Sunday, March 18, 2007

My Biggest Ripoff Yet

I’m going to fast-forward to last weekend for this post.

In January I moved into an apartment with a friend from college named Azalea. As I was moving in Azalea’s previous roommate, a Chinese woman named Lily, told me everything I needed to know about the apartment. One of the things she mentioned was a burn mark on the floor in Azalea’s room that I hadn’t noticed before.
“My last boyfriend did it, when I lived in that room,” she explained. “Don’t let the landlord see it, or he might not give back your deposit.” Lily hated the landlord, and while I didn’t exactly hate him myself, I agreed that he was a jerk.
“Alright,” I said, not thinking much of it. Azalea usually kept a rug over that part of the floor anyway.
As luck would have it the landlord saw the burn anyway, a few days after Lily told me about it. He came over one day to fix the washing machine, and Azalea’s door was open and the rug wasn’t there.
“When did that happen?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, which was pretty much true.
“Hm.” He nodded and didn’t say anything else.
Right before Lily left I told her the landlord had seen the burn. She gave me the number for a friend of hers who she said could fix it.
“I don’t think the landlord will make a big deal of it though, since the police tend to favor foreigners,” she told me as she wrote down the number. She was right- to Chinese people, if an issue involves foreigners, even an insignificant, unemployed, just-out-of-college foreigner like myself, it becomes an issue of “international relations.” Making sure foreigners have a good impression of China is a priority.
I didn’t rush to call Lily’s friend, and only got around to it right after the Lunar New Year vacation, when Azalea and I still had two weeks before we intended to move out. I figured he would have finished vacation by then, and that there would be enough time to fix it. But when I called him he said the worker who could fix it hadn’t gotten back from vacation yet, and that anyway it was hard to buy materials after New Year. I called him again a week later, but he said he still couldn’t do it. There was no choice- we had to hand over the apartment with the burn mark. I didn’t think it would be an issue though. Azalea hadn’t thought anything of it when she moved in, and after all, if it was a problem, the landlord would have said something, right?

On Saturday I helped Azalea and Terence, her boyfriend and also my friend from college, move their stuff to his apartment. I didn’t have to be around when they got the deposit back from the landlord since only Azalea’s name was on the lease, so I went back to my new apartment while they went to meet the landlord. An hour later I got a call from Terence.
“Can you talk to the landlord?” he asked.
“Why?” I asked, puzzled.
“He’s saying you said we burned the floor,” Terence said.
“What? I didn’t say that!”
“I know,” Terence said. “Just tell him.”
Terence handed the phone over to the landlord and I told him I had said I did not know how the floor got burned. The landlord mumbled a disappointed-sounding acknowledgement.
A few minutes later Terence called again.
“What’s up?” I asked, hoping for the best.
“Trouble in the asshole department,” he said. He said the landlord had refused an offer to get the burn fixed, and insisted that we pay a month’s rent because, he claimed, no one would rent the place with the burn. Just after the landlord left a couple just happened to come by to look at the apartment to see if they wanted to rent it. The woman immediately noticed the burn and proclaimed the apartment unrentable. She was also unhappy that the bathroom light didn’t work (the bulb had just gone out a day before). Terence and Azalea were pretty sure the man was drunk.
After the couple had left Terence and Azalea decided to go to the police, but not the local police since the landlord might be friends with them. But when they went to a station farther away the cops refused to help them- they said they had to go to the local station. We would be even more screwed than before if the cops sided with the landlord, so when Terence called me back again we decided to just face the landlord ourselves.
I went over to the apartment to back Terence and Azalea up. Two white people would be much more effective and intimidating than just one (Terence is ethnically Chinese, and therefore doesn’t quite impress Chinese people as much). Azalea got the idea of calling her company to ask for help, and they sent a Chinese man who worked in their maintenance department named Mr. Wang. He took a look at the burn, and said that to go all out and replace the whole floor would cost 500 kuai, or around $63, at the most. To replace the two strips of linoleum that had been affected would cost around 200 kuai, or around $25. Our contract with the landlord said that the deposit could be withheld only if there was “serious damage” to the apartment, so we asked Mr. Wang if the burn could possibly be considered “serious damage.” He said no.
Around this time the landlord came, with a friend in tow. I was pretty pissed by this point and glared at him. He looked back blankly, and I muttered “cheat (大骗子)!” in Chinese, plus a term that roughly means “hate” (讨厌) and is a fairly serious insult. The landlord looked a little taken aback but didn’t respond.
We let Mr. Wang take care of most of the business, since he would know how to deal with the landlord better than us. I was too angry to really focus on the conversation, but I caught the gist of it. First the landlord made a big deal over me calling him a cheat. “What’s he supposed to mean by that?” he asked Mr. Wang. Mr. Wang and Terence told him that was a separate matter and turned the discussion back to getting back our deposit, but the landlord brought it up several more times.
At first it seemed like the landlord wanted to try and win over Mr. Wang by telling blatant lies that we all knew were untrue. He repeated the lie that I had said we had burned the floor. He lied about the length of time we had lived in the apartment. I found this especially angering- lying is bad enough if the people don’t know the truth, but how can you lie so blatantly in front of people who know you’re lying? On top of that, every time Terence interjected to correct the landlord, he would complain that Terence sounded aggressive.
Mr. Wang patiently laid out our case to the landlord, explaining that we were willing to pay 500 kuai, and that we felt this was already more than enough since we had nothing to do with the burn anyway. He also explained that we felt that the burn could in no way be considered “severe damage.” This elicited a laugh from the landlord and his lackey.
“Of course it’s severe,” said the landlord. “I’ll have to replace the whole floor! I’m not going to be able to find the same material again.” Mr. Wang then suggested we contact the store that initially did the floor.
“It closed a while ago,” the landlord said.
“How about we take some boards from under the bed and use those? That way no one will notice,” Mr. Wang suggested. Again the landlord dismissed his suggestion.
“No, the floor has to be all the same!” he said, chuckling as though he thought Mr. Wang was naïve.
The negotiations dragged on. It was unbelievably unpleasant. I had been ripped off many times before in China, but no one had tried to go through this much trouble to do it, or had been this shameless. And it only got worse. Before we had even resolved the dispute over the floor the landlord was insisting that a DVD player Lily had bought and had given to us was actually his. Luckily we had taken it to Terence’s that afternoon, along with Azalea’s things. He couldn’t prove that it was his anyway since he didn’t have the receipt.
After an hour of back and forth, we came to an agreement. He “kindly” let us have the DVD player, while we gave him 600 kuai. Terence, Azalea and I wanted to check the money at a Seven-Eleven downstairs to make sure it was real (counterfeiting is a big problem in China) but Mr. Wang assured us it was after taking a look. Terence, Azalea and I handed over the keys and rushed to get out and away from the landlord. The landlord made one last attempt to get more of our money, though, by claiming that we hadn’t returned all the keys. Of course it was a lie, but this time we had no reason to argue with him about it.
Usually I find it surprisingly easy to arouse some shame in people who try to blatantly rip me off by telling them that they are giving China and bad name. I wanted to say something along those lines to the landlord as we left. I was still pretty worked up though, and could barely manage a comprehensible sentence in Chinese. I tried saying something like how now I knew that if Chinese people tried to be polite (the landlord had tried to “win me over” when I first met him, because he hated Lily and wanted me to teach his daughter English for free) it was because they only wanted my money. The landlord pretended not to understand.

1 comment:

angie said...

Oooh poor joe. Good for you calling him a 大騙子 though... what's the other nasty word you said? Make Terence teach you some more seriously nasty stuff though, would you? That's something they don't teach in school.