Short Story 2: Shanghai, China
Shanghai Sighs in China's New York
This short story includes some of my experiences working and living in Shanghai, China, for two and a half years from 2017 to 2019. We’ll uncover three situations with sober goggles that textbooks and colleges don’t prepare us to wrestle. Now, buckle up, and let's go!
Shanghai Sighs (2019)
I leave work feeling dispirited from being underappreciated for my contributions. As I’m crossing the street and peddling on the Mobike, which is public bicycle people can rent on the sidewalks, a jumbo-sized public bus appears close to running me over. My arms go in the air, and I say, “What the f***!” Pedestrians have the right of way because of the green guy on the crosswalk, and it’s a red light for the bus. According to word-of-mouth advice by some Shanghainese locals, “Bus drivers will run you over; they don’t care.” Negativity is shadowing my cerebrum as I peddle the bicycle to Tera Wellness. The gym session helps me cool down, but the tension arises at JN International Apartments. The apartment about eight feet across from mine belongs to Van. After 9:00 p.m. during the workweek, she talks loud on the phone with the window open, which is next to her apartment door, while her mainstream club music blasts in the background. Van’s sharp Vietnamese tone sounds as if she’s shouting. The wooden walls are so thin that the drop of a pen creates an echo effect on the hallway floors outside of the apartments at the indoor compound. Van and I didn’t start on the wrong foot. We met in the shared laundry room in January 2017. Whenever we cross paths, we acknowledge each other, followed by a smile. Politely asking if she could close her window so that I can sleep doesn’t seem like a problem. Besides, I asked her nicely last week, and she appeared chill. Keep in mind that Van’s a pimp managing a group of Vietnamese massage girls. Her workers drop off money in the middle of the night at odd hours, mainly on the weekends. I get rude awakenings between three and six o’clock in the morning due to the sharp talking of Van and her call girls. Recently, I saw a female at her doorstep dressed in a miniskirt with shiny knee-high black boots. Van kept the door open, symbolically telling her neighbors (I’m the main one) that she doesn’t care about disturbing the peace. My mind isn’t entirely over the bus incident a few hours ago. Van doesn’t want to stop yapping on her phone as I trying unwinding for bed. My earplugs don’t provide relief. I get out of bed in pajamas, not bothering to put on my contacts (I don’t have a pair of prescription eyeglasses), and knock on Van’s door. ALDO: Hi. Do you mind closing the window? I’m trying to go to sleep. Asking her calmly generates a look of disgust on her face. VAN: (SIGH) You always sleep! ALDO: It’s 10:30; I wake up early for work. VAN: All the time you sleep, sleep, sleep. FUCK YOU! The neighbor slams the door of her apartment in my face. ALDO: You know what? Fuck you, bitch. People are trying to sleep! People have work in the morning! Not like you, lazy! She immediately opens the door. VAN: FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! I don’t believe in degrading or raising my hand toward women. Domestic violence by males toward females is wicked. Using vulgarity against the opposite sex isn’t my style either. Swearing at Van to defend myself isn’t one of my proudest moments, though she crossed the line, taking my kindness as weakness. Fighting fire with fire is what gets the point across with idiots like Van, and there’s no room for negotiation. After messaging Han, I hear a knock on Van’s door two minutes later. Rather than staying in a shell, I open the door, and there she is, approximately eight feet across from my apartment standing beside Han. ALDO: Let me tell you what happened. I asked her if she can close her window. I was nice, and she started yelling. I’m trying to sleep. I have work in the morning; I wake up early. Han and Van slug it out in Mandarin. Van’s shouting in his face and appears ready to throw some blows. ALDO: I don’t care if you talk to your friends, just close your window at night. People need to sleep. Van’s temper flares the more Han speaks. She’s in front of her door, Han is in the middle, and I’m approximately four feet away from Van. The neighbor’s not going to play fair by closing the window next to her door, so I take the initiative. Van reaches toward the window with grinding teeth, trying to prevent me from closing it, but I shut it. She lunges at me, but Han’s holding her back. Van throws a rapid snap kick to my groin area. I manage to scoop her heel to prevent a full kick to my nuts. I zone into Van’s pupils with fury and point my finger in her face authoritatively. ALDO: You have no education! No class! Van’s eyes widen. She shuts up for a few seconds. The truth hurts. Van continues to bark at Han. HAN: Go inside apartment. I take care of this. I will move her to another apartment. Minor pain is surfacing on my right testicle. I managed to prevent her foot from striking the entire groin area, but blurry vision without my contact lenses and a lack of alertness enabled Van to squeeze in her left big toe, pinching my right ball. I’m not wearing underwear underneath my pajamas, so the testicles are loose and vulnerable. I feel worn out the next morning at work and after evaluating last night’s commotion. Van could’ve been under the influence of alcohol or narcotics because of her animalistic behavior. When work is about to end, I check in with Han concerning Van’s status. Apparently, he’s not going to move her to another apartment. HAN: I talk to her today. I tell her if she have problem again, I will remove her. ALDO: So she’s not moving to another apartment? HAN: No. Van gets a slap on the wrist. I thought Han had my back. A part of me thinks I should’ve raised some hell by calling the police last night. My call probably would’ve gotten dismissed since rules work differently in China, including assault charges, particularly from a man toward women. Supposedly, a man can hit a woman and get away without repercussions from the Shanghai police. I need to get out of JN International Apartments.
My Christmas vacation is less than a week away. However, an apartment down the road from where I’m currently staying is vacant. The agent shows me the place. Clothes are everywhere inside the bedroom. Fang says that the current tenant is moving out in three days. My intuition is telling me to come back to the apartment when the current tenant moves out. The rent amount is the same as what I’m paying at my current place, too. I gave the landlord a thirty-day notice at the beginning of the month. Word-of-mouth from Shanghai leasing agents and common sense concludes that giving Chau a heads-up about moving isn’t a requirement because our leasing agreement expired eleven months ago in January 2018. Chau’s aware of me leaving around New Year’s Eve, which is the same day two months of prepaid rent is due. It has been three days since I visited the apartment with Fang, and after looking it over, the odds of paying a holding deposit before I leave to travel are high. Negotiating to get the monthly rent lower (even by a small fraction) takes place between Fang and me on WeChat. The landlord agrees to lease the apartment for less than the listing price on SmSH. I’ll save $200 a year. I accept the terms and conditions and meet with Fang and the landlords to pay the deposit. A mother and her forty-year-old son are calm and welcoming. I’m traveling abroad in two days; I return to Shanghai on Saturday, December 29, and move-in day is on Sunday, December 30. Packing my stuff won’t feel like a drag since the apartment is furnished. On the other hand, the landlord at my place continues to dodge messages. Chau owes me the deposit (one month’s rent) at the end of the month. I connect with Harold, the agent who got me the apartment eighteen months ago, and he sets up a group chat. CHAU: I cannot pay the deposit. I need to lease the apartment. ALDO: No, you need to give me my deposit by the time I move out. I gave you a one-month notice. CHAU: You should give two months’ notice. ALDO: I’m not on a contract anymore. Harold gets his former colleague to assist with the dispute because he no longer works for the leasing agency, but Aly does. She’s allegedly handled some sticky situations between tenants and landlords in Shanghai. ALDO: I am moving out at the end of this month. The landlord doesn’t want