For most Chinese people, owning a home is an extreme priority (though "owning" really means "a 70 year lease from the government.")  In the West, owning a homeis a big priority, though not essential.  In the Western mentality, houses are for owning, apartments/flats are for renting.  And since there are very few houses in China, most Westerners are happy to rent when they come to China to live, even if they're going to be here for a long, long time.

A few months after my wife and I got married in February 2009, we decided it was time to buy a home.  I was well aware of the Chinese inclination (read: obsession) with home ownership, and this is actually a valid perspective in China, where distrust and paranoia of being cheated reign supreme, and no one wants a landlord literally lording over you.  I was also aware of the huge responsibility and cost that comes with purchasing a home.  But we decided to take the plunge nonetheless, and so far, I'm glad we did.

For one thing, it makes my wife very happy, and happy wife=happy life :-).  But seriously, women crave stability, particularly in China, and while my wife isn't like the hordes of money-minded materialistic sirens prowling around, having a home to call your own is a big relief. 

Another reason is the investment opportunity.  We live on Xiamen Island for the time being while we're waiting for our new home to be constructed, but our new home is outside the island, on the mainland.  This means its drastically cheaper and quieter than if we had purchased a home on the island.  It's still only a 45 minute bus ride and if we get our own car, a 20 minute ride back to the island, which is the hub for Xiamen's shopping, restaurants, and nightlife.  There are several shopping centers, parks, etc. around where our new home is, but it's still mostly countryside.  But that is actually what we would like, since Xiamen Island is quickly becoming too crowded.  Right now, the home we are renting is right next to Zhong Shan Road, Xiamen's top tourist hot spot, and while the convenience is nice, the crowds and traffic is not.

So, back to the investment opportunity.  As I said, our new home is waaay cheaper than on the island.  It's on the 21st floor, 90 sq. meters, two bedrooms/one bath, looking out to the sea, though there are some industries and businesses around the building, but no smoke stacks or pollution.  It's also right across from a yet-to-be-finished bridge that will let me zip over to my university in about 15 minutes.  All this for 2990 RMB/sq. meter.  That's right.  We put down our deposit in May 2009, and already it has appreciated to over 4200 RMB/sq. meter.  As I said before, it's still in the countryside, but there are several developments and apartment complexes going up around it, so in the next 3-5 years, that area will probably be a decent suburb of Xiamen.

Now I often have people asking me about the process of buying a house, so let me share my experience.  My wife and I are quick decision-makers, and we were lucky enough to find this home that suited us, was in a good location, and had a great price, so we jumped right in.  The down payment was a bit of an expense, and we used my wife's savings for that, since I had drank, shopped, and traveled away most of my money in my three previous years in China *looks sheepish.*  I chipped in a bit though too.  The law stated that if a house is under 90 sq. meters, then the down payment is 20% of the total house value, if over, then it's 30%.  Our home came to around 89.40 sq. meters so we just bared squeaked in at the 20% mark.

Getting the loan from the bank was a bit of a nail-biter, since my wife didn't have a job, but we couldn't tell the bank that I, her husband, did have a job and was therefore capable of repaying the bank, since the bank wouldn't give her the loan if they knew that we were married.  The reason is that the bank would be naturally squeamish about loaning money to a Chinese person with a foreign spouse, since the couple could easily take the loan, make their purchase, and then zip off to the foreigner's home country, leaving the bank empty-handed.  But since my wife also owned a small storefront that she rents out, the bank saw her as low-risk (and still single), so they granted the bank loan to her at a fixed interest rate. 

I thought this was interesting but understandable.  From what I hear, foreigners can only own one piece of property in China, usually a factory or other business.  I'm a teacher, not a businessman, so I don't need to worry about this, but without something significant tying me to China, the bank wouldn't give her the loan, so we needed to keep our marriage under wraps.

So now we've got a ten-year mortgage at a fixed rate, and the payments are quite reasonable, only about 20% of my monthly income.  My wife doesn't work (her current job is incubating our little bundle of joy, due to arrive in August).  The construction should be finished in July of this year, but all we're really getting is an empty concrete box.  We have to take care of all the interior design ourselves, which is what we're saving up for at the moment.  We expect to move to our new home by next summer.  All in all, it's been a relatively low-stress situation, and I really feel that we got lucky.  I would encourage other married foreigners to purchase homes outside of large cities, since urban areas are severely over-priced, though this could change quickly.  Suburban homes tend to be quieter, less expensive, and the appreciation will probably be less erratic than city homes. 

I think purchasing a home is a good idea, especially if you're going to be in China for the long haul and plan to have a family here.  My wife and I expect that we'll stay in China until it's time for our child to begin his/her education, and a Western education is definitely the better choice- can I get an "Amen."  But even while we're gone, we can rent our home, and we'll always have a home to come back to.

In unrelated news, I haven't gotten a new tattoo in several months, so I went to the beach and got sunburned to get that peeling and itching feeling that I know and love so well.  Just thought I'd share.

