Living way north of Line 5
I seem to remember being told at school that it might be handy to have a thing called a “life plan.” I must remember to mention that to my son Daniel one day. Helpfully for clueless parents, there is a ready-made one-size-fits-all pattern that is especially popular in China: Get a proper job, get married, buy a place and then have kids. In that order.
It makes sense if you think about it, but it’s boring, isn’t it? Being contrary sorts, my wife Su and I haven’t quite done things according to the book. After falling in love as students in Japan, we got hitched – in Tokyo’s famous red light district, Kabukicho, as it happens. (It’s where the town hall is, honest.) I left a steady job and then we ran off to China, where I eventually started to freelance. (It’s okay, don’t worry: My missus has a salaried position.) A few years later, quite intentionally, we had a baby. And as every new parent could imagine, the script – if ever we had one, which we didn’t – was left in tatters in a forgotten corner, presumed unread.
Recently, though, we have really managed to excel in the Life Decisions department. Just to tick all the boxes of mistakes that proper grown-ups are supposed to make, we went and bought a four-bedroom duplex apartment just at the moment when the world economy decided to fall off the rails and a bottomless hole appeared under property markets the world over.
We are unrepentant, however. Our decision had a logic that was only partly financial. When we first moved to Beijing more than five years ago, we swore we would stay five years in the Windy City, but now things have changed. With Daniel on the scene, the urge to settle down (not forever, you understand) and play happy family is strong. Plus, five years and one blue-skied Olympics later, I suspect I’m not the only one that Beijing is growing on again – though ask me again in mid-January.
And the flat is going to be great. True, it is in Tiantongyuan, an area that was fields a decade ago but has now sprouted a patchwork of building sites and pink and white apartment blocks. (In case you don’t know it, follow Line 5 north to approximately where you fall off the edge of the subway map.) Like its environs, the apartment has considerable development potential. Translation: Not unusual for new properties here, the place is an empty shell. That means that we are about to enter the infamous zhuangxiu territory that brings a grimace to the face of any new real estate owner here, who then normally proceeds to tell tales of wonky wallpaper and fake materials.
The hassle will be worth it, though. Not only is the new apartment big enough to absorb another sprog at some still undetermined point in the future and to hold visiting laowai family members, but it is also sufficiently spacious for mum- and dad-in-law to live there with us, in theory without any of us getting under each other’s skin. Our massive balcony, from which you can just about see the Changping hills rising in the distance over the sprouting blocks of flats, is ideal for barbecues. We can get out into walking territory easily on the weekends, and there’s even space for a small snooker table in the second living room.
So, zhuangxiu notwithstanding, we have succeeded in putting a permanent roof over our son’s head. Could it be time to start thinking about crossing off more items from that list for grown-ups. Let me see, what’s left? Oh dear: Get a proper job. Well, I suppose I do have a mortgage to pay.