to give me back my deposit. I gave him a thirty-day notice. The contract expired a year ago. ALY: The landlord say you did a verbal agreement to extend. ALDO: He never said anything; I never agreed, and there’s no written contract. I should be thrilled about today for two reasons: (1) it’s Friday, my favorite day of the week, and (2) I’m going on vacation. Still, I’m worried. Chau’s reluctance to find a solution to the deposit is diluting my excitement. I’m keen to get an answer today from Harold or Aly. ALY: The landlord said you must give two months’ notice according to the contract. ALDO: That’s the old contract. It expired eleven months ago in January 2018. ALY: The landlord does not want to talk to me anymore. I cannot do anything. There is no new contract with you and him. Please send a copy of the old contract to the group chat and talk to him. Rather than going from work directly to the airport, I roll my suitcase back to my apartment and do a quick pit stop to retrieve the contract, take a picture, and post it in the group chat on WeChat. The expired agreement doesn’t state anything about a notice period to the landlord. Chau doesn’t reply to the contract images despite Harold calling him out on being wrong and saying that he needs to return my deposit within nine days. The plane is about to leave in less than an hour, and Chau hasn’t responded. I tell Harold to hold off; I’m in vacation mode now. Dealing with messages regarding the mess involving the deposit is getting placed on the back burner. Nine days gives Chau time to gather some funds. Perhaps the landlord allocated my deposit to renovate an apartment or for personal interests. I’m back in Shanghai a week later and moving tomorrow (Sunday, December 30). The group chat was idle while I was away. A nondemanding follow-up message gets sent from my end to Chau that the apartment is clean and ready to inspect tonight or tomorrow morning. No response. Chau’s not getting the keys until I receive my deposit. By nightfall, I send another text. Again, the landlord is unresponsive. He might not forfeit the money. I’ll continue fighting until my options run out. Not having the deposit in my possession on New Year’s Eve is psychologically rattling at my new apartment. I contact Harold, and he calls Aly. HAROLD: The landlord said he will not pay. Go to the police. ALDO: I’m going with the old contract. Can you help translate? HAROLD: Yes, call me. Give the phone to the policeman. This course of action is the final bullet in the chamber. 2018 is ending in five hours, and closure concerning the deposit situation is what I desire. Other than the two officers behind the glass counter, who appear ready to call it a night, the Jing’an police station is empty. I give the expired contract and phone with Harold on the other line to the cop. Three minutes later, he hands over my phone to me. HAROLD: They say we need to call agency and tell them to tell landlord to pay. ALDO: We tried a few times already! HAROLD: I know; they cannot do anything. I am sorry. I give the two male police officers a surprised you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me look. One of them shrugs while the other moves his hands, demonstrating to go away as if I’m a zoo animal blocking a busy intersection. Harold’s still on the phone as I walk out of the police station. ALDO: These police officers are shit! This is how they treat foreigners? Landlords can just get away with keeping deposits, and the police won’t help? HAROLD: Some of the rules with police confusing. Last year, I start a business with partner. I paid 30,000 RMB, we signed the contract. The next day, the guy leave Shanghai. I go to police; they cannot help me. I will try my best to pay you in one or two years, but I need to pay 30,000 RMB in debt. I am very sorry. ALDO: It’s not your fault. You helped me by telling Chau to pay and talking to the police. You don’t owe me any money. Thanks for all the help. Chau screwed me over, but Harold’s story helps me put things in perspective. Losing my deposit is peanuts in contrast to his loss of 30,000¥ (nearly $4,435) due to a promising business venture, resulting in a scam from a shady business partner. Still, I’m looking forward to a better year in 2019.
