unlike Vancouver’s drug-and-prostitution-infested, crime-riddled downtown eastside.) But our Chinese teachers felt comfortable in it. We knew it matched their own apartments because the buildings and rent were more or less the same; we’d done some surveying before we chose a place.
When we finally do pick a place to settle down in I don’t know yet how we’ll choose, since this time we have children and family concerns thrown into the equation that weren’t there in 2007. But I’ll definitely be aiming for something that doesn’t send quite the same message as our current place.
To read about how and why we originally lived in an “average” Chinese Tianjin city apartment, and how that played out, see: