china, expat life,

House Hunting in Post-Covid China

Daddy Jan 15, 2021 · 5-min read
House Hunting in Post-Covid China

A new job in a new city was where I pictured myself when thinking about my escape from Huawei, but it seemed Shenzhen was the only place hiring. My new job is on the other side of the city, so in a way, it feels like a different city. The subtropical weather and lack of indigenous culture are the same, and so is the process of finding a house.

The way apartment listings work in China I can only assume is illegal in more developed parts of the world. Maybe 3 out of 10 things on the (reliable) website are what they say they are, and the rest are bait and switch. I’d started out dignified and indignant not doing business with people who’d say things like “Oh shucks, by golly we done rented that’n out yesterdee” and then show you things in the same price range but laughably worse. But that’s how it is. The only thing you can do is get their contact information and tell them your requirements: separate bedroom, kitchen, Western toilet, decent view. Though most ignored these, the last one no one understood as if there’s no middle ground between only seeing the adjacent building and a commanding view of the four corners of the earth.

The first time I went to see a place, the ladies in the management office shot uncasual glances my way as the agent went in to get the key. He came out and said it’d been rented. Come to find out, that was code for no foreigner allowed. Several other agents were more direct.

Right as I started my house search, Shenzhen was hit with several reported cases that created a furor (suspiciously around the time vaccines were being pushed). The aversion people showed me as a foreigner came back as did the barricades and checkpoints. Most of the places in the area that I could afford wouldn’t rent to foreigners, and the places that would were rip-offs. On an app called “Warm Room” (暖房), I found a sublet that checked all the boxes. “With a little effort, I persuaded management to let a foreigner stay,” he said on a Monday. “Management doesn’t allow foreigners,” he said. What bothered me most was that it was still Monday, only a few hours later in person. I popped my knuckles, limbered up a bit, and got to work using logical reasoning with the management.

“Why can’t I live here”

“This community doesn’t allow foreigners because the pandemic is really bad right now”

“What does that have to do with me? I haven’t left since 2019”

“Actually we’ve never allowed foreigners to live here”

“What about that foreigner that just went in”

“He’s been renting from us for a couple of years”

It was no use. My lease on my old apartment was ending soon, and I was getting tired of playing Jim Crow so I called the cops. Not 110, just the local police station and talked to a woman who, unable to snake out with “that’s not my jurisdiction”, just never “got back to me”. Because the sublettor only benefitted from my success, he helped me wring out the numbers of the big boss (in Hong Kong) and someone known as “the Grid” (网格) from the frantic receptionist trapped on a scooter that wasn’t starting. The Grid never replied, but somewhere behind the scenes the gears were turning. The apartment gave me some hoops to jump through, and I was in.


One of the hoops was getting tested for the vaccine. It wasn’t discriminatory because the entire district, and maybe most of the city had to get tested three or four times in two weeks. Foldable canopies running into the night were set up in the city’s unoccupied spaces. The queues marked by black cones and flimsy “Caution Safety” tape went quickly. My first time through, I was batoned a plastic test tube of pink gel and gave it to a girl in hazmat gear. For every new person, she took off one pair of gloves, rubbed hand sanitized on the second pair taped to her gown, and then put on a fresh pair. After ding-dong-ditching your uvula with a cotton swab, she snapped the tip off into the gel. The second time, I realized the tube is only given to the first person in your squad of 7 or 8 that all share the same tube, so if one person had the bing (that’s Chinese for disease), you all get flagged.

The results magically appear 48 hours later on this app and then expires after 72. My community had police waiting at the entrance to check for results. No one was allowed to enter unless they had followed the public health mandate. If you didn’t, the only way you were getting to sleep in your own bed that night would be to fight the cops with homemade weapons, scale the 12 foot fence over its pointed top, or go out the back entrance of this one supermarket on the corner. In China, there’s a backdoor for everything*, and sometimes they’re literal.

*Completely unrelated side note: I ran into a friend just getting back from driving school. She said it was boring because she just sat in the car for an hour. Not as a passenger, in the driver seat. No one else in the car. Not driving, just looking straight ahead. (?) Because they’ll see you if look at your phone. (?) The camera will see you. (?) The camera in the car. The government will see you. You need proof of driving hours. (?) Because it’s cheaper to pretend you’re driving, and the government can’t tell the difference.

This is my place — bedroom to the immediate right and bathroom around the corner.


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Who is your Daddy?Follow
Technophobe gracing tech companies in the Global 500, Fortune 500, a Kickstarter unicorn, and several little dinky places. Bike touring is my sanity factory.