Reality Sets in the International Era

Getting intimately familiar with my apartment in the Shidaiguoji (“International Era”) apartment complex

When I signed the lease for my first apartment in Beijing, I knew the place needed some cleaning up. Walls a little grimy, kitchen and washing machine area needing attention. I looked forward to it. Get in there and tear shit up. Make the place my own. Get things done and restore my confidence here in a new country where even acquiring pillows and kitchen utensils has required getting advice from people.

After I moved in, closer details of the place emerged. It would be two months before the full scope of its filth was revealed.

Midnight Suitcase Journeys

During the week after signing the lease, I began moving into my apartment by taking middle-of-the-night journeys on foot from the hotel near my work to the apartment, a half hour’s walk away.

My work shifts finished at midnight. I made the journeys afterwards. The time to do this is certainly at night, not in the immediate-sweat-inducing heat of a Beijing August day. My suitcase is an oversized one, the kind that airlines sock you extry to bring. It’s big and can carry a lot, but you don’t want to fight through crowds and traffic with it in 90-degree heat.

So I dragged my suitcase full of stuff at 1:30 a.m., usually half-drunk. I’d go to the hotel, have some wine or beer from room service or the overpriced grocery store in the labyrinthine basement luxury mall, load up, get to dragging, arrive at the apartment, empty the contents of the suitcase — winter clothes, paperwork, home goods — turn around and head back to the hotel, taking pulls off my bottle all the while. Sometimes I made two trips. Blind drunk on the way back the second time. Sun coming up.

This was a fun way to do it and I could take my time. I was in no hurry to move out of the hotel. It was high-end and paid for by the employer. I enjoyed the hot tub and the sauna and the steam room downstairs. Three forms of heat provided for the body, in addition to the bath tub in my room. Wine and food and TV and a nice bed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I finally left the hotel for good, I was kicked out. Not for wayward behavior, but because my time was up and I didn’t know it.

I was taking a hot bath and a phone next to the toilet rang. It was a phone installed right into the wall. I’d wondered about it. Maybe it was in case someone had a heart attack on the toilet. Though curious, I had never picked it up to test it out, lest emergency workers come barging in expecting to see me pants-down on the floor.

I never imagined it really worked. Legacy of a misguided design feature perhaps. But it rings as I’m taking a bath. A woman from the front desk.

“When do you plan to leave today?”

I think she means, when am I leaving so they can do the daily cleaning? Almost every day I head out to get something done in the morning — apartment hunting, opening a Chinese bank account, enjoy the sauna — but today I slept in. I had the “do not disturb” sign on the door. Maybe they’re getting impatient.

“I don’t know, in about two hours I guess.”

“Your reservation ends today.”

“Today? My reservation? I thought I had another day.” CCTV told me I had a month in the hotel, and the next day would be a full month — from the 8th of one to the 8th of the next. They must have counted it as right up until but not including the 8th of the month.

“We have a full house,” she says, anticipating my next question.

It was about 2 p.m. I had to work at 4. I still had a bunch of stuff in my room. A coworker who’d left the job a few weeks earlier let me raid his apartment for goods. This was a godsend as it saved me a lot of running around buying everyday household items. But now I had in my hotel room his clothes-drying rack, a broom, and other awkward shit to move to my apartment, besides my big-ass suitcase and garment bag. I loaded the suitcase with cups, plates, clothes, computer accessories. I pulled it behind me, threw the overstuffed garment bag over my shoulder and hand-carried the other ridiculous items to the lobby.

Downstairs at the desk, I was sweating hard from the heat of the bath, the humid weather, and the sudden need to get my shit together. Sweating, harried, loaded with lumpen shit. International business traveler-looking people coming and going all around me.

The bill came to $500. Four weeks of room service indulgence. “Cost of making an international transition,” I told myself.

By now I only had 90 minutes to get all this shit to that dirt apartment and get to work. It would be an hour of travel in total. The hotel staff helped me get a taxi. I got to my place and dumped all my things. The only clean surface was the bed mattress. It appeared new, still encased in thick clear plastic, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I cut the plastic and ripped the mattress out from inside it. It would definitely be clean inside.

Sweating, harried, loaded with lumpen shit. International business traveler-looking people coming and going all around me.

I put the mattress back on the bed and placed my important items on one side and myself on the other. The sole island of decency in the place. My beachhead. I would spread out from here, cutting paths of cleanliness ahead of me.

I made it to work on time with zero minutes to spare, still dripping sweat. Fortunately I’d gotten my work badge a few days earlier, ending the half-hour long waits for someone to come out and get me at the gate. If the badge hadn’t come when it did, or if I hadn’t made those late-night suitcase trips, I would have been wildly late to work, just one month into the job. When the elevator door opened, the editor who I was replacing as our shifts rotated was already in there, on his way out. “There you are!” he said in a bright British accent. “Just in the nick of time, eh?”

