This past September, I moved to Beijing to do the research part of my dissertation. As I was preparing to leave, I made sure that I had a place to live already set up because the last thing I wanted to do was to look for a place while speaking my crappy Chinese and also while jet lagged.
I began looking over all of my options. I could rent an apartment by myself, I could find a room in an apartment with someone else, or I could live on campus. I had no idea how to even being to go about looking for an apartment in China from America, so I decided to live on campus.
It was easy to register online and it was about $3 US dollars a day. Literally. I decided I could afford $300 per month on a room on campus. Looking at the website, I believed that I was getting a single room with a decent sized bed, a desk, a wardrobe, a hot water boiler, a fridge, and the most prized commodity: my own bathroom. Fantastic, I thought, this looks perfect and it’s so freaking cheap. There was also the added bonus that I wouldn’t have to pay for utilities or have to register myself at the police department, a chore for everyone who moves anywhere in China, but especially for expats.
I got to Beijing after a day and a half of traveling from Ohio to Hawaii to Beijing. I was exhausted. My parents had graciously agreed to meet me in Beijing because my mom is fluent in Chinese and I really needed her help during that first week.
First order of business the next day was to go register for my room on campus. I was excited for the single that I was going to be living in, despite all of the advice I had gotten before I left that I should get a roommate because then my Chinese would rapidly improve over the next ten months. I sort of pish-poshed the idea because, frankly, I wanted my own space so that I could conduct my fieldwork and do my research in peace without some random person looking over my shoulder.
So, here I am registering for my room, all excited about this single, when I hear these words:
“You will be sharing with Korean girl.”
“Yeah, okay. Fine”
“Yeah, it’s fine.” I was too jet-lagged to argue in a language I can barely speak in normal circumstances.
Well, shoot. So much for my single. I will make it work.
My mom looked at me and said, “You do know what she said, right? You’re going to be sharing with a Korean girl.”
“Yeah,” I answered back, “I’ll make it work.”
My mom left it at that. I’m pretty adaptable when it comes to changing circumstances, so “yeah, it’s fine, I’ll make it work,” is a pretty normal response. Was I excited for a single? Yes. Was a I bummed that I was going to have to share the room with another person, a stranger? Yes. But I’m me. I will make it work, dammit!
We went up to see the room to see what I had available and what I would need. I was also kind of hoping that my new roomie wasn’t going to be there. I was apparently in a really foul mood. But, there she was, looking slightly confused until my mom told her that I was her new roommate.
So, not only am I sharing a room with a stranger, but I am sharing a room with a stranger whose Chinese is impeccable. My Chinese sucks. She and my mom were able to communicate, but we were not. It was going to make sharing the same space incredibly hard because we would essentially be living in silence.
Looking around the room, I realized that I had very little to go with. There was a bed and an empty desk. That was pretty much it. The rest of the room was filled with her stuff: clothes, shoes, and books. It was all hers. I would have very little room to call my own. That’s okay. I will adapt. It will be fine.
When I got back to the hotel that night, however, it was no longer fine. I freaked out. Like, had a legit freak out. I didn’t want to share a room. I wanted my own space. I wanted to be able to work out at home. I didn’t want to have to deal with another person, and frankly, what 32-year-old wants to be sharing a room like they did in college? Relearning the dorm room/roommate etiquette after eight years of living with my fiance was going to be difficult.
I spent three days looking for new living arrangements and couldn’t find one. Everything was way too expensive. I have a pretty generous living allowance for a grantee, but everything was just a little too much out of my price range. Plus, I would have to pay for utilities, negotiate with landlords, and go to the police station to register. I didn’t want to do any of those things, so I decided to stick to the dorm room and the roommate.
The day my parents left was really hard. All of a sudden, I was in a foreign country by myself, living with a person I didn’t know and could barely communicate with. For the first two weeks, I was really nervous and self-conscious about what I did and where I put things because I didn’t want to disrupt her space even though there was very little space for me. I didn’t want to look like I was imposing, but I had to impose, something she seemed to be okay with because this “is my room too.”
Living a dorm, by itself, took some getting used to. Back were the days of communal kitchens and laundry rooms. Back were the days of loud, raucous conversations in the loud echo-y hallways. I, like my roommate, didn’t really know anyone in the dorm because we each have groups of friends who live outside of campus, who were willing to pay the higher rents and utility bills. I learned in those early days that my roommate was very helpful to me in figuring out the inner workings of my building.
I started to relax after a while, but there are still things that I can’t seem to do with her in the room. I have regressed to either a camp-style of changing clothes where you manage to change shirts without actually taking your original shirt off, or changing in the bathroom after a shower. This is my room too, but it still doesn’t shake off this feeling that I’m intruding into her space.
Phone calls, except for my two Skype calls a week, are almost always out of the question for me. Partly because of my lack of confidence in Chinese, but also because I don’t want to bother her with my sometimes very loud conversations. Headphones have become my worst best friends with these Skype conversations. The days when I don’t have to use them with my fiance are amazing because he can hear me better and I don’t feel tethered to my computer.
She and I also keep very different waking hours. I’m an “early-ish to bed, early to rise” type person, while she is a “late to bed, late to rise”, sometimes sleeping close to ten hours. So, I am always awake when she is not and out of respect, I keep the lights off and will attempt to be as quiet as I possibly can while going about my morning routine. She tells me that I can turn the lights on, but it seems rude and that she will wake up, and sometimes it’s those quiet hours that I cherish the most because those are the times when I can be on my own, even though I’m not actually on my own.
In those smaller hours in the morning, I can do my work in peace without being bothered with loud phone calls and the constant puttering of a second person in the room. The nights that she’s gone for dinner with friends, or just out, are times that I also cherish because I get that single that I wanted originally. I get time alone with my thoughts, to do whatever I want for how ever many hours. I don’t have to use headphones to watch movies or my television shows. I can change in the room like an adult without being self-conscious like a teenager.
There are some very good things about having a roommate, especially one that doesn’t speak English. My Chinese, while still not great, has actually gotten better thanks to her. I know that there’s a person at home that I can talk to in broken Chinese.
She is patient with me and my terrible Chinese. If she says something that I don’t know, I have to look it up in my dictionary and she waits for me to figure out what she says. She will also try to explain things to me in different ways, and that helps me to understand what she means. Also, hand gestures help a lot, which is how she helped me understand the word for “shooting star” when she came into the room from smoking her cigarette and moved her arms in the trajectory of a shooting star.
In the long run, having a roommate isn’t so bad. She and I may not be close, we could go for hours without speaking a single word to each other, but it’s a small comfort to know that if either one of us gets into trouble or has an emergency, we are there for each other because we are literally in the same space.
Do I still yearn for my single? Absolutely. Do I believe that I am WAY too old to be sharing a studio sized room with someone who is not my fiance? Abso-freaking-lutely.
But there are days where, in the midst of being lonely in a strange country, you have someone to talk to that doesn’t require a phone call or a text message and that is a comfort.