Cindy got right on it. Within a few days Ming and I were on our way to look at houses in the Regency Park complex. As expected the builder had brought together some of the best characteristics of Western homes while being careful not to include any architectural details that might suggest we were in China. As we drove through the sprawling complex, a migrant worker pedaled toward us on a three-wheeled bicycle cart piled impossibly high with discarded cardboard. He rode past a gleaming purple Bentley and a bright yellow Porsche Cayenne, parked on the street in front of one of the newly constructed upscale homes. The juxtaposition was an unambiguous reminder that we could be nowhere other than in modern China.
We parked and entered the first house on our list. It was a three-story home with amazing floor-to- vaulted-ceiling windows.
“Hey, look at this!” I said.
“An elevator?” Ming said, “But it’s only a three-story house. We’re not that lazy.”
“Speak for yourself,” I said, “I’m trying to put on 20 pounds by Christmas.”
“Oh, but you are already very fat,” Cindy said earnestly.
I might have gotten upset at Cindy’s comment if I hadn’t grown so used to such remarks. Historically, only wealthy people in China could afford enough food to become even the slightest bit pudgy. When China’s new trajectory toward a market oriented economy began in the late 80s, Deng Xiaoping famously said, “To get rich is glorious.” Complimenting someone by telling them they look fat was almost an extension of this famous exhortation. I wondered to what extremes one could take this:
“Your business must be doing well, you are very fat,” said Chinese guy #1.
“Oh, thank you very much! Did I mention that your wife has an enormous ass?” replied Chinese guy #2.
“You honor my family, but it is you who are on the fast track to morbid obesity,” said Chinese guy #1.
“You are too kind, hopefully we will all get gout soon and become invalids.”
On the other hand, try complimenting an American guy by telling him his wife has a big ass. I wondered how many Chinese traveling abroad must have learned the hard way that this is a huge – no pun intended – social faux pas in the West.
Just across from the elevator, and roughly the same size was the kitchen, which had but two burners on the stove.
The small stovetop reminded me of an aspect of Chinese cooking that had puzzled me for years. My father-in-law, while staying with us in New York, would often prepare dinner. This would typically consist of four or five dishes, plus rice. His approach was to cook the first dish, transfer it to a bowl and put it on the table. He then prepared the second dish, transferred it to a bowl, put it on the table, and so forth. By the time dinner was ready, all but the last dish was cold.
I always wondered if the problem was the inadequacy of our stove, which had a mere four burners. Were the burners too close together for him to use more than one at a time? Was he trying to leave the extra burners open in case I wanted to cook something else? Was he trying to save energy? Did he not know that the other knobs operated the other burners? I could never figure it out.
But here, in this modern kitchen in Shanghai, it all became clear: single burner stoves must have been the norm in China. The house we were seeing was a high-end one, so the builder had outdone himself by doubling the number of burners. Yet it still didn’t add up for me – we would need four burners if we were going to be able to become obese without having to eat cold food.
I walked the flight of stairs down to the basement and waited for the others to arrive in the elevator. It was nicely finished and spacious. There would be room for a playroom, a bar, and even a ping-pong table.
In a room off to the side, there was a modern looking washer and dryer. I was pleased that it had no markings in English on it. That would be the perfect excuse for me to never do the laundry.
“Look at this nice closet here in the laundry room,” I said.
“Ha, ha, not the closet,” said Cindy. “That’s for the Ayi.”
Ayi means “aunt” in Chinese, but it’s also a term typically used for domestic help, like Nannies.
“No! Really? We can’t make Lili sleep in here. There’s barely enough room for a bed.”
“Yes, bed. She very happy here. And next to laundry machines. Very convenient for the work.” Cindy said, letting her true identity as a real estate agent shine through.
As I climbed the two flights of stairs to the bedroom level, I wondered if Cindy had meant what she said or if she was just spouting another line of her real estate puffery. I pondered whether this was a human rights violation as I again waited for the others to arrive via the elevator.
Lili had been living with us for a few weeks by that point. She was from a small village in Sichuan province, had a great attitude and had been pretty much working 24/7 except when she took breaks to sleep. She cleaned the floors, cooked the meals, did the laundry and helped the kids with their Chinese homework. She had a great attitude, always smiled, got on well with the kids, and all this for less than $500 a month.
I pondered this for a moment, and thought that perhaps Cindy was right. Maybe she would be happy in a tiny room next to the laundry machines. Other people from villages like hers all across China were flocking to the cities in unprecedented numbers for factory jobs that paid far less in far worse conditions. Many of these poor migrants would toil 10 to 12 hours a day in dingy factories exposed to any number of chemicals, toxins and other hazards. The work would often be monotonous if not downright mind numbing. At the end of each day, they would retire to an adjoining equally dingy dormitory building. And at the end of each month, they would pocket little more than the equivalent of $100. Thought of in this context, Lili had practically hit the jackpot. And besides, could there be a better way to spend a day than with my kids?
By the time we finished touring the house, I was on board with the idea that Lili indeed would love living next to the laundry machine.
Two blocks away, we had a look at a newer house. This one was one story taller. I was thinking that the elevator might actually come in handy when I realized that this house didn’t have one. I wondered if this was a product of some miscommunication between the architect and the contractor.
“No, you dimwit, I wanted the elevators in the taller houses,” said the contractor.
“Oh, but then the cables would need to be longer, and that would cost more. To save you money, we put them in the shorter houses,” replied the architect.
I liked the taller house. And the stairs would help me get into shape. We quickly signed a rental contract with the owner and were scheduled to move in in about 2 weeks – just before Christmas. And what perfect timing: our furniture was on schedule to arrive at the Shanghai port any day now, and would need a week or two to clear customs.
It felt good to have the housing issue settled. Finally I would be able to devote myself fully to my new job. I had been in my new China role for little more than a month, but perplexing problems were already beginning to form.