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Communication Stonewalled

In China I’ve learned that often the best thing to do is lose the little battle to win the war. It’s a lesson that I have not learned well, because it appeared I’d won three large rocks, but lost my house

By Chris Hawke Updated Aug.29

Things all went bad over three beautiful old paving stones that sat on my walkway. The local government had recently pulled them up to put in a sewer line.  

My original landlord, tragically, died in a construction accident, and his widow was now in charge. She was a lovely person, but had an ornery streak.  

I now needed her signature on some local paperwork to renovate the dilapidated village house I’d rented on a long 18-year-contract. When she dropped by, she started pointing to all the things that belonged to her, including an old pile of sticks, some broken furniture in a shed, and the three old stones from the dug-up sidewalk.  

I said we could talk about it later, and we went to the town hall to handle the renovation paperwork.  

A few hours later, there was a knock on the door. To my utter shock, two old men came in without introducing themselves, picked up the stones and started to leave. I told them to wait, but they brushed me off and started going out the door. Then the landlady entered, and started screaming, “This is my house, these are my stones.”  

It all happened very fast, and was quite ridiculous. I’ve lived all over the world, including one of the worst neighborhoods in Manhattan, but this was my first home invasion. Slow motion, and by senior citizens, but in my mind a robbery nonetheless. And extremely rude.  

I put out my arms to block the door, but my landlady just became more aggressive. I ended up grabbing the stones and pushing the three of them out the door, all the while listening to her shriek, “My house! My stones!”  

My giant Alaskan Malamute dog watched the whole scene passively, wagging his tail.   

The dog, it turns out, was smarter than me. The landlady quickly spread the word around town that I had assaulted her. It turned out that one of the men I pushed out was a local government official.  

In China I’ve learned that often the best thing to do is lose the little battle to win the war. It’s a lesson that I have not learned well, because it appeared I’d won three large rocks, but lost my house.  

I wrote the landlady a heartfelt apology note, and asked a neighbor to give it to her.“It won’t help,” the neighbor said. “She can’t read, and she doesn’t want anything to do with you anyways.”  

As it happens, it was time for me to pay the remaining 18 years on the lease. I visited the home of my landlady’s brother-in-law with a bag full of cash.  

The house was full of strangers, who said they had a “new contract” for me to sign if I “wanted to continue cooperation” – a contract I had never seen and that they refused to let me read in advance.  

I said I’d think about it and got out as fast as I could.  

That evening, they announced they would come over to the house in 30 minutes, with a paper contract I could take or leave.  

They said they would wait at the door. I wasn’t home, but didn’t want to tell them, because all the rent money was in a bag on the kitchen table.  

I recalled that the previous tenants of my home had a dispute with my neighbor, and dozens of people showed up with sticks and hoes. Hoping to avoid an incident, I snuck back to my house, hopped over the back wall, grabbed the cash and my passport, and spent the night in a hotel.  

Once safely away, I texted to suggest a morning meeting at a restaurant. Then I got a phone call, from an unknown number.  

The voice on the phone turned out to be one of the landlady’s sons, a teacher. He had driven over seven hours to the village to help sort things out.  

The brother-in-law apologized for coming over to the house uninvited, but said he was old fashioned and liked to do things face to face. He added he did not know how to send a contract electronically.  

The teacher explained that the current contract had a provision in it which meant that if I moved out, his family had to refund me all the money I was spending on renovations–a fortune for both them and me.  

It turns out they were using what had seemed to be strong arm tactics because they did not want to draw my attention to that clause, afraid I would invoke it, and bankrupt their family.  

I offered to revise it, and everyone seemed happy.  

I now sleep well in my courtyard home, confident I’ll be here for another 18 years, but also aware the only thing protecting me from losing it all is some goodwill from the landlords, and a slender reed of good luck