The Real Cost of Airbnb in China
Sweltering summer humidity, steaming xiaolongbao dumplings, enormous crowds and pollution dominated my summer semester in China. My graduate studies in Asian public policy at the University of British Columbia taught me the finer points of Chinese politics, but my co-op term in Shanghai gave me an education in what it means to live and work in a developing country.
Like many expats, I worked as an English teacher. Visas, payment, qualifications and living circumstances make it difficult to have a safe and rewarding work term abroad. But in Shanghai, cockroaches, Chinese police, illegal substances and blown power fuses are all part of the added charm.
Living in an authoritarian country illegally, in an apartment with its own drug stash was more than we had bargained for.
Before leaving Vancouver, my roommate and I had rented a Shanghai penthouse apartment through Airbnb, a website which allows people to rent a room or couch in someone’s residence anywhere in the world. We rented the apartment from an American who was returning to the United States for the summer. It seemed perfect – that is until the apartment owner refused to provide us with a rental agreement so that he could avoid being taxed on the rental income. All foreign visitors must register where they are staying with the police and we needed a rental agreement in order to register. So, we had to lie to the Chinese government. We said we were living in a hostel. This meant we had to spend the summer living illegally in China.
Our Shanghai adventure began the moment my roommate and I landed in Shanghai. The apartment owner’s useless assistant met us at the airport. This lady proceeded to lead us through the complex subway system at rush hour, in the sweltering Shanghai heat, never offering us help as we dragged our 50 bags up and down the subway stairs. True to form, as soon as we reached the entrance to our apartment building, the assistant abandoned us without even directing us to our unit. My roommate, who thankfully speaks a few words of Mandarin, asked the old ladies in our building where the American (the man we were renting from) lived. They pointed up. Up indeed. We dragged those heavy bags up seven impossibly long and steep flights of stairs all the way up to the penthouse suite, providing some amusing moments along the way to our new neighbors who had come out of their apartments to see what all the commotion was about.
Very quickly we discovered we were guests living in a cockroach colony.
Very quickly we discovered we were guests living in a cockroach colony, and if we listened closely enough we could hear the roaches running around and dumpster diving in our trashcans. The owner was very apologetic when we contacted him to complain about the infestation – so apologetic, in fact, that he told us to help ourselves to his personal stash of a illegal drugs concealed in the very apartment we were now staying in. Living in an authoritarian country illegally, in an apartment with its own drug stash was more than we had bargained for. Our anxiety had reached new levels – and that was before we were interrogated by the police.
We quickly discovered that the fuses in our apartment would blow if we ran the air conditioning. My roommate and I could live without television, even laundry, but we could not live without air conditioning. 40 degrees Celsius weather is not comfortable for anyone, let alone two Canadians. The only way to remedy this problem was to pull out the fuse, go to the police station and ask a police officer to give us a new fuse. After our second or third visit to the police station, the police officers began to ask us the types of questions we needed to avoid – such as what we were we doing to use so much power – were harboring migrants? And exactly why we were living there.
I still remember waking up in the middle of the night, with a police officer in my apartment, shining a flashlight in my face, asking me in Mandarin if a fuse blew. My roommate and I were on thin ice, and we knew it. It would not be long before the police would realize we were not the American man who was registered to live in that apartment.
We managed to stay one step ahead of the police and got ourselves out of Shanghai before we were caught. Lessons learned – never go with a cheap Airbnb rental in countries like China. Stay at a hostel until you can find something legitimate. Otherwise, the posted apartment cost may come with more problems than you bargained for. And when the police come knocking on your door, don’t expect help from the apartment’s owner. Especially if he is happily enjoying his vacation far away in America while you pay his rent tax-free.
By Rebecca Snider
Photos by Rebecca Snider