The Best Decisions We Ever Made in China (#1): ditching the laowai ghetto

Aside from personal motivations, character, attitude, and general posture toward China and Chinese people, this is the one decision that enhanced our China experience more than any other single thing we did during our first two years in China: we moved out of the foreigner ghetto and into the most average-looking Chinese neighbourhood we could find.

(If what follows starts to sound culturally patronizing, just hold on… I saved that part for the end.)

Welcome to China! the Foreign Bubble

When we first arrived in China with next-to-no Mandarin or knowledge of our city, the organization that helped arrange our visas and school placement also arranged our apartment: we had a prearranged flat in a complex occupied entirely by foreigners where the manager had good English (back in the day this was the only place foreigners were allowed to live in Tianjin). It was super convenient, especially for China newbies who are usually high-maintenance. From the standpoint of an organization facilitating foreigners’ language school placement it was ideal. But for foreigners interested in China and Chinese, it sucked.

Ditching the Laowai Ghetto: hunting apartments armed with Chinglish

We’d come to China to study language and culture, and we’d decided before we even arrived that we’d be moving out of “洋人街” ASAP. It was inconvenient for language practice, and besides, going to a foreign country and living unnecessarily isolated from your new city’s regular people seemed really lame. So after about two months of classes we took a vocabulary list of apartment words, a map, and went and squinted at the scrawled 汉字 on the papers tacked to boards outside the little first-floor rental agencies tucked away in the surrounding neighbourhoods.

We knew what we wanted: an average neighbourhood (“average” as defined by locals, not foreigners) with a lot of outdoor community life and an apartment we could tolerate and that our neighbours, teachers, and local friends wouldn’t feel strange in. Surely, we thought, that isn’t too much to ask. Foreigners from one of the international schools told us we wouldn’t find “anything” (read: “livable”) for twice the price of what we eventually paid (also twice the price of what they said was the average Tianjin salary). We went with what our teachers told us instead, quickly realizing that foreigners can spend years in China and still know next-to-nothing about it.

Of course it was awkward pointing at a circle on a map and mispronouncing vocab words to rental agents who had maybe never talked face-to-face with a foreigner in their lives, but we managed to have three apartments shown to us. I wanted the first one, but the landlord balked when he discovered we were foreigners (that’s when we learned what “他有事” really means). The third location was perfect — better than we’d hoped. We incurred some 关系 debt because we had to ask a local friend (the boyfriend of a fellow foreigner) for a big favour to come with us to the contract negotiation and signing. It went smoothly, so we borrowed an electric 三轮车 and moved in.

The Benefits: people, people, people

Rather than bring local Tianjiners into our cultural space, we wanted to meet them in their own world where they were more comfortable. The single biggest benefit that living in this kind of neighbourhood gave us was exponentially increasing our daily opportunities for interaction with average, mainstream locals more on their turf than ours. We couldn’t come or go without speaking to someone, and usually more than one. The old boys club that hung out on the bike repair corner regularly included me in their Chinese chess, outdoor meals, and teasing. Families would invite us into their homes on the various big holidays. The only person we met in that neighbourhood in two years who had any amount of English — besides one charming but mentally handicapped man who would yell “I love you!” at us — was a university student three floors down who became a language exchange partner. It was a laid back but crowded, active community where language practice opportunities with everyone from laid-off factory workers to university professors were immediately available in excess of what we could handle. Those neighbours taught us more about China and made China more interesting, alive, and lovable to us than any books or classes ever could. Even on the worst days, we never regretted our decision to live there.

A few months after moving in our teachers, in their more candid moments, would sometimes confess that they felt extra awkward and distanced when visiting their foreign friends’ apartments for two big reasons. First, the furniture, decor, food, and even the way they were received as guests all felt foreign. Second, although the foreigners were taking a step down in living standards, to the Chinese their apartments just screamed wealth and economic privilege. In addition to the unavoidable language and cultural barriers, these foreigners, through their lifestyle choices, were emphasizing another gulf of distance between themselves and local Chinese: economic disparity.

