16. The Cleanest Air

The following week on the way to work, I replayed the day in my mind.

Palm Springs, Golden Oscar and Buckingham Villa were too far from the school.  Vizcaya had no backyard. Green Hills stank and Beverly Hills was short a bedroom.

We had also stopped at a few high-rise apartment buildings in the intervening week.  Century Garden was one of them.  In the elevator, I noticed there were no 4th or 14th floors. In some Chinese dialects, the word for “four” sounds like the word for “death.”  At least there was no superstition surrounding 13, and that’s where we were headed.  As we looked around one apartment, I noticed that the windows could be opened wide – no child safety latches.

“Oh, those can be added easily,” Cindy said.

That might have been true, but there was no doubt in my mind that the kids would find friends in other units, and that those units would have the same problem.  I guess we could host all playdates in our apartment but that wouldn’t be practical.  As we waited for the elevator on the freezing cold 13th floor, a man snuffed out a cigarette and tossed the butt out an open window.  That was the icing on the cake.  With so many smokers in Shanghai, how could this place not be a deathtrap?  Despite the expertise that the Chinese had recently gained in so many areas, putting out high rise fires didn’t strike me as a core competence. In fact, I read somewhere that Shanghai has a fraction of the firefighting capacity of a typical American city.  That was it. High rises were out.

This Shanghai apartment building burned down a few months after we ruled out high rises. Good thing we didn’t move here!

Time was running short for us, and there was still no obvious answer.  The winner would have to be the lesser of many evils. I thought about each property. Maybe I was being too hard on Dong Jiao.  The Chinese-style grounds were beautiful.  And despite the late nineties interior design catastrophe, the house would at least be comfortable.  I remembered Cindy’s comment about the clean air.  That was important to me.

I phoned her when I got to the office.

“Cindy, I’d like to see Dong Jiao again.”

“Sure, I can arrange it.  When?”

“How about tomorrow morning?  Our driver will be taking Ming to work at that time, but if you can pick me up around 8:15 so we can see the house at 8:30, that would be great.”

“Okay, no problem.”

“Oh, and please don’t be late.  I have an important meeting and need to be back in my office by 10.”

“No problem, Erik.  See you at 8:15.”

The following morning I waited for Cindy by the living room window. 8:15 came and went.  At 8:30, I figured she’d be arriving at any moment.  I called her anyway to double-check.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.  The traffic is very heavy this morning.  I will be there in a few minutes.”

There was still time to make my meeting so I went outside and waited on the street.  If this dragged on another 15 minutes or so, I would have a decision to make. Either I’d have to cancel my meeting or cancel Cindy.

Twenty minutes went by.  It was already past decision time.  I called Cindy to check on her ETA.

“Oh, so much traffic, but I am almost there.”

“So you’re very close?” I asked.

“Yes, yes, I will be there very soon.”

Another ten minutes passed.  I really needed to settle the housing situation, so I cancelled my meeting, and kept waiting for Cindy.  I was in the contact center optimization business.  The world would go on if I missed a meeting.

The traffic in Shanghai was a problem and there wasn’t anything Cindy or I could do about it.  At least this way I wouldn’t have to rush.

So I waited.  And waited.  I called Cindy once more after 45 minutes to make sure she wasn’t playing a practical joke on me.

“Yes, I’m very nearby.”

Maybe there was something lost in translation. “Cindy, are you traveling by rickshaw by any chance?”

“Haha, I’m almost there!” she said.

Maybe she was lost and didn’t want to admit it. “Do you have the address right?  One Long Dong?” I hoped she understood that I meant the address.

“Yes, yes, I know.”

It was frustrating but I understood what had happened.  She had gotten herself into a situation from which there was no graceful exit.  She couldn’t very well say, “Okay, I woke up at 8:27 and when I told you at 8:30 that I was almost there, I was actually just getting into a cab on the opposite end of town, knowing that the world’s worst traffic lay ahead.”

I wasn’t surprised that Cindy had been economical with the truth.  And actually I wasn’t even angry about it. I was surprised, perhaps even shocked, however, that I had found a real estate agent who hadn’t mastered the art of lying.

