Views from My Cell

My second apartment in Beijing is, despite its sometimes prison cell-like feel, much better than my first. It’s tiny but was redone from floor to ceiling before I moved in. The floors are covered in big marble-like tiles that are so polished and new they have a mirror effect. The cupboards and sinks and windows and everything are new.

It is a perfectly rectangular box of a space. Inside it is split in half by a wall with, strangely, a big glass window in it. The kitchen is in the first half upon entering, with a section of that square walled off for the small bathroom. The second half is the living space, with a section on the far end made into what is called a yangtai, or “sun platform”. It’s not quite a balcony; it is within the walls of the place and not open to the outside, but has windows stretching across the entirety of the outer wall to give a wide open feeling. You can sit in that area to enjoy the sun, as I very often do.

I like that window separating the two halves inside because it’s odd and makes the place feel bigger than it is. I’m told this apartment used to be a gray-market restaurant (not licensed, informal), which is why it had to be gutted and remodeled from top to bottom. I imagine the restaurant previously served food through the window in the middle wall.

Each of these apartment halves is the size of what in the US would be a small bedroom for a child. The kitchen side takes up more space than needed, but adjusting that would be a serious undertaking, as the walls are concrete. (That’s one thing about Chinese apartments: They are good at blocking sound.)

The living side then has to serve as my bedroom, living room, and home office. This is achieved by foregoing a sofa and having the desk also serve as a dining table. The desk chair is cushioned and reclines; I can wheel it back two feet into my “living room” to relax at the end of a day and watch TV. (It’s apparently Chinese practice to include flat screen TVs among the appliances provided in apartments, along with refrigerators and small washing machines. Both this one and my previous apartment came with brand new ones.)

A bed next to me and a nightstand behind me make for a bedroom. I also manage to keep an exercise bike in here.

The apartment is on the first floor, and the land outside is on a slight incline, such that to get into the apartment you have to walk downstairs upon entering the building. It feels like you’re going into a basement. There is no lighting in the tiny hallway outside the apartment door. The fixture above looks like it was disregarded long ago. The hallway is filthy and dark. The floor is bare concrete. Live electrical boxes on the walls are falling apart and have cobwebs and layers of dirt on them.

Charming and Civilized

September 2017. Moved in to an apartment to discover these guys posted up outside my window with their panel van every day to do their recycling work. They collected and bashed on materials all day in the heat. I admired their hustle, but it was still obnoxious to have to hear all day long.

After two or three months of this, they left. Months later I walked through a part of the compound I normally don’t need to pass through and saw they had set up shop there. It’s an out-of-the-way corner of the property. Someone must have forced them to move. They’re still right outside apartment windows but no longer in the middle of a lane of through-traffic nor by the hotel, leading me to believe that they were forced to move not because they’re noisy but because they were in the way. Anyone familiar with China will understand that’s the more likely reason. People generally aren’t thoughtful about noise, but being in the way of traffic draws attention (usually by means of noise: horns).

I feel bad for calling him a dickhead, even if it was only to myself, but it’s what was in my heart in the moment.

But once inside, a clean and orderly apartment is presented. The slight incline of the land makes it so that on other side of the apartment the yangtai windows open onto new landscaping of shrubs, roses, and small trees where feral cats roam. There is a thin strip of cement that runs under the windows and along the bottom of the building’s walls. The cats use that as their main road, hidden behind six feet of shrubs from the greater world beyond.

After the shrubs is a paved alleyway and parking area of the apartment compound, and on the opposite side of the alley is a hotel on the left and a plastic surgery clinic on the far right.

The windows are enclosed on the outside by a cage of metal bars as an anti-intruder measure. That’s where the prison feel comes in. Bars on the windows, cement walls. Low ceilings. If it really were in a prison it would be an opulent cell, one fit for a mafia boss. As a regular living space, it is utilitarian.

My cell, my bunker. Hide in my prison cell. Hunker down in my bunker. I don’t do much socializing or traveling. I stay home to write and study, smoke cigars and watch TV, cook and exercise. Sometimes the phrase “my container of time and space” passes through my mind when in there for hours or even days without leaving. It’s not China. It isn’t my home country.

The cage goes out about a foot and a half from the window, which gives tenants a small area to hang clothes or put their ashtrays for puffing cigarette smoke to the outside. In my area of the cage, a discarded yellow construction worker’s helmet sits. It was here when I moved in, upside down and full of old rain water. I washed it and put it back out there properly with its topside up. This is a place of work. When I pass by on my way back from work I identify my place by it. It marks my world inside the cage and gives me the first pang of relief at coming home.

The yangtai is a space for quiet contemplation. I regard the flowers and shrubs outside, the cleanliness of the windows and sills, my beizi of coffee or tea in mornings, its shape and steam in the incoming sun. There is extra gratitude on non-smoggy days, and even more gratitude on rare occasions of seeing a cloud.

I put two wardrobes in there, making my available space to sit in repose even smaller. It blocks the views of passersby so they can’t stare at me and ruin my yangtai time. Otherwise they’d gape blankly. I see nosy people looking up and down at the building’s windows every day as they walk by. If they do spot you, they stare mindlessly, no expression. I hide in there behind the small trees and bushes of the outside landscaping. I make crude jokes about the people going by. I ogle the women and bitch about the spitting men. But mostly I enjoy the solace and the fresh air when it’s available. It’s my only redoubt from the crush of Beijing and the insipid CGTN job. I am 100% in my own space in there.