I knew moving out of an apartment in Beijing wouldn’t be the same as it had been in other cities. The basics are the same. Acquire boxes; build boxes; fill boxes. There’s the grating strrret-ret-ret-retch of packing tape. Deciding which possessions to pack, transport, unpack, and then never use or think about until the next move. Which is never, because I am not moving again. No. Never again. I know it’s not true, but it’s a mantra that gets me through whichever move I might currently be in the middle of as I repeat the words….never again….never again. At least…not with all of this god damned stuff.
China, I knew, would present its own unique challenges. The cultural differences. The semantic gray areas that exist between languages, where a word or phrase can lean awkwardly into a deep misunderstanding. We’d heard stories of landlords and property management companies preventing diplomatic tenants from leaving, bilking them for every last Yuan they could siphon. Our own relationship with the Landlord in Beijing had been mediated and translated by a real estate Agent that, by design, served both parties, Landlord and Tenant. I never met the Landlord, a woman of somewhere between 35-45 years old who lived in Hong Kong and worked at a financial institution. We met her Mother and Father (aka, General), who lived in Beijing, only twice before the moving out process. Rumor was that he was a former general in the Army. I know next to nothing about the Chinese army but this man did not give off the vibe or presence of former military man. He was short, a bit pudgy and soft around the middle, with a flat, mostly bald head that sloped down to a cheerful, round face framed by wire-rimmed glasses. He generally appeared to just be tagging along for no other reason but to stretch his legs.
In retrospect, Mother might have been the former general. She couldn’t have stood more than 5-and-a-half feet and exuded intermittent hints of frailty, but all the same, she entered the room with a sense of ownership. The real estate agent and property management seemed to hold their breath, measuring steps around the apparent matriarch. For her part, Mother alternated between trading cordial glances with us, the foreigners who had occupied her apartment, and sternly barking at the staff for some perceived negligence.
Our interactions beyond the two, brief face-to-face meetings were handled by the Agent. Agent seemed friendly. Agent seemed to genuinely have our best interests in mind. But Agent also had to serve the needs of the landlord. And Agent was Chinese. In China. In Beijing. She, like the other 1.4 billion individuals in China, were expected to serve the country – a country that was perfecting (and exporting) surveillance on a scale heretofore reserved for science-fiction. Did we trust her? Well…
The minutiae of what led up to our last day in Beijing isn’t necessary to review here, but, to summarize, my wife, throughout our time in Beijing, shrewdly negotiated with our counterparts and saved us thousands of dollars in the process. During the last negotiation, the outcome left us in a position of leverage regarding money. Not only did the landlord compensate us for savings accrued from a lower monthly payment, we were in effect protected from loss of the deposit. The entire apartment building – no doubt once a jewel of the neighborhood – had long passed its peak. Water poured down in the middle of the 32-floor building’s first floor anytime it rained. The elevator was in constant disrepair. The outdoor facilities – a tennis court and basketball court – were both scarred by a nascent trench that looked like the aftermath of an earthquake. More importantly to our situation, whatever forces had acted on the trench had caused the building itself to settle and shift enough over the years that the marble floor had formed cracks. The moulding along the floor buckled, separating from the wall in several places.
We hadn’t done any significant damage to the apartment other than a mishap with some bleach and a faux-marble counter, but Mother and landlord didn’t even notice that damage, and were determined to bleed us for renovations they should have made years ago, and for structural damage that we largely could not create if we tried. If that wasn’t enough, we learned that they had been making a habit of stealing money from tenants using a utilities scam.
These were the ingredients. Challenges were expected. Nonsense had already occurred. Absurdity was around the corner.
Our last day came and we were mere hours away from the exodus we had been anticipating before we had even arrived in Beijing. We felt confident we would be able to get out of the country, but not confident enough to relax. The repartee between both sides had become heated, and the landlord’s camp was in the unenviable and apparently unfamiliar position of weakness. They had virtually no bite left, only bark. Still, this was China. We really didn’t know what was going to happen, but we had to get out.
Agent, Agent’s colleague, and a lawyer for Agent’s company arrived first, followed shortly after Mother, General, and a rotating collection of maintenance workers and property management staff, all of which ambled reluctantly into the apartment. Mother immediately balked at the presence of a lawyer, refusing to start the meeting if he stayed. I told Mother, via an interpreter, that it was still technically my place. My place, my rules. He stays. This is what followed…
Shortly after this incident, Mother flipped out at Colleague once again. As two people held her back, Mother grabbed a heavy, glass bottle and tried to heave it at Colleague. Fortunately, I knocked the bottle out of her hands before she could throw it. Eventually the police were called by the Agent.
The police asked the victim what she wanted to have happen; she replied that she wanted an apology but – according to the agent – Mother was too proud to apologize in front of a foreigner. She was taken to the police station, where she eventually apologized.
And that was that. It was like a lot of the interactions I witnessed or took part in while in China. Amusing. Frustrating. Confusing. In some ways, controlled and formal; in other ways, chaotic and, ultimately fruitless.
Around 8 hours later we boarded a plane to Vilnius, by way of Amsterdam. When we landed in The Netherlands we learned that our flight would be the last to leave Beijing for a month due to a Dutch traveler testing positive for COVID in China.