In America I don’t think you can pass the real estate licensing exam without having learned some basic deception skills.  A better trained agent would have said something like there’s a pile up on the highway and I’m helping pull people to safety or that a family of pandas had escaped from the zoo and was running amok along the highway. At least these lies were imaginative and would have demonstrated a certain industriousness.

She finally picked me up and I believe I detected some embarrassment.  Maybe it was just me being embarrassed for her.  We drove to Dong Jiao State Guest House in light traffic.

The house and neighborhood seemed to check out on my second visit.  The place was functional, we’d have fresh air, and it wasn’t far from school or work.  As Cindy kept chattering away about Jiang Zhemin’s son and the clean air in that neighborhood, I was coming around.  Even better, the price was within range.  Most important, I was out of time.

I decided right then and there that Dong Jiao would be it for us.  Cindy was elated.  It’s probably rare in her industry for extreme tardiness to be rewarded with a commission.

As we drove back through the elegant Chinese gardens, I was feeling good about my decision.  The guard saluted as we exited the compound.  It made me feel like a general. I saluted back and wondered if he felt as silly about it as I did.

I called Ming to tell her the good news.

“Hey, it’s me.  I think we have a new home,” I said as we turned right onto the main road and drove past a gigantic smokestack.

“That’s great,” she said.

“Actually, let me call you back,” I said as I did a double take over my shoulder.

The smokestack was spewing an enormous cloud of white and grey filth. How could I not have seen it before?  Had we come via a different route?

“Cindy?” I said pointing at the spectacle.

She turned to look at it, “Yes?”

“There’s a smokestack there. It’s directly across the street from Dong Jiao.  Have you not seen that before?”

Deadpan, she said, “Oh, they have smokestacks all over Shanghai, but it is quite far from Dong Jiao.”

“Quite far from Dong Jiao?  It’s right next to Dong Jiao.  It’s practically in Dong Jiao!”

“But the air is completely clean here.  This is the cleanest air in Shanghai. Jiang Zhemin’s son wouldn’t stay there if the air was polluted.”

Her fingers must have been crossed behind her back.

I was incredulous.  How could she possibly be sticking to her story? Her perjury was so amateur. Maybe it was a ruse to get me to appreciate one of the other terrible places we’d seen.

“I think this is going to be a problem, Cindy.”

This must be the source of the cleanest air in Shanghai.

This must be the source of the cleanest air in Shanghai.

As Cindy chattered on about how clear the air was, some things became clear to me: A smokestack was not a step up from an electrical transmission tower and Jiang Zhemin’s son had his head up his ass if he thought the air around here wasn’t polluted.  Maybe this is why China has such terrible pollution – the guys at the top either don’t notice it or don’t care.

I felt no ill will toward Cindy, but I needed someone I could trust.  I needed an agent who understood my western way of doing business.  I needed someone whose lies I could not detect until after the lease was signed and the check had cleared.



12. Our New Address

Let me backtrack just a little bit now so you understand the significance of what comes next in the story. While I was still in New York with the kids, about a month before we boarded the plane, my wife had managed to rent a house for us in Shanghai. She sent pictures and it seemed to be okay. The pictures even showed blue skies. For China that was really something extraordinary.

Our new home in China. It even came with a blue sky.

I had taken many trips to China since my initial visit to Changsha, but I couldn’t recall ever having seen an even faintly blue sky. As the economy had grown in recent decades, pollution had also increased on a similar scale. The country had been undergoing an industrial revolution and there was a price to be paid for the progress. I was very concerned about exposing my kids to such a polluted environment. The blue skies were a good sign; perhaps life would be better in the new China and we’d be able to live away from the contaminated output of the factories.

I was still far from being sold, though. I couldn’t put it into words at the time but I didn’t quite see this as the next stop on my, until now, slightly upward trajectory in life. It looked okay in the photos but without seeing it in person, it was hard to tell if this would be an acceptable place to live. Then she told me the address of the compound it was in:

 One Long Dong Avenue

My fears and misgivings vanished in an instant. It was going to be okay. I was sure that I would soon play host to a steady stream of visitors – old friends, colleagues, and relatives would all want to visit Shanghai and experience this address first hand. There was simply nothing like it anywhere in the world.  The best competition would have been Butt Hole Road in South Yorkshire, England, but that had been renamed to Archer’s Way over a decade ago for some unknown reason.

