Roll up those taxi windows, drag your bags through security… this only comes every ten years. Beijing’s bitter wind welcomed 2270 delegates yesterday to shine their shoes and take their seats in a room booked for the “18th National Congress”. While the U.S. lets out its breath to enjoy another four years under Obama’s leadership, China prepares itself for a new president and premier (7 of the 9 current Politburo Standing Committee members are retiring this year). Xi Jinping, the likely candidate to replace President Hu Jintao, emphasized four main questions to be addressed at this year’s conference, namely: What flag will we wave? What path will we follow? And in what state of mind? To continue advancing towards what kind of goals? (我们党将举什么旗、走什么路、以什么样的精神状态、朝着什么样的目标继续前进) Specific, I know. Citizens wait eagerly to see what solutions the committee generates for problems like insufficient health care, inflated real estate, and the growing gap between the rich and poor. As news stations flash snippets of animated discussions over round mahogany tables, the mysterious lure of the national government grows in the eyes of the people. Local and provincial governments may be corrupt or unfair, but loyalty towards the national government is a tradition that stretches back thousands of years, born from the people’s innocent dependency and undying hope in a power that remains faceless. Just as religion presses followers to have faith in what they cannot see, a government too can round up millions of supporters if only by providing a mirage of hope.
I used to despise them. Circling overhead like murderous hawks looking to snatch up every sunset, every starry night, they were a villain, and I resented the peeling grey that cascaded down their lazy trunks. Skyscrapers. Why would a country build so gosh-darn many and then wonder why the air quality dropped nearly as fast as the average life expectancy?
And then, this past spring, I had my first opportunity to search for an apartment. Falling into a category of those unforgettable “first-times” in one’s life, house hunting is never an easy task, and Shenzhen happens to house astronomically diverse yet simultaneously limited options. For example, the oceanside apartments photographed above, where I currently reside due to a mere stroke of luck and a fairly generous boss, can cost upwards of $300,000 USD to a million (for purchase), or over $1,000 USD rent per month. That price will buy you about 75-150 square meters of a very average apartment. No yard, no driveway, no front porch, but a home in a high-rise complete with elevators, key-cards, and security guards. Wonderful. And then, there’s the other option: Similar in appearance to the million dollar homes in the first photograph, don’t be fooled— rent at this first apartment was only 4,000 RMB a month… or $650 US dollars, for a four-bedroom place (around 200 square meters). I’m not sure how much it’d be to buy, but probably wouldn’t exceed 500,000 RMB, or just over $81,000 USD. The downside, as my parents would tell you after visiting, is that these apartments are extremely old (well, anything built 20 years ago in China is terribly rundown, so the phrase “old” begs a new definition). Living in them tends to make one depressed. My strategy was to wander the streets for hours after work, coming home at bedtime, when I could shut my eyes and dream about seaside mansions.
So, returning to my experience this spring. With essentially only two options of apartments described above, searching for that ideal, averagely-priced, beautiful abode is nearly impossible. To top it off, I soon discovered that every online real estate website posted fake photographs of apartments for rent and listed prices that, go figure, were also inaccurate. A decent prospect seen on the Internet, therefore, would turn out to be an expensive and ugly waste of time upon a visit in person.
Within a week, I’d scoured almost every page on every English and Chinese real estate website, crossing off nearly every apartment complex in the entire city for one reason or another.
So one day around that time, I remember riding the bus to work one morning, when I suddenly caught sight of all those darned apartment buildings rising slyly into the air. And I remember thinking, my god, there’s not enough! There is not one single apartment building that suits my needs. And out of nowhere, I began searching desperately for construction sites. The sight of cranes and dirt made me giddy. I thought, perhaps this new site will become my future home— perhaps it’s being made especially for people like me, for people with my precise salary and aesthetic demands.
About a month into the search, my boss caught word that I was trying to “take measures into my own hands” and search for a single to rent. Afraid that this meant I was planning to quit, she persuaded me to live in the company-provided apartment, assuring me that they would buy a newer one in a much nicer area. I agreed to consider her suggestion, but continued searching on my own. Until, one afternoon, our secretary took me and another coworker to see what the office was considering renting. That’s the stroke of luck I mentioned earlier… it turned out to be quite alright… dreamlike, actually. And it would be free, apart from water and electricity.
Nowadays, it’s hard to find that same hatred within my heart that I used to hold for those towering, massive blocks of concrete. Sure, they may not be the prettiest things ever, but I know that there’s someone out there looking up at their grandeur, as I did only months ago, wondering if it could ever be called “home”.