Sunday, December 12, 2010

Report #10

This is what thirty thousand Yuan looks like. It’s the most money I’ve ever held in my hand before….the most, as in physically, because it’s nowhere near thirty thousand dollars. But it is three hundred of one thing--three hundred bills of money--and feels equally provocative. This is how I paid for my apartment; one lump sum for one year’s rent. That’s just how hot the rental market is in Beijing and goes to show how unscathed the Chinese economy is after the financial Crisis.

One of my co-workers, Qing Bo, couldn’t come into work one Saturday a few weeks back because he and his wife had to sell their house. I asked our project manager “So, does he have to go to a closing or something?”
“No…he’s just doing an open house.”
“Oh, I see…”
When Qing Bo came into work on Monday his house was sold. Just one day on the market, and he already bought another, an even bigger one.

I suppose when making large transactions most people get cashier checks or something equivalent, but I had to pull money out of ATM machines from several of my US bank accounts to pay a year’s rent. In the end I racked up hefty fees from the servicing bank, the kind that don’t show up right away. I had half a dozen $15 dollar fees from the Chinese bank. I guess they don’t like TCF back home, but I had no way of knowing at the time. It’s not like the $2.00 fee you agree to upfront. In hindsight I should have consolidated funds between my US accounts and made a single wire transfer to my Chinese bank account, but at the time speed was all that mattered.

Logistics aside, what I want to focus on is the rawness of this stack. The weight of it in the folded envelope I used to cart it around. The secret I was carrying as I passed any number of potential thieves that could smell giant stacks of money like wolves smell blood. At the lease signing I wasn’t sure when to pull out the fat envelope as it would somehow prove I was vulnerable in the deal, no room to negotiate any last hiccups, I had the money, I was all in.

A big stack of money is dirty. Counting and handling it makes your hands a little grimmey. My landlady is an amazing counter of money. She used a technique where she held the folded wad with both hands and meticulously pulled each bill off the stack with her pinky and ring finger while keeping everything perfectly aligned with her thumbs and fingers. It was like watching a fiddler crab eat a piece of meat.

My counting technique was awkward and sloppy, monopoly-style. I made little stacks in equal amounts so that when I screwed up I didn’t have to start all over. As careful as I tried to be I still messed up by giving her 100 Yuan too much, which she was nice enough to pull out. I left that day feeling a little nervous at what, if any influence I had with my landlord if something were to go wrong with the apartment. I mean…. I couldn’t exactly stop paying rent. I also wondered what she was going to do with that chunk of money. Would it go to pay off something? Or would she stuff it in a shoebox under a mattress?

Handing over the money seemed like something far more criminal was happening than a simple rental agreement; the Chinese contract that was illegible to me, the two apartment broker girls standing there in black suits looking bored, the landlady and her husband who wandered around the apartment as if it was the first time he had seen it. For a moment I wondered if I was living out the email scam that you’re not supposed to reply to. Having Ying, the office secretary, there made things seem safer. My tensions of future apartment problems eased when my landlady fixed a leak and some cracked plaster on my porch and bought me two space heaters within the first week. And every so often she text messages Ying to ask if I need anything. Now, two months into it I couldn’t be happier with this little home, the thing that thirty thousand other things was traded for.

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