Postcards from Abroad: Beijing

In this week's Beijing postcard, Dennis Vaughan describes the challenges of looking for accommodation in unfamiliar territoryHouse hunting is a supreme effort no matter what country you’re in, but even more so when you throw a language barrier into the equation. Up until I went to Inner-Mongolia I was renting on a short-term lease so I needed to look for a permanent residence once I got back. The dictionary was out in full force and I had my checklist at the ready. In China however, most of the things that make your checklist would be what you consider the bare necessities in Ireland, for example, a bed. Eventually I had a list translated the words for sofa, bed, wardrobe, washing machine, table and chairs, microwave and heating. This narrowed the list down quite a bit.In China the one thing estate agents are good at doing is wasting your time. You need to be very assertive and tell them exactly what you want and that if the house doesn’t have all of these things then you don’t want to view it. Otherwise you’ll be dragged all around the area looking at houses that are of no interest to you. One house we were brought to had cement floors. One had sellotape covering the holes in the windows while another had a mattress in the sitting room. “Where’s the second bedroom?” I asked him in Chinese, only for him to respond: “This is the second bedroom.”Eventually we found one that was suitable for us. It had a lot of people viewing it so we had to be quick to get our hands on it. This would have been fine were it not for the fact that almost every landlord in Beijing only accepts rent in quarterly payments. We had to scrape together three months rent as well as a deposit and the agency fee, both of which cost the same as a month’s rent. We didn’t have that much cash on hand but we ended up striking a deal with the landlord and she allowed us to pay half of it and the other half at the end of the month when we got paid.Given that there were two bedrooms and three people, we told the landlady the third person was my friend’s girlfriend who would be arriving next week. She’s a journalist though and staying true to form, she asked a ton of questions. I think she soon figured out that the two people sharing the room were both guys. She didn’t ask it directly though so we’ve reached a mutual understanding where she ignores it and we don’t shove it in her face. It’s working pretty well. China’s not exactly the most liberal country in the world so it’s less hassle to be discreet about being gay.After we moved in we had to get internet sorted because the agency didn’t help us to do it. That was possibly the most gruelling thing I’ve ever had to do in Beijing so far. I must have visited at least five different stores until somebody told me that the only people in my area that provide internet are China Unicom. After I went to their store in my area they told me that I had to go to Zhongguancun to get it instead which was two subway stops away. Getting internet has never been so complicated. Most of all when they look at like you’ve got two heads when you’re trying to communicate in broken Chinese. After queuing in what appeared to be the headquarters of China Unicom for over an hour, I eventually signed some papers and they said they’d send someone out in 72 hours.  The guy arrived on a Friday, set it up and left. Ten minutes later it broke. We got him to come back the next Monday and fix it but the connection is still really slow. I haven’t been able to access UCD connect to read any of my emails. Part of the reason for this though is because UCD mail is powered by Google now. Google’s banned in China. As a result I’m emailing the International Officer in Quinn using hotmail along with several other people.Halloween in was Beijing an experience. I dressed up as a panda. Original, I know. My costume consisted of a panda hat. I really went all out. You still do see a lot of people making the effort though despite the fact that Halloween isn’t an official holiday in China. Wudaokou, the student night life area, was packed with foreigners and quite a few Chinese too that were decked out for the occasion. It felt pretty much the same as Halloween at home. Most bars even had the classic best costume competitions. Needless to say, I didn’t win. It was a good night all the same. It fell on a Wednesday which is the night in Wudaokou where you can pay €8 for an open bar (or €4 if you’re a girl). Halloween or not, you’re going to have a good night when it’s €8 for all you can drink.College is the same as ever. The 8am starts are still a killer, especially now that the winter is approaching. Winter in Beijing drops as low as -20?C which isn’t going to be fun. Last weekend it snowed which can only be an omen for what’s to come. In order to survive I’ve decided I’m going to have to take the Korean’s approach to the cold. I’ve never seen a race more equipped against the cold. You can usually spot them a mile away on campus because their always wearing thermal trousers and puffy jackets, particularly North Face ones for some reason. I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of a ‘Gangham Style’ pun in there somewhere but after hearing the song blaring absolutely everywhere for the past two months, I just don’t have it in me.Read: Denis Vaughan’s third Postcard from Abroad