The first time I crossed the hall from my hotel room to visit my China teaching partner, Walter, in his room, I was kind of jealous. Not only was his room more spacious than mine, it was on the shady side of the hotel, and its view showcased Changsha’s bustling streets, affluent skyline, and urban greenery.
My digs, on the other hand, were at the back of the hotel, overlooking a 1950s style, light industrial area that sold used furniture. As soon as the sun awoke, and began its red-faced struggle to break through the smog, the temperature in my room started to climb.
At 9 a.m, when the hotel switched off the air-conditioning for the day, assuming all its guests must already be at their business destinations, my room situation definitely over-heated.If I were lucky enough to find the woman who cleaned my room, I could mime that I was too hot, and needed the air-conditioning switched back on. If not, I lesson planned in my lightest clothes and guzzled a lot of bottled water.
But, at some point during my stay, in spite of the industrial view and the maddening heat, my hotel room began to feel like home. In the morning, I pulled back the curtains and looked down nine stories to see women sweeping the streets in front of their businesses, often leaning on their brooms to chat. Men pedalled purposefully to work on rickety bicycles, dodging dogs who trotted from one garbage can to the next. Sometimes, I was treated to a quick fireworks display, which one of my students told me is a common way for Chinese families to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and weddings. And sometime during the morning, I’d hear an ice cream truck-style version of “It’s a Small World,” its tinkling notes a reassurance that I had become at least a temporary member of the Changsha community.
So when I returned from teaching one day to hear that Walter and I were being moved out of the hotel and into the university’s “foreign experts” apartment building, I felt a pang of disappointment. “But our rooms are way nicer than here,” Walter enthused, showing me the pictures he’d taken during his afternoon tour. “We each get our own apartment. They’re huge, really quiet, and we’ve both got a great view of the river.”
Three days later, our grad student guides lugged our stuff out to the waiting university van, and we drove five minutes to our new residence. When we arrived, we discovered that the elevator only ran to the 11th floor, and we were on the 12th. We battled our suitcases and computers and bags of teaching materials up the stairs, and unlocked our doors.
“Wow!” said Mia, as she followed me into the apartment. A living room with a wide screen television, a kitchen, a bedroom, a fully-equipped office, and a bathroom sprawled out around us. A sunroom with a washer and dryer led onto a balcony which overlooked the river.
While the grad students made themselves at home on the white sectional couch, searching for an English language TV station for me to watch, I unpacked and took inventory of my new home. I explored the kitchen first, and was dismayed to find a wok on the stovetop, with a half inch of oil pooled at the bottom, remnants of the last resident’s final meal. I pulled open the cutlery drawer and found forks with grains of rice stuck to their tines. Luckily, there was a dining room on the main floor where we could sign up for free meals. I already knew my name would be on that chalk board a lot.
The bathroom was in even worse shape. Not only were there no towels, soap, or toilet paper, but I found a large suspicious stain near the toilet and a used cotton swab on the floor. These sent me rocketing across the hall to Walter’s apartment. He too had been making not-so-happy discoveries – a thick layer of dust on all the shelves and in his closet, which sifted down onto the shoulders of his black suit when he hung it up.
We looked at each other in uneasy silence, each of us assessing the situation. Walter suggested that we get some lunch, buy the supplies we needed, and make the best of the situation. I wasn’t so sure.
After our shopping trip, the grad students and I escaped downtown for a movie and dinner. I returned at about 9:30 that evening, looking forward to an early night. As I sat down on the edge of the bed, I landed with a surprising thwack. The mattress had all the give of a hardwood floor covered by a threadbare rug.
At 4 a.m., I conceded victory to the bed and got up, my back and hip complaining loudly. I whiled away the hours until daybreak with e-mails to Canada, a pot of black coffee, and some of the fruit I’d bought at a local market. Once it was light, I went and stood out on the balcony. Except for a small boat chugging up the Xiang River, there were no other signs of life.
Once I was sure that Walter would be up and about, I tapped on his door. As soon as he saw me, he knew something was wrong. Over another pot of coffee, we decided to let our university hosts know that our new accommodations were far from acceptable. They agreed to move us back to the hotel the next day.
The best surprise of all was that I got my old room back. The next morning, I opened the curtains and watched my neighbors hustle through the rain on their way to work. In spite of the change in the weather, the tinkling notes of “It’s a Small World” had never sounded so welcoming.