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March 10, 2013

room for one more

A hot breeze is blowing and I smell human sweat. I'm not sure if it's mine or that of the realtor standing in front of me. Maybe both. It's a warm day and the wind blows through the open patio doors of my new apartment, into the living room with its torn couches (the owner promises to replace them) and the broken TV (a repairman is coming any minute now). But the airflow, warm as it is, reminds me of one reason I like this apartment: the wind blows through freely. The living room faces an open lot, and the porch already has hooks for a swing.

"Pencil hai?" Is that a pencil? asks the realtor. "Are you sure that's not a pencil?" The ink from my pen, which my roommate is using to sign the documents, doesn't look dark enough to convince him it's a pen. Forgetting that my humour doesn't always translate into this culture, I tease him a little, "It's an exotic pen, a Canadian pen." His reply: "Canada is the only country that won't accept medications made in other countries. Our country can't send medications to your country. Australia, yes. UK, yes. Canada, no." If you aren't sure what the connection is between Canadian pens and Canadian pharmaceutical import policies, I'm with you.

Three additional men stroll into the living room. Two of them are realtors I've seen before: the slight mustachioed man dressed in a bit more conservative style, and the agreeable one with a wild mop of hair. The latter has grown a beard since the last time I saw him. The third I've never seen before. He is gyrating the metal part of his motorbike key inside his ear, a Q-Tip of sorts. I wonder why these three have appeared so suddenly, but then I realize: they want to get their share of the realty fees. Besides, in this place, there are always spare people around; anyone who's anyone has an assistant. You just don't do things on your own. So there are now seven people at the meeting where I expected three. Oh wait, there are eight now....the TV repairman just showed up.

The documents on the glass table are in two different languages, and the conversation around me is in three. Thankfully, most of the documents are in English, and I understand roughly 30% of what is going on in the room. The form written in the state language (the language my roommate and I don't speak) scares me a little. Are they going to ask us to sign something we can't read? The first realtor is jovial and keeps saying "Foreigner...foreigner...." (Those ellipses stand for the parts of his sentences about me that I can't understand.) I find out the local document is police paperwork, they'll fill it out for us, no signing necessary.

The documents are finally signed, cheques written, cash handed over. Can we have the keys to our apartment? "Oh, keys? We only have one key. We'll have to make a copy for you." Oh, OK. The realtor foursome said they'd make an extra key for themselves this week, too. We definitely will be changing the locks after we take possession of the apartment, lest one of these four men visits us unannounced.

It's beyond my understanding how, after weeks of back-and-forth, haggling, and repairs left undone, all parties still have smiles for each other. They've exchanged cross words on other days, but today, we've reached our peace. Not because all the repairs are done, but because if we wait for all the repairs to be done, we may never move in. No one seems particularly stressed about the delay or about the work left undone. Clearly, this Westerner was the only one losing sleep over it.

The whole rental process has accentuated the differences between our cultures. When they said they'd get the repairs done, I thought they would. When they said the apartment was ready, I dared to hope it was. When I got frustrated, they didn't. Behind four walls, working and living with other foreigners, it's easy to create your own world. Slowly now, I'm moving into their world. Sweat, hot breeze, exotic pens. People, people and more people.

(I wonder, briefly, how His entrance was into our world. What culture shock He must have felt. The incarnation carries more weight, now.)

This week I plan to clean the spacious apartment He's provided, perhaps with an assistant or two. If it's up to me, I'll dispose of the deities from the pantry, and the welcome god perched over the door. This week marks a new phase for me, I'll move in with someone of a culture vastly different than mine. Her culture won't be outside the walls, it will be inside the walls. Here's hoping she can teach me something about patience and smiling at the causers of your frustration. Perhaps she can help me learn the national language and embrace free-flowing, unscheduled community. Because here, the door opens frequently, the neighbours want to chat, and visitors drop by at 10:00pm. The friend of your friend wants to meet you. You don't just do things on your own. And no matter how full the living room is, there's always room for one more. 


  1. Thanks for sharing. I'll be lifting you up as you adjust to the new norm. Have you thought of writing a book? You challenge me each time I stop by.

  2. Kendra, thanks for your kind words. If I gather a good collection of Asia-related posts, and if there were enough interest, it would be fun to make a mini collection of them someday. Probably just a few copies, for my loyal readers ... but it would be fun nonetheless. :) We'll see!