“The troubles begin the moment I leave the safety bubble of the hotel,” I think. Things aren’t going to be easy anymore and this is the sign. Shock-tossed back into reality. I’d been in the cushy hotel for a month but it couldn’t last. Nor could it be an easy glide into the outer world. No, it had to be jarring and icky.

The short curious strolls amid brand new shining towers to work would become a packed din of scooters, bikes, and people on filthy spit-covered sidewalks. From Shuangjing to the CCTV tower up the tumultuous 3rd Ring Road. Dirty air. Dog droppings. Restaurant workers dumping their cooking water. Women holding pant-less toddlers over a small square of packed dirt around a sidewalk tree so the kid can use it as a toilet. People walking maddeningly slow, mindlessly meandering, staring at phones. Cars and buses nosing in at pedestrians at intersections. People laying on their car horns for full ten-second stretches.

Cockroach Fecal Dots

I noticed the little dots on the walls when the real estate agent first showed me the apartment. “Place just needs a washcloth gone over it,” I said. Looks lived-in, is all, as to be expected. I didn’t know then that if I lifted the cover off the bathroom light it would be full of dead cockroaches and those little black spots would become a spill of fecal pellets. Or that old cockroach wings and dust would come flying out of the air conditioner when I turned it on.

Cockroach filth everywhere. Not many live cockroaches, surprisingly, but plenty of dead ones. Bodies and feces in every hidden spot. Behind cupboards. Inside plastic fasteners that attach the radiator to the wall. Every surface in the place looked like it had never been wiped down. The washing machine had a layer of grime on it. Move the machine aside and under it and behind it was a thick layer of filth. The place had opaque glass wall partitions separating the living room from the bedroom and the laundry area from the kitchen. The glass had the telltale black-dot markings all over them, visible upon close inspection. The partition sliding tracks on the floor and ceiling had roach filth jammed into them.

Despite this, it took me a while to admit what it was. “Every spot I see is a cockroach mark, I am sure of it,” I deduced in comic obviousness. I didn’t know about roach feces at the time because I’d never encountered it before and never imagined bug poop could be so visible.

The area between the foot of the bathtub and the wall had a makeshift fake marble shelf thing going on. Leftover countertop materials from building the kitchen had been used to bridge the short distance, making the shelf and an under-area for storage. The under-area was black with filth. I noticed this when I first saw the place but chalked it up to standard laziness. Bathroom grime had built up from people not bothering to clean under there, I thought.

Cockroach filth everywhere. . . telltale black-dot markings visible upon close inspection.

No, it was all cockroach filth under there. An inch or more thick. One of the first things I did after moving in was buy a utility knife, cut the caulking that held all the fake marble pieces together, dismantle it all, and remove it for good. This allowed me to get in there and clean everything out with bleach water.

I thought that would be the worst of it. Indeed, a certain smell in the apartment dissipated after that. I noticed the smell when I first came to look at the place. It seemed to be the smell of a place that had been vacant for a while. A staleness. Turned out, it was that layer of bathroom cockroach filth. Once I got rid of it, the smell largely disappeared.

But every time I looked deeper into any given spot, further grossness was discovered. I removed the cupboard above the sink from the wall and an avalanche of dead cockroaches came tumbling down. They’d been sandwiched between the cupboard and the wall. There must have been years’ worth back there. As usual, even the things that held the cupboards aloft. Each of the little plastic cartridges with adjustable metal brackets and screws had a dead roach or two inside. Filth could reliably be found in, under, and behind everything.

There were old cockroach poison traps about. The only conclusion I could arrive at was that previous tenants had chosen to liberally use bug poison to fight cockroaches rather than the effective thing to do: Clean the apartment.* I’ve lived in multiple places each in Seoul, Detroit (including above five restaurants in a 19th century building), and Beijing. Old buildings and new. I’ve never had a roach problem. The only time I see them is when I’ve missed something in cleaning, like food that got under a refrigerator. Kill the roaches, get rid of the source. No more roaches come along.

It took me the next half year to get every nook and cranny cleaned. I went through countless little bottles of the “84” brand bleach commonly available here, and many pairs of rubber gloves. Scrubbing cleansers. Dish soap. Sponges. Stainless steel scrubbers of the sort used in restaurant kitchens. I found a hardware shop nearby, a storefront about the size of two closets, crammed to the rafters with supplies. I bought tools to dismantle things and bottles of white spray paint to touch up the cupboards after cleaning. I got electrocuted while standing in water nearly naked as I used a toothbrush to scrub inside an uncovered light switch box set into the wall. The brush didn’t even touch the exposed wires, and I was wearing rubber gloves. I’d probably have died otherwise.

Midway through, I tried to get my the real estate agent, George, to give me some money. Half the security deposit, or a discount on a few months of rent.

“Just show me a token of good faith — do something that shows you are a good person to do business with. Look at all the work I’m doing. It’s good for you too because it’s a better apartment for you to show later.”

He wouldn’t budge, pleading his hands were tied because of his boss and contracts with the apartment owner and so on. I berated him so hard he came to tears. We were in my apartment. He was shocked when I showed him newfound areas of grossness, in addition to the photos I’d gathered throughout my efforts. He too hadn’t known the extent of it because so much of it was hidden. But it was my problem now, he said.

“If don’t like, why sign lease?”

“There was no way of knowing about the problems before! I had to physically remove infrastructure — shelves, cupboards!”

“How about send ayi?” George offered, referring to a cleaning lady.

“Is an ayi going to take down cupboards and shelves? That won’t be good enough. Things need to be taken apart and rebuilt.”

We went in circles.

Everyone I asked said there’s no recourse once you sign the contract. There’s no community board or authority, or not one that will do anything anyway. The inescapable irony comes to mind: This unforgiving capitalism is running amuck in a supposedly communist setting. None of the shared cushions or brakes communists would have you believe their enlightened, more sensitive system provides. And it’s about land. Property ownership. The very thing communists deplore, the grudge at the heart of their philosophy. If communism isn’t good for curbing routine abuses over housing, then what good is it for at all?

As it happened, I got connected this same day with a former video editor from our newsroom who was trying to start a business helping foreigners get settled here. He sought my advice on what services would be most useful. While we talked, I asked if he had any ideas on this matter with my agent. He too took the agent’s side at first, saying there’s nothing you can do once the contract is signed.

I felt like I was coming across as just another fussy Westerner. So I showed him the photos. Within a few hours we were in the agent’s office with my associate issuing thinly veiled (and bluffing) threats, dropping the name of our central government employer. This visibly shook the agent and others in the office. They spoke to their boss.

She wasn’t as easily moved. I got nothing.

At one point I asked for the contact info of the actual property owner, saying maybe I could work out a deal. If George didn’t know how poorly the previous tenants had treated the place, the owner probably didn’t either. “It doesn’t do the owner any good to have it in this condition. I’ll fix it up.” George wouldn’t give it to me.

That was the end of that. I continued toiling into the next calendar year until the apartment was clean from top to bottom, every corner and crevice.

I did get my security deposit back in full when I moved out after a year. This was no sure thing, given George and his colleagues’ lack of regard for customer service, and the threats my friend and I made to bring the government down upon their heads.

Steaming my Innards

You may wonder then, as the agent did, why did I take this particular apartment? Even if I had been under the wrong impression about the depths of its depravity, why not just take a cleaner one?

Two things: The view, and the hot tub. The apartment is on the 20th floor of a 21-story building, offering me a grand view looking west into the center of this massive new city I called home. The bathtub had water jets in its walls and a motor to power them. I love hot baths and having lived earlier in South Korea, where bathtubs were never to be had in apartments, one of the concerns I had about returning to Asia was I’d again have to go without the occasional hot bath. I was willing to go to some extra lengths to avoid this. And here I had not just a tub but a passable imitation of a Jacuzzi.

Before I dared use it in a place this gross, I took measures to sanitize it. It was held to the walls in the corner of the bathroom only by caulk (as was almost everything else in the bathroom and kitchen, including sinks and countertops). I cut the caulk and separated it from the walls. The tub had a thick plastic enclosure that surrounded its two outward-facing sides. I turned the tub on its side so I could access bolts holding the enclosure to a metal frame. I wanted to remove it so I could clean all the mold-blackened tub walls and tubes and other components. I had to squeeze into the space between the wall and the underbelly of the tub. This was the only way to get at the nuts and bolts. One bolt was so far up inside that I had to put my full body on the grimy wet tiled floor and move around and contort my arms to get at it. I was only in my underwear, not wanting to ruin clothes with grime and bleach. My naked skin was all up in this mess.

I got it off and sprayed every spot underneath with bleach water. I removed the jets from inside the tub and cleaned them and all surfaces with gritty cleansers and bleach. The motor wasn’t grounded so I bought some wire from that hardware shop, where I’d become a regular, and hooked it up to an available ground point in the wall. Then I ran bleachy gritty mixtures through the system many times for long durations. Sanitized.

I’d get in that tub after a long morning of scrubbing the apartment (then showering) and stew myself for hours in water so hot I’d nearly pass out when I stood up. My head would go dizzy and my vision would darken. Put towels on the floor and lay on them soaking wet for five or 10 minutes until I could stand up again. I didn’t care. That’s how I like it.

Object Lesson

I got some revenge against George’s office by organizing a list of vetted real estate agents for the full foreign staff of CCTV’s English channel. That’s more than fifty people across multiple departments and shows, and we’ve been on a long hiring spree to grow our digital operations. That plus our red-hot turnover rate means we constantly have people in need of housing.

A smart agent would see it’s possible to make a living solely from our staff. We’re international professionals working for one of the country’s most powerful and visible organizations. We’ll make our rent payments. Landlords already like foreigners as it is because they see us as being good tenants who understand maintenance and don’t make the apartments smell like cooking oil. Compared to Chinese migrant workers and foreign English teachers, we represent an ideal book of business.

George told me about an area nearby that is a vast market for home-remodeling products. It’s only three subway stops away, just down the 3rd Ring Road, so I went there seeking white spray paint for my cupboards and to do reconnaissance on more ambitious items for later. The area is called Shilihe.

So why didn’t we have better agents serving us? Because until this point no one had bothered to do anything about it. Everyone had been passing around the same few agents’ names — George, Lifu, and Lily — for years, with predictable results. The agents had become complacent, and we reinforced their mediocre service by never failing to send them more business.

I sent a mass email to the staff making these points and requesting recommendations for better agents. A few names came back. I made a list. I sent the list to HR. They began handing it out with the packets of info they give to new hires. This must have sucked thousands of dollars of business away from George, Lifu, and Lily in the first months alone.

The whole effort took maybe an hour over the course of a week. It was an object lesson in the lack of initiative that pervades the culture at CCTV. The senior foreign editors — sages who’ve been here for years, these treasured sources of guidance — never thought to do something as simple as make a list? The Chinese producers, who suffer from the turnover and quickly soured attitude among their foreign editors, never sent a word upstairs? “Hey, our editors already have enough trouble acclimating here without having to deal with dodgy real estate agents. Can you help them out?”

This may seem like a lot to make out of what ultimately is little more than one of life’s hassles. But as you take into consideration the scope and power of this organization, it becomes astounding to think that it — or any number of other little things like it — would ever become an issue at all. It’s a “soft power” initiative of geopolitical importance to the country. It has the full support and funding of the central government. It has production centers in Washington DC, Nairobi, and London. It can’t use its weight to handle little shithead agents in the neighborhoods around its own headquarters? You’d think someone in management would have arranged a deal with a real estate company from the outset.

The Chinese directors who oversee the newsroom — where are they? They don’t bother to say a single word to us over years of employment. We don’t know even who they are, even though we’re the bottleneck all stories go through before being broadcast live on air.

The senior foreign editors, the Chinese producers and directors all know the lengths editors go through to get to the job — one that’s almost certainly going to force us to cross our ethical boundaries. You’ll be a part of smearing your own country, while perverting the depiction of reality in this one. We set those concerns aside. We’re then willing to tolerate a year of delays that one, in a less charitable mood, might take as insulting given its lack of regard for our time. We’re willing to take a huge gamble on moving away from friends, family, job, and the familiar to a country that’s got a reputation for being harsh and arbitrary in controlling its population.

We’re willing to give China a chance, despite “Western media hysteria” over it. Could you make a list? Is it really too much to ask that you lift fingers to keyboard and find four agents who aren’t trying to screw over your new employees as soon as they step foot in the country?

* George said the most recent tenant was an Indian guy. A small pile of discarded papers contained references to Ethiopia. I figured an Indian guy with ties Ethiopia had lived here. I note this not to dirt-shame Indians or Ethiopians, but to prevent the natural assumption that the previous tenant was Chinese. No, the blame goes to one of us foreigners. The Chinese do plenty of gross things, but this wasn’t one of them. Foreign or Chinese, the guy deserved a punch in the temple.

Bonus Gallery: The Stove Fan Project

Test firing of the Tian Qi (Heavenly Wind) brand stove fan

This post is part of the Moving to China series, documenting my transition to mainland China in 2015 and 2016, when government-operated broadcaster CCTV flew me over to work as a news editor at its Beijing headquarters. The channel is now known as China Global Television Network. It is a soft-power endeavor of the country’s Communist Party-ruled government.

In this Series

1. First Night in China

2. China Consulate Trips

3. Life in the Leadup

4. The Storage Yard Routine

5. First Days: Life in the Hotel

6. Getting an Apartment in Beijing

7. Reality Sets in the International Era