The story, and prophecy, of O (part 1)

This post is little more than an attempt to give you context for something you hear pretty often here in China: “Leave China before it turns you into a massive racist.”


The company I worked for dumped me fairly unceremoniously here in Hangzhou. I knew no one, and was assigned a completly inept and uncaring realtor to help me look for an apartment. He insisted on showing me nothing but the shitholes he knew he could not unload on anyone else, thinking the stupid foreigner would take it. At every rat’s nest he took me to he really hammered it in that ‘this is a really good deal, you should take it immediately’. I’ve been through my fair share of hustles, so I didn’t buy it. The first apartment I had was 300 dollars cheaper than everything my realtor showed me and 1000% times nicer. In fact, the first thing the realtor showed had a massive turd in a waterless toilet instead of windows. Safe to say, I was greatly unimpressed.

So I put it upon myself and the power of the internet to find a suitable apartment. And it was through this search that I met O, who in some terrible respects would teach me just about everything I needed to know about China. I answered an ad O had put up to a web forum for ex-patriots in Hangzhou. From the pictures I saw online the apartment looked decent and the price was much more affordable than other things that I had seen. And the mysterious person I was speaking to seemed very nice. After telling her that I had just moved into town, knew no one, and really had no idea how I could go about finding her apartment, she even agreed to meet me way off in the middle of God damned nowhere that was the shopping center where I worked (which it bears repeating, is way the fuck off in the West part of the city where there is nothing of interest to anyone who is not Chinese). Clearly, this person was some kind of Angel.

So I stood outside of the Starbucks at the given hour and smoked cigarettes until the person turned up. When she turned up several minutes late I found her to be a Polish woman a few years me elder, who was tall, wide, and had just gotten to that point in life where she could no longer truly maintain her weight. I gathered that she must have been the kind of person who could really turn heads when she was younger[1].  One of the first things she expressed to me is how hard it is to move to China, how likely foreigners were to ripped off by Chinese realtor’s, and how much sympathy she had for my plight. Together, we walked to the bus station where we would start heading back to her apartment.

On the long and, at that time, confusing bus ride from the area around my work to her apartment, I had ample opportunity to get to know this person. The first thing I gathered is that she didn’t much care for China. The second thing is that she had been living in Hangzhou for a whopping seven years. She told me in pretty detailed terms what she thought of living here, and it wasn’t pretty.

Her apartment, however was. It was by far the nicest thing I had yet seen, and it was cheaper than anything I had seen either. Nor did it seem, like many of the other places I had seen, to be in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t perfect, as it lacked a proper kitchen of any sort, but it was the best I had seen so far.

I thanked her for showing it to me, and told her I would have my decision in a few days. In the mean time, she invited me out to dinner and we got to know each other a little bit more. We went to a restaurant where we got frighteningly bad service, and she made it clear to me that this was the norm I would have to come to expect in China. We then put China aside, and talked about all the other things that two adult expatriots of approximately the same age would discuss. Frankly, I didn’t dislike this person.

When we were finished eating I thanked her, got into a taxi, and made my way to the hotel in the middle of nowhere.

And in the coming days I would see more horrible, over-priced apartments. One was enormous, and actually reasonably priced for what I was getting. The problem was that place was the kitchen wall that had been conquered by such a massive black mold colony that it would soon demand independence, move hastily through an industrial revolution and then become the largest economy in the world. I brought this problem to the attention of the realtor, who told me I could clean it up if wanted to[2]. The rest where the usual hovels.

My week to find an apartment was nearing an end, so I messaged O and told her that I was interested in her place. She said that was fine with her and asked me to meet with her the next day to get the contract put into my name. But it was at that exact point that China decided to put its hand up and let me know that everything that had happened up to that point had come to pass with far too much ease, and that things in China simply did not go so smoothly.

We met at her, and hopefully soon to be my, apartment before crossing the road to visit the commercial landlord who owned several apartments in that  complex. All of this was completly in the reins of O, who could converse in Chinese. How well? I have no idea. She seemed to communicate fairly well on that occasion were we went out. Of all the foreigners I have met, she is up there as one of the ones who seems to communicate with the least effort and to the greatest effect, although that is just speculation on what I witnessed. So we got to the landlord’s office and when we knocked on the door that morning we found that no one was there. O had only been there once, so she wasn’t even to sure that we had the right place. Thankfully O had a business card, which was linked to an unconnected to phone. So we went down stairs to the foyer and tried to speak to the buildings receptionist and that is when things took an interesting turn. The receptionists seemed to be giving her a hard time as she insisted that they get in touch with their tenant, and urgently. First O recounted who we were and what we wanted with one person, then another, and finally to someone who struck me as being a manager. At some point during this last conversation the phone was lifted and someone was called, but O, who was at this point extremely irate, wasn’t aloud to speak with anyone on the phone. We were then told that the landlord would not help us with anything and to please kindly go away. But in the process of getting this information that managerial looking man refereed to O as ‘a fat foreign cow’.

Among what I gathered to be cursing, O spit on the guy.

Here is where we get the first piece of advice I would hear about China, and it is advice that I have heard parroted numerous times by numerous different people. “You have to act like this with the Chinese” O told me, after thoroughly ripping into that now embarrassed asshole in Mandarin. “It’s all about face here, and if they see you screaming and carrying on they lose face. Often, it will get them to fold.” And in a respect O was right, for as she had scared everyone at that reception off, they left the book with all their tenants contact information on the desk, and I managed to copy the number into my phone. We tried with our phones outside, found that he would not answer, and so walked back into the lobby and called from their phone. He answered, and O ripped into the landlord.


(So as not to have a massive post, this story will be continued and concluded on the 6th of January.)


[1] In fairness to her, at one point later on in our time together she looked at my passport picture and expressed how much more she would have liked to meet that, 50lbs lighter if not more, person. Fair is fair.

[2] I actually then made a pretty big deal of explaining to this idiot what mold was, and why it was dangerous, and why it needed to be killed. He nodded his head and said ‘ok’. A few days later he sent me a message telling me that the landlord had agreed to clean the walls for me. I stop talking to the guy at that point.


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