This week, I've been encouraging students to stay away from overused words, such as "beautiful," "delicious," etc.  One word that is heard all too often is "cute."  Cute is an integral part of Chinese society, as well as many other East Asian countries.  There are cartoons everywhere, on refrigerators, public buses, and noodle packaging.  Girls try to find the balance between innocent and sexy, and the result could best be described as "cute."  Birthday cakes, picture frames, umbrellas... everywhere you look, there's something cute.

A large amount of my time is spent around students, who are of course immersed in the culture of "cute."  And this is all fine and good, but it gets a bit overwhelming at times. The other day, a male student was wearing a neon pink shirt and matching neon pink glasses.  In a bid to out-do the effeminate male Korean pop stars flooding the airwaves and magazines, China's Super Boy singing competition program has become a parade of the "cutest" (translation: cross-dressing) boys the country has to offer.  I see semi-pimped-out rice rockets buzzing down the road, sporting Japanese cartoon decals.  And while I certainly have no problem with cute girls, I constantly see middle-aged mothers prancing around the shopping malls wearing the same tu-tu inspired fashions that my students wear.  Granted, they usually have the figures to pull it off, but there's nothing wrong with dressing with a stylish yet mature sensibility.

Every culture is obsessed with youth, but I think China takes it to another level, where many people lack education or skills to set themselves apart from the rest of the masses, but youth and beauty are always in fashion.  My students tell me that they don't want to grow up, that they wish they could always remain boys and girls.  Maybe this culture of cute is a way to retain that youth, even though the mirror is telling you otherwise.  I dunno, maybe my Western mentality is too testosterone-driven, and I have come to appreciate "cuteness" more since living in China, but when I see billboards with cartoon policemen telling me not to drink and drive, I feel like I'm in kindergarten.

I came across a thought-provoking article in China Daily the other day.  Everyone knows what a pre-nuptial agreement is, but in China, many couples are taking it one step further, going so far as to create an actual marriage contract, such as who does what chores, who takes care of the money, etc.  Of course I can't say for sure, but I would feel safe to say that it's probably the women that are initiating these contracts, and while some couples may need them for their own happiness and sanity, any marriage where you have to do something because of contractual obligation rather than love doesn't sound like fun to me.

A significant portion of these contracts deal with the man's behavior outside the home.  Sadly, China's culture does not take a harsh view towards cheating and extramarital affairs, and anyone in China knows that there are ample opportunities for sneaking around, and because of this, Chinese women feel very insecure about their relationships.  Naturally, Chinese women often need more than just a promise of fidelity to set their minds at ease.  However, I don't think a contract such as the one mentioned in the China Daily article is a good idea.

So I decided to draft my own marriage contract.  Of course my wife and I don't have a contract; this contract is just what I think a good marriage should be based around.  My marriage is not perfect by any means, but I believe that my wife and I understand the responsibilities and obligations that we have to each other and to the marriage, and I can honestly say that I feel our relationship is very strong.  My wife sometimes feels a little uneasy with my job as university teacher surrounded by hormonal students, some of whom have made very unsubtle advances towards me, but I always assure her that I love her sincerely and meant it when I said the part in the wedding vows about "forsaking all others."

So here's the contract.  It's not meant to be a serious contract, but I think it covers all the bases and leaves the most important things to the couple's discretion, since love, patience, and understanding are the foundations of a strong marriage, not the threat of penalties and fines.

Marriage Contract
In addition to the traditional wedding vows, the man agrees to the following:

-to never intentionally hurt his wife's feelings, self-esteem, body, or property
-to never belittle or demean her thoughts, actions, or opinions
-to respect, appreciate, and encourage her identity as a woman
-to understand that his wife does not share the same perception about the world as he does, and shall make serious efforts to understand her point of view when possible
-in the event of a quarrel or disagreement, it shall be left to the man's discretion whether to give in to the wife's requests/demands/point-of-view or to stand firm in his position, but he shall be prepared to accept any consequences of his actions, whether rational or irrational
-to agree to the wife's requests when these requests are clearly beneficial to the man's health, job, lifestyle and/or the integrity of the marriage, and to not let his ego interfere with his acceptance of said requests
-to put his wife first in every situation and never conduct any action borne out of selfish motivation if said action will cause negative consequences

In addition to the traditional wedding vows, the woman agrees to the following:
-to never intentionally hurt her husband's feelings, self-esteem, body, or property
-to never belittle or demean his thoughts, actions, or opinions
-to respect, appreciate, and encourage his identity as a man
-to understand that her husband does not share the same perception about the world as she does, and shall make serious efforts to understand his point of view when possible
-to give her husband's opinions and ideas sincere consideration and not let her ego interfere with admitting if her husband's idea or opinion is indeed correct
-to allow her husband time, resources, and encouragement to enjoy his own pleasurable pursuits when it is clear that he will enjoy said pursuits responsibly and the enjoyment of said pursuits does not adversely affect the integrity of the marriage
-to put her husband first in every situation and never conduct any action borne out of selfish motivation if said action will cause negative consequences

In addition to the traditional wedding vows, the couple agrees to the following:

-all issues related to money, schedules, careers, children, social interactions, and intimate relations shall be discussed calmly, sincerely, and with both parties implementing the stipulations of their individual marital responsibilities as stated above to the fullest extent
-the health, integrity, and enjoyment of the marriage shall be both party's highest priority