Saturday, March 13, 2010

Neighbors

My original plan when moving to China was to live in a “serviced apartment” building that was under construction. The timing looked good – the place would be ready by August of 2008 and I was moving more than 3 months later. Well, with all things involving estimates and timing here the ready date kept slipping and slipping until my move date came and I had to choose some temporary quarters. Much to my disappointment, this meant living in a hotel until my new home was ready.

The concept of “service apartment” is interesting – you pay a bit more rent but they do everything for you. Cleaning, linens, even a free breakfast down in a restaurant. It’s a similar idea to an extended stay hotel in the US except that these places are really nice. The unit I’d planned to live in looked like any well appointed penthouse in any major city in the world - truly sophisticated, nicely designed and easy on the eyes if you like modern. And so I was quite disappointed as my second deadline came and went. At that point I decided to find an apartment in a Chinese building and simply figure out a way to live there because I was tired of hotel living and I wanted to get settled into some sort of routine.

I looked at a lot of units with my relocation consultant and frankly they were all bad in one way or another. Horrible furniture, a train in the backyard, damp smells – each one had a deal breaker for me. The one thing I wanted was to be able to walk to the grocery store and that rule turned out to be the biggest limiter because there simply weren’t that many within that circle. But eventually I pressed the relocation company hard enough and they finally heard me and so I ended up with this place.

It’s been interesting living in a genuinely Chinese building. For the longest time, I was the only westerner here. Today there are 3 that I know of. While this building is a bit more upscale than others I’ve seen, it’s a far cry from the place I would have been in. Certainly far more authentic. The elevators have provided the greatest entertainment, primarily by way of the people I’ve met and the acquaintances I’ve made – the building inhabitants are very interested in me and so there have been a lot of stares and a lot of conversations. Someday, I will write a story about the elevators, but this tale is about my neighbors.

My floor is t-shaped and has four units. You leave the elevator and you turn left. At the crossroads you make a right to get to my place and my door is straight down the short hallway. To the left of my entry is the door to the other unit on my side of the tower and behind me, the same thing plays out in mirror image. There are no permanent lights on my floor – to save money they have installed motion detectors so at night you step off of the elevator into the dark and hopefully the lights come on as you walk down the halls.

I’ve only seen the far end neighbors one time each. Once, a middle-aged man met me by the elevator - heavily cologned and wearing a lot of leather and gold chains. What I assumed to be his wife came up behind us having turned off the lights locked the doors. She was pretty fancy herself, wearing a big white fur coat. They didn’t say anything to me and I returned the favor. We rode down and the guy got out ahead of us and strode out through the lobby to the car park, letting his wife bring up the rear with me.

The other set turned out to be some very well dressed middle-aged Japanese women who boarded the elevator in the main lobby and I didn’t realize they were neighbors until they got off on the floor with me. They ignored me completely.

My first set of next door neighbors was a Korean mother and her daughter who seemed to be about 12 years old. I rode down with her once and she was very talkative, informing me that her name was Audrey and telling me that she was here in Dalian to learn to speak English and that Amanda, the Canadian I’d met in the elevator once before was her tutor and that she was very expensive because she was foreign. Amanda said she lived outside of Seoul because the city proper was too expensive. She also told me that she’d be leaving but didn’t say when. I ran into her mother in the hallway one time and startled her – she opened her door, said, “Oh, you must be my neighbor” and before I could say, “Yes” she shot in and slammed the door behind her. I never saw them again after that.

But they were silent and my life was easy until some people moved in upstairs and changed my world a little bit by adding a child that cried all the time and a father that yelled about that much. It’s muted but their noise certainly became part of the fabric along with the running water and the flushing toilets.

Once day I returned from a trip to somewhere and found Amanda’s door mat gone. I figured that she must have made good on her threat and so returned to Korea. I didn’t think much of it until my first night back I heard a lot of yelling in the hallway – the new neighbors had arrived. Instantly I gained what must be the second level of living in a local place – neighbors that act like everyone else out on the street. Ten o’clock and night and no one thinks twice about yelling at someone around the corner waiting for the elevator. Life was not going to be the same.

It took a few weeks but I finally figured out that they were some sort of family. I have a big bay window on the south side of my living room and it’s arrayed in a funny way that causes the reflection of the bedroom in their apartment to appear on the inside of my windows. This only happens at night when their lights are on and I’m turning mine off, but the effect is weird – I have a pale ghostly person sitting at a desk working on a computer floating in my living room. Like some student from another dimension poking his way into mine. Judging from what I’ve seen so far, Chinese students really do study more than their western counterparts.

I ran into Ghost Boy and his mother in the elevator one day, again not realizing who they were until we both reached for the same floor button. The ride up from there was awkward, kind of like walking that 1st date up to the door and wondering if you should close in for the kiss. When the doors opened I let them get off first and followed them around the corner, hoping that they really lived at the other end. But no, they were the new ones. I mentioned that I was their neighbor (in Chinese, having looked up the word in my iPhone as the elevator rose) and the mother nodded and said nothing while Ghost Boy talked on his cell phone. We unlocked our respective doors and went into our respective homes – both stopping I’m sure to put our ears to the door to try and discern any little tidbit about the other.

The hallway yelling more or less abated as they made their last trips with stuff from their old place, wherever that might have been. We more or less settled into a quiet routine until one morning last week when I stepped out to lock my door and was greeted by a dog barking at me. It was behind the new neighbor’s door and it didn’t sound like much of a dog, kind of a little high pitched “are are are” peculiar to dust mop and rat dogs. I could hear it start at the back of its place and run headlong to the door to protect its family. I thought about kicking their door and giving it a shock but decided that might be considered rude in this culture. So I locked up and went off, returning later to the same thing – my floor is now guarded by a tiny pseudo-dog. This time though someone in the house started singing in Chinese – I guess that’s how they calm down their yapping apartment mutts here.

A couple of evenings ago, as the sun was going down and I went to the living room to see if there was a worthy photograph. Standing there looking out the window, I caught some movement in my left eye - an odd thing since I’m 24 floors above the ground - and I turned to see the little guard dog staring at me from his bay window, some sort of brown curly-haired embarrassment to the canine world with an attitude that he’s bigger than he really is. He was standing there looking at me. He didn’t bark so I assumed that he couldn’t see me for the reflection. He diddled around there for a couple of minutes and left, no doubt heading to the front of the house to check on the front door to wait for me to come home.




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