1.3: Phone Calls
Outside on the lively Shaanxi Road, two Shanghai police officers instruct me to follow them. The men storm into a shop without saying a word, and I’m at the back of them, squeezing my way through. I’ve never been inside this place. The police quickly examine a pink room in the back area where pets are resting. One guy says something to me in Mandarin; I shrug, looking confused. A Chinese woman (I don’t know her name, so I’ll call her Jing) is the owner of the pet shop. JING: It is the noise next door from the shoe repair shop. ALDO: There’s a lot of loud hammer noise inside my apartment. I live on the third floor. The landlord told me to call the police if I hear too much noise. The police said to follow them. JING: I know. The shoe repair hit the hammer on metal every day. I have a headache sometimes. ALDO: Can you tell the police that the noise is coming from the shop next door? Before Jing can answer, the two officers exit the pet shop in a hurry and tell me to follow them. Outside on the sidewalk, surrounded by Chinese locals who are wondering what's happening as the commotion is unfolding, feels uncomfortable, and people keep coming closer. It’s a busy Sunday afternoon with lots of people walking by. One cop (the aggressive guy) begins shouting at the owner, who’s standing outside of his shoe repair shop, which is next door to the pet shop. I live on the third floor, and the shoe repair shop is in the same compound on the first floor. Jing comes out of the pet shop to defend the owner of the shoe repair shop. The rowdy cop and Jing exchange words in each other’s faces. Jing’s the calmer one, but she’s not showing signs of backing down. The observers clearly hear her messages. As usual, I don’t understand the Mandarin dialogue. Jing is within kissing distance of me as a bunch of Chinese locals surround us, shoulder-to-shoulder. The confusion and fast momentum prevent fear and anxiety from accumulating, knowing that I’m responsible for calling the police. JING: This is a legal business for twenty years. The working hours are eight o’clock in the morning to ten o’clock at night; it is a busy place with a lot of noise. The best thing is to get another apartment. I am very sorry. Jing and I (I’m the only foreigner) are outside with the police and the center of attention. The hostile cop continues to holler at Jing and gives the shoe repair owner a few verbal jabs. Perhaps he’s accusing them of lying or wants a confession. In theory, the cop should be defusing the situation when things escalate between two or more parties by being cool, calm, and collected rather than creating tension. Instead of pointing the police to the shoe repair shop, a twenty-year-old mom-and-pop shop that appears to barely make ends meet, I keep my mouth shut. The owners, a Chinese husband and wife, look old enough to be my parents. Snitching on a shop that’s accountable for the hammer noise is a disservice to the people relying on the place, and a loss of face for the two owners. The shop is the size of a tiny bathroom. Some neighborhood locals rely on the place to fix the heels of their fancy dress shoes or to replace shoelaces. Some nearby shops within walking distance sell dress shoes and are less expensive than retail value. However, people in the community who can't afford to get a new pair or don't have the cash on hand visit the shoe repair shop. Anyhow, the two cops rush to the pink room again with the sleeping pets as if Jing’s covering up something inside her shop. Customers freeze and glare. I step in and say, “It’s okay” with a let’s-squash-this look. I head back to my apartment, passing by the shoe repair shop, hoping that the locals outside don’t cuss or throw blows at me. Calling the cops was a mistake, and I feel bad. Now, why did I call the police on a mom-and-pop shop that's been repairing dress shoes for twenty years? Let me explain. For the past four months, I’ve been continuously hearing a hammer hitting the walls inside my apartment. The hits range from five to forty-five seconds, typically occurring every few hours, specifically on the weekends from the morning to nighttime. During my first day at the apartment, I assumed a renovation was taking place next door or upstairs. I let the noise slide the first month. Hearing a hammer every night after work and during the day on the weekends became a nuisance by March 2019. I notified the landlord about the noise problem on a few occasions. ZHENG: Call 110 for noise problem; it is the police. He framed it like it’s the standard thing to do in Shanghai. Zheng was in my apartment roughly a month ago to ensure the replacement of a new water heater. I felt some tension in the room because of our chats a few days before the installation. He was irritated since a technician told him and his mom that nothing was wrong with the water heater and laughed in their faces. I sent Zheng a video with a beeping water heater before he met with the technician. The water heater started making beeping sounds every morning and night for a week. I paid the water bill on time, too. My second video made him understand that a