How your Chinese apartment affects your relationships with locals

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.

First Impressions
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:

6 thoughts on “How your Chinese apartment affects your relationships with locals”

  1. I just found your blog – wish I’d found it a year ago – and I’m really enjoying it. Living in China comes with a long list of challenges and I have to say I admire your willingness to really submerge yourself. I’m not sure I could do it in the way you have, but then as you said, with children there are other considerations and complications to consider. It has been an invaluable help to me to read or listen to the challenges and perspectives of others who are trying to live this adventure. Thank you for adding your voice.

  2. I totally agree. the observations you’v made each day has put me into amazement and amusement, you posts has been a great help to me to see the conflicts and illogic behind my culture(yep, i’m chinese, and from TJ as well). I even ask question”why they would do that?” on daily basis. Still i appreciate the passion of your family to serve despite the external situations.

    In Him

  3. DY & Heather,

    Can’t believe I hadn’t replied to you guys – sorry! I hope this doesn’t come off like I’m trying to criticize Chinese culture, because that’s not what this is supposed to be about. There are conflicts and illogic in any culture… that’s part of what makes them interesting!

  4. Joel,
    I am loving your blog and can relate and agree with so much of what you are saying. We don’t don’t want to go to China and live as “the rich foreigner”, although I don’t know what living the “average” life really looks like. If we do get an “average” apartment, what will our neighbors and friends think… “You are rich American, why do you live here?” Will this hurt and help foster relationships? Then there is also the factor of being a parent of an infant: Is this safe? Then again, if we were really looking for “safe” we would stay in our middle class suburban neighborhood with all the modern medical care and amenities that are out there…

    Thanks for sharing

  5. @Tygrysek,

    Not sure if that question is meant for me or Robert, but I think our answers would be similar.

    It’s not about caring too much about what people will say (as in, will they think good or bad of me?). It’s about understanding and communication, and being aware of the signals you’re sending so you can, as Robert said, do better at building relationships.

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