This new place is great. I just spent a beautiful afternoon sitting on a bench along the canal surrounded by green trees and flowers studying Chinese and watching people. I didn’t even have to seek out people to practice on; if you sit here, they will come. Old people, young people, toddlers in “chiney-hineys” (I hope that’s not an offensive term… pictures coming soon!) – everyone’s out for walks or naps in the park, and that bench is less than a minute from our gate. This new apartment is a bit of work on the inside, but we’re so glad we found it.
Several weeks ago we first went to look for apartments and had a friend help us out. He showed us a neighbourhood rental agent that he’d used before, and they took us to what we thought was the perfect apartment. It was old, cheap, in a run-down neighbourhood full of people that one of our Chinese friends called “Old Hundred Names” – the common people. It was totally livable, a great deal, and had a nice community feel to the neighbourhood with large inner courtyards with dirt/grass and trees where kids play, people hang laundry, and old people do their tai-chi. Basically exactly what we wanted. But when we returned about four hours later with friends to do some negotiating with the landlord, we met his messenger instead: “Yǒu shì.” He “has some matters” to take care of and couldn’t make it. We phoned back the next day, and were told that it had been rented. Our Chinese friends interpreted this as a situation where the landlord just doesn’t want to rent to foreigners. It’s too much “má fan” (hassle/trouble). We were disappointed. But we put off hunting because our Chinese was at the point where we were completely dependent on others for this, and we really didn’t want to be that kind of burden on our newly-made friends.
A few weeks later, armed with substantially more Chinglish (I hesitate to call what we speak “Mandarin”), we went out ourselves to different rental agents and looked at a bunch of apartments, two of which were in the same block as the first one, and one of which was in the same gate just two floors below. I asked the rental agent point blank if there were people in that first apartment, but he wouldn’t give a straight answer. I asked him two more times just to make sure since my Chinese is so bad. Still no straight answer. This didn’t bother us, though, because on this second trip things were different. The large neighborhood courtyards in which we’d envisioned a ready-made community on which to regularly inflict our Chinglish were crawling with migrant workers who were digging trenches, laying pipes, and uprooting the trees. The whole place was torn up! One of the landlords said that they were paving over the courtyards. I asked about the grass and said that we liked the trees. He said it would be paved. We were suddenly very grateful for that first landlord who didn’t want foreigners! We had no idea why anyone would choose concrete over grass and trees, so Jessica asked her teachers. Apparently a dirt courtyard reminds people of peasant life. Concrete has more status, or something like that.
That same day we found an apartment that, according to our teachers, is older and very average. We brought in reinforcements (a Chinese friend) to do the negotiating (that kind of Mandarin is WAY out of our league), and it all went smoothly. We moved in last weekend with the borrowed diàn dòng sān lún chē. We’re out of the overpriced and foreigner-filled (but very convenient for new people) apartment that we’d been placed in for one that’s almost half the price and better all around.
We want to be sensitive and intentional about our standard of living. In Taiwan we had zero language and were pressed for time to find a place. We ended up in a very comfortable place that was unfortunately rather high class. It was really nice, but most Taibei residents don’t live in places like that. Figuring out at what level to live at as a foreigner is complicated, and it gets compounded by the lack of language skills. With the information we have right now, this place is a little old and average for this district. Those are relative terms, and the change depending on how wide a circle of comparison you draw on the map. But we’re just glad to have a place that won’t seem embarrassingly posh to the kind of people we meet in the parks or on the buses, should they ever stop in for a visit.