The Downside: our economic elitism

The economic privilege in which most of us were raised (speaking globally here) gets us in two big ways. The first is largely practical, physical, external. The second is intensely personal.

Physical Annoyances & Inconveniences
My mother would be appalled if she saw that apartment. The whitewash was peeling and rubbed off on your clothes. The kitchen was the size of a closet. The toilet was in the shower and the exposed plumbing both precarious and temperamental. The sewer gas that came up the drains in the evenings smelled so bad it woke us up at night until we devised an overly complicated water-bottle-in-a-plastic-bag-hung-from-a-nail method for mostly-sealing the bathroom drain (plumbers don’t do U-bends in Tianjin). The windows let all the coal dust in and the layout of the place didn’t make sense to us. The electricity often shorted out and we had long extension cords running everywhere. There was only enough hot water in the winter for fast showers. I wore a toque to bed the week before they turned on the heat. In the words of younger versions of my little sisters: it was totally ghetto. But we would choose to live there again, no question. It was totally worth it. That apartment was slightly better or slightly worse than those of our neighbours, depending on the neighbours, and close enough to what they knew that our Chinese friends and neighbours felt much less awkward when they visited than they might have otherwise. I mention these things to give fair warning: if you aim to move into an average Chinese neighbourhood chances are you’ll be getting an average Chinese apartment. Count the cost, because not all foreigners are willing to pay it. Also, the neighbourhood and apartment described here, while unremarkable for that district of Tianjin, is still probably well above average for most places in China.

Uncomfortable Personal Discoveries
(Warning: confession/soap box/rant/sermon ahead.)
Whether it’s right or not, what’s a huge step down in living standards for the average foreigner is normal for the average Mainlander. If that embarrassing, awkward and unfair economic truth makes you feel uncomfortable and maybe even vaguely guilty, I promise I know how you feel, but I don’t apologize for bringing it up. That’s what we get for being the economically elite six percent of an otherwise much-less-privileged world. Keeping the hoi polloi at a distance so that we’re less poignantly reminded of this stark economic reality and our consciences are less likely to be called out does not make it any less real — but living in an average urban Chinese neighbourhood makes it harder to avoid.

If you’re a thinking, reflective person at all then living significantly below the comforts you’re accustomed to brings special challenges. Basically, you begin to discover how much of a pampered, manicured, whiny, elitist snob you are who has tragically confused unwarranted privileges with basic entitlements. When you get genuinely frustrated and upset about how sub-standard everything is, then you can enjoy the guilt that comes with realizing that you can’t handle what’s more than good enough for most of the world; for thinking that living more like the majority of the world is such a big sacrifice for which you should get some sort of multiculturalism medal. And when you’re in a good mood and those physical inconveniences aren’t annoying you as much as they would the average foreigner, then you can hate yourself for actually feeling proud of the fact that you deigned to lower your living standard closer to that of the global average, for thinking you’re better than all those other foreigners, and — last but certainly not least — for being so patronizing to the local Chinese.

The silver lining, I guess, is that living this way also creates ample opportunity to contemplate lifestyles that respectfully transcend economic divisions while still being honest about who we are and acting morally with our affluence given the economic disparity in the world… Anyway, that’s a big tangent I maybe should have saved for another post, but it’s part of our experience, so I’m leaving it in.

Gearing up for Location #2

That old apartment with its neighbourhood comes to mind today because right at the moment friends in Tianjin are securing an apartment for us for when we arrive in a couple weeks (we had to let the old one go when we left for Canada). When friends are doing us this huge favour we obviously don’t want to be picky, and with the baby we won’t be as mobile or tolerant/flexible as we were before. I’m also only on a year-long contract, so I don’t know how likely we’ll be to move after we arrive. The photos they sent make this second apartment look several notches above the first. I guess we’ll see…

Fun Chinese Apartment & Neighbourhood-related Posts:

Related “Living in China” posts: