So I’ve been in China a little over a week now, and my living situation is finally starting to shape up.  I am renting an apartment a few minutes walk from Tsinghua University in a big apartment complex called huaqingjiayuan near Wudaokou, a very busy area around a major subway station.  Students doing IUP have three housing options – rent an apartment, live in the Tsinghua dorms, or live with a Chinese host family.  I made the choice a long time ago to rent an apartment with two Yalies who are also attending IUP, and it’s worked out really great so far.  Renting an apartment gives me the full freedom to come and go as I please (not always the case with the other two options) and fully imerges me in real Chinese life (although perhaps in a different way than living with a host family).  The whole process of organizing our renting situation was in itself an incredible experience, so I thought I’d talk about that in this post, both to give my parents an idea of what I’ve been up to and to share with potential IUP students what goes into renting an apartment in Beijing.

I’ll start by saying that this process started over 4 months ago.  I got in touch with a friend who was doing IUP at the time to get some details about what housing was like, and she suggested that I just continue her lease after she left Beijing.  I highly recommend doing something like this for two reasons.  The first is that it is just practical.  IUP tells you that you don’t need to know where you are going to live when you get to Beijing and that finding an apartment is easy, but the truth is that it isn’t that easy and you’ll have to be living out of a hotel room for your first few days (if not weeks) in China.  There are many IUP students who have been spending their first few days in Beijing running around talking to housing agents and trying to navigate the real estate situation in China in Chinese.  This is incredibly stressful and totally unnecessary.  The second big reason to try to find your house before you get to Beijing is that it’s cheaper – a lot cheaper.  Because my friend put me in touch with the landlord and I spoke to her directly, the landlord was able to avoid paying for an agent to show the house.  This saved her a ton of money, which in turn saved me a ton a money, since it is usually the renter who ends up paying for the agent fees.  Also, when you have your suitcases in hand and classes start in a few days, you really don’t have many chips to bargain with.  Students who are getting their apartments now are getting worse apartments with agent fees on top of much higher monthly rates.  Before I touched down in Beijing I knew exactly how much I’d be paying in rent (all the bartering happened online), and even more importantly, I had the word of my friend that there were no serious problems with the place.

Finding an apartment is only the tip of the iceberg of renting an apartment in Beijing – it is just the beginning of an absurd process.  The first thing that is fundamentally different from the same process in America is that all transactions are in cash.  That means that when I first arrived at my apartment and my roommates and I had to pay the landlady our deposit and the first 3 months of rent (equivalent to 4 months rent – standard practice in China), we had to come up with over 30,000 RMB in cash.  This is made extremely complicated by the fact that almost all Chinese banks have a limit on how much money they will allow you to withdraw in a 24 hour period if you only have an American bank account (usually around 4,000 RMB).  In other words, the only way to make the payment is to A) start hoarding cash a few days in advance, withdrawing the maximum amount for three days or B) bring thousands of dollars in American cash with you that you can exchange for RMB.  Neither is a very attractive option.  As it was, we went with option A, and ended up having to give the landlady our rent in a series of consecutive payments.  This is especially ridiculous because the largest bill in China is 100 RMB, meaning that every time you pay your landlord you are just handing over wads of cash and it feels like a drug deal.  I assume we will get in the habit of hoarding wads of cash a few days before the rent is due.

Another pretty ridiculous episode happened a few days ago when we had to register with the Chinese police.  Basically in order to get a student card at Tsinghua University we must be registered with the Chinese police (something that to the best I can tell most people just do not do unless they have to), and in order to be registered with the Chinese police we have to go to the police station with our landlord.  At the police station, the landlord is supposed to declare that we are staying in her house, she is supposed to pay a tax on her revenue from the rent, and we are supposed to give the police a copy of our contract.  Our teachers specifically told us that it is the landlord’s responsibility to pay the tax on her revenue, but from the start it was clear that this was not how things were going to be.  She claimed that said tax was not included in our rent, and that we would therefore have to pay it.  Not being well versed in Chinese tax laws and our Chinese being a bit rusty, there was little we could do to prevent this.  We didn’t feel so bad because we are yet to speak to another IUP student who wasn’t screwed over in the same way.  But things got even more sketchy from there.  Perhaps as a favor to us, or maybe to further avoid taxes, the landlord completely lied on the copy of the contract that she gave the police.  She said we were going to be staying in Beijing for 3 months (not 9), and listed the rent at about half of what it actually was.  The good news is that the tax we were forced to pay was therefore much lower, but I can’t help feeling that there is an off chance that her creative accounting may have some serious repercussions for us or her.  Regardless, when we went to the police station together she told us to pretend that we couldn’t speak any Chinese so that she could handle the police, and they didn’t ask any questions.  We paid our cheaper tax.  Overall I was pretty amused that our landlord had no problem having us pay her tax, but she was concerned enough that she lied on the police form to minimize the amount we had to pay.  In a lot of ways this story gives you a great idea of the kind of person that our landlady is – she is very nice and smiles a lot, but the whole while you just know that she’s totally ripping you off.

In addition to all of this, when I got to the apartment there was nothing there besides the necessities.  There were no bedsheets or pillows (I spent my first night sleeping on a bare mattress using a sweater as a pillow), no pots or pans or utensils(they had apparently all been stolen – or removed by the landlord who pretended not to know anything about it), no glasses, no internet, nothing.  My first full day in China was spent shopping for these items.  Also there is a washing machine in the bathroom – I thought that was weird.

It is important to realize that all of the negotiating and contract signing and telephone calls and emails were in Chinese.  This was an immediate crash course in real estate / contract vocabulary, and really got my Chinese language wheels turning again, after a long Mandarin-less summer.  The process was incredibly stressful and tiring (as I imagine it would be even if everyone was speaking English) and it was a great learning experience.  I have found that the whole first week of being in China has been similar to this housing episode – I have been regularly thrust into really important situations that I have never had to deal with in Chinese before, and it is up to me to sink or swim.  There is no help from IUP.  I am really on my own (with my roommates).

As I am writing this, everything has been straightened out with the landlord and I am no longer worried about our living arrangements.  There is a giant leak in our ceiling in the common room (pictures @ flickr), but besides that everyone is all settled in.  With living arrangements behind me, now I can finally start thinking about classes, which start tomorrow at 8am.