new water heater for the apartment was mandatory. In one of his messages, he asked if I was dealing with a high level of stress, causing me to hear things, which made me angry. ALDO: No, I have a brain. I’m not crazy. The landlord was also upset about a recent complaint from my neighbor on the fourth floor. I knocked on his door at 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday and asked him with the translator app on my phone if he knows about the noise. The hammering sounded as if it was coming from the apartment upstairs at 8:00 a.m., and it prompted me to ask him. The animated body language and rambling in Mandarin of the Chinese man with long eyebrows and in his pajamas demonstrated that he had been sleeping. Zheng brought up the hammer sounds while we were waiting for the technician to install the water heater. I told him it’s on going. ZHENG: It is cooking noise. Every Shanghai apartment has a good cook. What?! The landlord’s smiley mother is showing with her hands that she’s cutting food. Instead of asserting myself, I zip it and recognize what Zheng needs: proof containing a video of where the hammer noise is coming from. For three months, I would occasionally roam up and down the concrete stairs of the building (lane 2), trying to figure out which apartment was accountable for the hammering. Listening to sounds starting at 8:00 a.m. on the weekends and after 7:00 p.m. mainly during the week at random times has been annoying. My weekends haven’t been relaxing. By the end of March, I discovered where the sound was coming from: the shoe repair shop on the first floor. I recorded a forty-five second video of me standing outside my apartment on the third floor and rushing down the concrete stairs to the first floor to a white door without a handle. To prevent the door from opening, there’s an old and dusty wooden chair along with a dirty red dustpan carrying green rat poison. I sent the clip to Zheng on WeChat. ZHENG: We will try to talk to the shop. I didn’t want to call the police (110) on the shop, but Zheng avoided touching base with me after a week. Plus, I had to call 110 on Thursday (three days ago) at 7:30 a.m. Yesterday (Saturday) night at 10:00 p.m. included another 110-dial for the same thing. I received a call from a man talking in Mandarin (it was the police), not the operator with broken English. I made another attempt at 10:15 p.m. The operator said to go outside and wait for a few minutes. Standing on the sidewalk for twenty minutes caused me to dial 110 for the third time at 10:30 p.m. The guy on the line sounded frustrated. It wasn’t my fault that the other operator told the police to go to 729 instead of my address (629). If the guy on the first call didn't cut me off and say, "Yeah, I know, I know, I know," while I was reiterating my address, then I wouldn't have had to make two additional calls. An officer arrived, but the shoe repair owner left his shop two minutes before. The man couldn’t help, according to my Chinese friend, Kira, who translated the dilemma. She said to call tomorrow morning when I heard the hammer noise and to visit the station with evidence (the forty-five second video) showing that it's the shoe repair shop. Going to the police sounds inconvenient because I don't speak the language. Also, on New Year’s Eve, the same police station couldn’t help to get my one-month deposit back from my previous landlord. A hammer hitting steel, which vibrated on the walls inside my place, reached its boiling point today. A week ago, I let the landlord know again, but he still didn’t act. I was tired of pestering him with noise complaints. I took a new twenty-five second video recorded from the morning, proving where the noise was coming from (the shoe repair shop). At 3:00 p.m., I called the police. I received a call from a guy talking in Mandarin. I immediately texted Kira asking for assistance by calling the number and explaining the situation to the cop. She told me to go outside, stand on the sidewalk, and wait for the police; otherwise, they will disregard my call. When the two police officers arrived, I gave one of them the phone so that Kira could elaborate. One officer created a scene by talking forcefully while his partner stayed quiet. People were watching, and I felt more unpleasant than usual. The language barrier amplified the confusion. After the cop gave me back my phone, Kira said to guide the officers to the area where the noise was coming from and play the video on my phone. The two guys rushed into the pet shop despite the handleless door on the first floor belonging to the shoe repair shop. In the end, the two cops didn’t resolve the issue. I wanted things to be handled in a civilized and low-key manner. January through June 2019 have included some strange times at the lane house, the fourth apartment that I moved into as of December 30, 2018. There’s another matter requiring medical attention with a specialist.
Discover more stories in Book 2, The Twists and Turns of Living in Shanghai: Before, During, and After the Honeymoon, or visit other short stories in Phuket (4), Bangkok (3), and Langfang (1).