Imagine being an elderly person enjoying a nice evening with your spouse. You hear someone knocking. When you open it, there’s a horribly sick foreigner asking for medicine. What do you do?
Spring of 2014 was an odd way to start my first year working in China. I was supposed to be working in Tianjin. Not long after I found an apartment, the company got out of that city. So I decided to go back to Beijing so I could stay in China longer.
It meant having to go apartment hunting again. In Tianjin, I found a nice apartment at a reasonable price. I didn’t have to get a roommate, either! Beijing, however, is a more expensive city, so I didn’t know what to expect.
My first apartment in Beijing felt like a downgrade compared to Tianjin
In Tianjin, my apartment was new, so there was more space for being a studio. I had enough room to have a curtain divider between my bed and my apartment’s living area. And it was 500 kuai (about $70) cheaper than my apartment in Beijing.
My Beijing apartment was a huge downgrade. There was enough space for one person alone. If anyone visited me, I would’ve had to find a decent hotel for them. Everything was so old that whenI left that the apartment’s pipes above me burst and destroyed the kitchen.
It was a dump. But it was cheap, and I didn’t want a roommate. A year there wouldn’t be too bad as long as I kept the place looking somewhat clean.
I lived in between two couples. One couple was about my age and newly married. I met them when I accidentally locked my keys in my apartment. They were the only ones in the building who spoke English that I knew of. My Chinese wasn’t great, but it was passable for simple things. I still needed my lease translated to me, for example, before I signed anything.
The young couple told me the apartment next time mine had an older couple. I’m sure the couple noticed the occasional white person going in their building, but I don’t think they put two-and-two together until one awkward night.
It started with sick coworkers
The first thing I noticed when I walked in was one of my coworkers looking rough. I found him puking in the bathroom. A group of us begged him to go home, but he refused. By the time I started class, he slept in an empty classroom, so I think he stuck out the whole shift.
Nothing weird happened through the shift. I ended classes, ate something on the way home, then watched some movies before falling asleep.
Then 5:30 A.M. happened, and let's just say I experienced a rude awakening. My half-asleep self never moved so fast. I jumped out of bed and ran to my toilet. I took a split-second to debate, which end gets the toilet seat?
I’ll spare you the rest of the dirty details. Let’s just say I had an efficient sickness. Even water didn’t stay down when I drank.
By the afternoon, I knew I had to do something. Too sick to take water, no energy to move. I needed help. But my English-speaking neighbors weren’t around.
Time to meet the elderly neighbors
As far as I knew, showing up sick at my neighbor’s door made them realize I lived next door. I saw them, and they saw me. But I’m not sure they caught on to why they saw me so much.
The couple didn’t ask questions when they brought me inside. They led me to their couch and had me lay down. Everything happened in a blur. I’m not sure how long I stayed on that couch, but by the time I left, a doctor looked at me, and he called an ambulance.
The ambulance ride is another story for another day.
If my Chinese was better, I’d say they thought I was a screw-up. The wife came to the apartment after I came back from the hospital and brought me food. I expected her to judge me for having a messy apartment, but she didn’t say anything to me if she disapproved. The most she spoke about how I lived was to remind me to keep my shoes on when I have guests.
Every time after that hospital visit, I ran into the couple when I messed up somehow. They helped me break into my own apartment many times when I forgot the keys inside. One day, I came home to a puddle in front of my door. The wife noticed it first and waited for me to get home to help me figure out where the water came from. The way she talked, she smelled something before she noticed the puddle.
I’m pretty sure they fed me a pity lunch on my day off one time. By the time I moved out, they probably assumed I went back to the US.
Looking back, I feel guilty I didn’t make more effort to talk to the couple while I lived in that dumpy apartment. These people only saw me at the worst times, but they never said anything judgemental to my face. They accepted it and helped when they saw I needed it.
At my worst, when I think about them, I worry I destroyed their impression of foreigners. That when they talked to their family and friends, they’d start stories about me with, “That dumb foreigner did it again!”
Maybe I’m too hard on myself. My first year working in China was a chaotic one, but it wasn’t the worst year I ever had. The neighbors recognized and appreciated my attempts to speak Chinese; they even helped make it better with basic conversations.
Maybe they saw me as someone starting out on life for the first time and wanted to offer a hand. Living in another country is hard. The first year is chaotic at best when you’re trying to establish yourself. But having helpful neighbors can help make the year better.