Sunday, September 4, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 1 -- How NOT To Be an Expat

"May you live in interesting times."
--ancient Chinese curse

I've learned the hard way that traveling abroad and living abroad are two totally different things. When you travel abroad, your problems end when your vacation does. When you live abroad, problems are thrown at you constantly with no end in sight.

If I were smarter, I would have done it like this:

--Come to Shanghai without a prearranged job. Stay in a hostel for a couple weeks.

--Talk to other travelers for job leads and advice.

--Go out on interviews, check out employers in person, and pick the best job available.

--Find an apartment myself, rather than take housing provided by an employer. Get the employer to subsidize all or part of the rent after getting hired, which is common. That way, I can change jobs without becoming homeless.

I didn't do any of these things, so my crash landing in Shanghai was all my fault. I took an ESL teaching job over the Internet. I had no way of checking out my future boss. I didn't have a backup plan in case the job turned out to be a disaster.

The school I was going to work at said it was in Shanghai. Actually, it was 90 minutes away from the city. The house I lived in was dirty, rundown, and full of insects out for blood. There was no kitchen to cook food. The electricity didn't work.

I wasn't able to sleep the first week I was there. I would just lie awake, convinced that I'd made the worst mistake of my life.

Jason, an Australian from near Sydney, arrived at the school the day after I did. He was as appalled as I was. We immediately made a pact to get out together. There was still a few days left before the school year started.

We took a bus into Shanghai. As soon as we got off, we hit every real estate agency we could find. If we passed a window with photos of properties, we barged right in. Naturally, none of them spoke English.

Fear drove us forward. If the school found out about our plans, or if we failed to secure an apartment in time, the results would be unthinkable. There was a real chance we'd end up homeless.

While we were waiting in the conference room of real estate agency number God-knows-what, Jason turned to me and said: "We have no place to stay, no jobs, in a foreign city where we don't speak the language. Fuck! This shit is hard."

All I could think about was that I'm fresh out of college: I don't know anything, I've never done any of this real-world stuff before. We didn't even have work visas! How did I react to such overwhelming odds?


The last real estate agency, Whale Realty Co. Ltd., had an English-speaking staff (sort of). They looked like college students, young Chinese kids clad in t-shirts and jeans. We told them what we wanted: two bedrooms, close to the city center, with a monthly rent of 3500 RMB and below. Jason and I would split the rent.

They assigned a girl who barely spoke English to take us out to visit properties. The first apartment was off of Shaanxi Road. One grim, gray, crumbling tower after another. It looked like a place apartments go to die. I still have the image of the lobby stuck in my mind: I imagined a bomb had gone off in that building twenty years ago and no one bothered to clean it up. We got in the elevator. I looked up at the ceiling of it and had instant regrets: the ceiling was patched up with band-aids.

Traffic in Shanghai was insane, so we had to walk to each property. Jason and I trudged around for hours. We got depressed after seeing each new dilapidated apartment. They all looked like they were seconds away from a date with a wrecking ball. We thought we might actually have to stick with our original jobs out in the middle of nowhere.

Then we got to the last apartment. It was around the corner from Huai Hai Road, one of the major shopping streets in Shanghai. A smiling middle-aged Chinese businessman let us in. It was beautiful! Polished wood floors, two bedrooms, a small bathroom, a small kitchen, and a dining area (which we would convert into a TV room). About the only thing wrong with it was the view: we could look out at the bastard buildings we'd rejected. Seeing that we were young men, the businessman offered to get us two armchairs and a TV, no extra charge. The capper? This was the cheapest apartment of the ones we'd visited. On the spot, Jason and I told the realtor we'd take it! We had an appointment at the real estate office the next day. We could move in right away.

We left to go back to our original school for one last night. I told Jason, "I think that was their strategy all along."

Startled, Jason asked, "What do you mean?"

I explained. "They partner us with a girl who doesn't speak English, run us ragged around the whole city until we can't think straight, show us one architectural atrocity after another, then save the best apartment for last. We jump on it straight away. Pure genius."

He thought about it and nodded. "You're right, we got played by pros."

We just got schooled in the Art of War by teenagers! The lesson: wear down your target with frustration, then sell him the solution to all his problems. My Mom told me that the Chinese were outstanding merchants. They owned most of the businesses in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. I had a feeling I'd be learning a lot from them in my year here.

Moving day. I'd committed the greatest traveler's sin: packing too much. Jason was a real trooper when we were moving. He helped me haul my stuff into taxis and on trains. Here he was, lugging around a ton of junk that wasn't even his. Jason should get a medal for Best Travel Partner Ever. I actually told him, "We only met days ago and we're about to go through so much shit together. We don't even know each other!"

Jason laughed and said, "That's the way it is!"

Traditionally, what we were doing was called a "Midnight Run." Jason said that in Australia they called it "Doing a Runner." Same thing. We left on a day our Chinese employer was out of town. We didn't feel too guilty, since we both had paid our own airfare. The school hadn't lost any money. I'm not proud of what we did, but I felt we didn't have a choice. Staying would only make me bitter about travel.

Getting from Hengmin Xinzhen to Shanghai was a challenge of endurance. We jumped into taxis, trains, dodged lethal traffic on foot, and wrestled with the foreign language. It was like the TV show The Amazing Race, except we'll never be famous.

An eternity later, we staggered into the office of Whale Realty: exhausted, sweating by the gallon, and smelling like foul gym socks. The employees smiled and cheered for us like we'd crossed the finish line. I'd felt like I'd won the Olympics! We broke into big grins, waving triumphantly to the Chinese realtors.

They took us to our new apartment, where the businessman gave us the keys. He had another gift: a pair of furry house slippers for both of us! I was beginning to think I was dreaming this and I'd wake up in Hengmin Xinzhen.

We found out later that we were lucky to get an apartment at all. Most Chinese landlords are wary of renting to foreigners, since they have a tendency to disappear without warning. Not that we'd know anything about that . . .

Me and Jason went to the Allday convenience store nearby to celebrate with Vanilla Cokes. I still had to find a job, but this was a major step in the right direction. We stood outside the store, basking in our new, improved, and better located neighborhood.

Jason held his bottle aloft and said, "Phase 1 of Operation: Get the Fuck Out of Shithole is now complete!"

We toasted to that.