The opportunities for eighth grade humor would be practically limitless. If I could just get past the spam filters, this could be the beginning of a truly great string of emails. Perhaps it would even go viral.

I could tell the world that we had also considered houses on Short Dong Avenue and Small Nuts Drive, but for reasons of stature and accuracy we chose the Long Dong property instead. And we wouldn’t be moving to just anywhere on Long Dong Avenue. We would be at Number One, a number the Chinese hold in the highest esteem.

Even though “Long Dong” innocently means “East Dragon” in Chinese, the average Westerner would react similarly to the way Bill from the moving company did.

We were sitting in the dining room on Long Island filling out paperwork when he asked me if I had a destination address in China that he’d be able to understand. I told him that not only would he be able understand it, but that he’d be amused by it. Bill was a real New Yorker.  He was from Queens and it seemed that this was the best thing that had happened to him in a long time. For the rest of the day, every time he was on his cell phone, no matter who he was talking to, he would announce amid howls of laughter, “You’ll never guess where this guy is moving to….. Long Dong Avenue….. That’s right…. Long… Dong…. Avenue. It’s an actual address in China. Can you believe it?” And then he’d say something like, “Well, we don’t exactly know what happened to your container, but I’ll call you back if the truck shows up.”

As the plane touched down 15 hours later at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, I was optimistic. I was psyched about my new address, and even though the skies were just as gray and murky as they were on my earlier visits to China, I wasn’t going to let that spoil my enthusiasm.  It had been a hard slog getting prepared for the big move and now that we were finally here, I was ready to settle in to our new home.  We pulled into the Long Dong complex and drove up to the house. It looked nice, just as it did in the pictures.

As I got out of the car, though, I found myself standing next to an enormous problem.  Not more than 30 yards from the side of the house was a 200-foot tall electrical transmission tower, the biggest one I had ever seen. Maybe this is what they meant by “Long Dong” in the address. Impressive as it was on some level, it was certainly not the type of Long Dong I wanted my family associated with. It was disgraceful.

The view from One Long Dong Avenue. This is worse than New Jersey.

“You’ve got to be kidding! How could you not mention this?” I said to Ming, somewhat bewildered.

“Oh that?  What’s wrong with that?” she replied.

“What’s wrong with it?  It’s the ugliest thing I’ve seen since that wedding in Bayonne, New Jersey!”

“Don’t get so excited, it’s not such a big deal,” she said.

I realized that I had raised my voice. Perhaps subconsciously I was trying to ensure that I could be heard above the hum of the transmission lines.

“You sent me all these nice pictures of the place, but none of them included this! In New York, we had a view of the harbor. And not only is this ugly, it’s probably dangerous too! What if it falls on the house? What if the kids try to climb it? What about electromagnetic radiation?”

Now I didn’t know for sure if any of these things posed a real hazard.  Maybe it’s perfectly fine to live next to high voltage transmission lines.  But I had young kids and I didn’t want to take chances.

So that was that.  My mind was made up even before I entered the house.  My dreams of living on what is perhaps the single greatest phallic symbol road on the planet were ruined. Trashed. Done for. The best I’d be able to do for visitors would be to take them for a drive through this neighborhood. Perhaps a few would still come.

We entered the house and I found that the furniture – we were renting the house furnished – consisted of over-sized sofas, a fake gold leaf table, and an overly elaborate chandelier.  In China this is known as the Ornate European style. To me, and especially given my sour state-of-mind, it was just gaudy crap.  It was a mishmash of cheap odds and ends thrown together with no rhyme or reason. I expressed my distaste for the decor without mincing words. Ming took this as an indication that I was having a tantrum. I told her that I most certainly was not.  Then I stomped around the house for 20 minutes to prove my point.

When I was done and had calmed myself down, we decided that it would be a good idea to find a different place to live immediately.  We had six weeks before our container on the boat from New York would arrive.