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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris in Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And in Chengdu in Southwestern China, where we're reporting this week, I'm Melissa Block here with Robert Siegel.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Chengdu was not the epicenter of the quake. That was about 60 miles to the north. So this city of 4.5 million people is not a scene of devastation. Don't think New Orleans after Katrina. The people are still here; they maybe worried about aftershocks, but there is water, gas, electricity, bus service. You don't see collapsed buildings in this city. As the cliche goes, things are getting back to normal, which brings us to the question that brought us here in the first place. What is normal in a big city in the most populous country in the midst of the biggest sustained economic boom of our times?

Over the next three days, three glimpses of life in Chengdu as it is experienced by people who have just one thing in common: they all live near in outer orbit of urban life here - the Third Ring Road. It encircles Chengdu about five miles from the city center. It opened in 2002, when the city had grown right pass two earlier Ring Roads.

(Soundbite of jackhammer)

SIEGEL: The city is still growing, gobbling up farms with new apartments going up in their place. We start with a success story, making it beyond the Third Ring Road.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

SIEGEL: Like most people in the city Chengdu, Lei Lei's(ph) family is okay after last week's earthquake. And in their case, okay is pretty good indeed. Lei Lei is 26. She teaches English at Chengdu University of Technology Information. She is tiny, confident and brimming with enthusiasm. Her husband is a sales manager for a real estate firm. When he uses an English name, he goes by Jason. And in October, Lei Lei and Jason are expecting their first child. For now they live with her parents, who are both civil servants.

Her father cooked supper for us the week before last. Cooking is a skill that he's acquired late in life, just as he later took up investing in the stock market. Lei Lei's 86-year-old grandmother lives with them too. And it's not like they're crowded in together. Her parents bought their apartment five years ago, and it's a sixth-floor walkup, undamaged by the quake and well-worth the walk. Three bedrooms, two baths, a spacious living room, dining room, televisions everywhere, four computers, and a room one flight up that opens onto the roof were Lei Lei's mother keeps a garden.

By Chengdu standards, it's a big apartment. In fact, by just about any standard, it's a big apartment. So for Lei Lei, who is the only English speaker in the group, the move that she and her husband are about to make will be momentous, but it will also entail some downsizing. Lei Lei and Jason have bought their own place. They haven't moved in to it yet, but she took us to see it.

LEI LEI: This is our kitchen.

SIEGEL: And you have a two-burner stove.

LEI LEI: Yeah, and microwave.

SIEGEL: And there's a balcony outside the kitchen.

LEI LEI: Yeah.

SIEGEL: What's going to go out there?

LEI LEI: The washer. The washer and dryer.

SIEGEL: Washer and dryer will go there, for the laundry.

LEI LEI: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Lei Lei's new apartment is along the far edge of Chengdu's urban sprawl, beyond the Third Ring Road - it's near the airport - in a new development built by a Chinese-Canadian joint venture, hence the name Vancouver Gardens. From here, Lei Lei can walk to work at the university. Jason will drive to work downtown. The apartment is about 950 square feet.

And then you have two bedrooms.

LEI LEI: Yeah.

SIEGEL: So this is the smaller of the two bedrooms?

LEI LEI: Yes, the smaller one. My father-in-law and mama-in-law will live here.

SIEGEL: They're going to come and live with you?

LEI LEI: They'll going to come to live with you. And my - our baby will be born, they're be going to take of him...

SIEGEL: Aha, so you will have permanent babysitters all the time...

LEI LEI: Not permanent, to maybe one year or two years.

SIEGEL: I see.

LEI LEI: Yes, and - when they put out their small bed here and to the baby will sleep with them.

SIEGEL: The baby will sleep with the grandparents.

LEI LEI: Yeah...

SIEGEL: So you and your husband will have some peace.

LEI LEI: Yeah.

SIEGEL: The room that would strike us as the most unlike an American apartment is the bathroom. There's no tub, just an open shower next to the toilet with a drain in the floor. Except for an air conditioner and a washer-dryer, it's all furnished. And it will sit vacant for months.

LEI LEI: We're going to move in September or October, because we can't come here now for the smell.

SIEGEL: The smells?

LEI LEI: As many of them are decorating new apartment.

SIEGEL: The new...

LEI LEI: (Unintelligible)

SIEGEL: So much painting and noise going on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LEI LEI: Yeah. And, I can't come here because I'm on my family way. After the birth of the baby, we'll move in.

SIEGEL: So, you don't (unintelligible). When you're expecting the baby, you don't want to be breathing in the fumes from the apartment.

LEI LEI: Yeah.

SIEGEL: And this is common of people when you prepare a new apartment, people wait and they let it...

LEI LEI: Here - it's very common here.

SIEGEL: The apartment costs 389,000 renminbi. That's about $56,000. Lei Lei and Jason saved for years and borrowed from their families to make the down payment.

LEI LEI: And then we got a loan from the bank for 20 years.

SIEGEL: A 20-year mortgage.

LEI LEI: Twenty years, yes.

SIEGEL: And of course it's a beautiful apartment.

LEI LEI: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: It's has two bedrooms and a very modern kitchen, and you bought a beautiful Siemens refrigerator.

LEI LEI: Yes.

SIEGEL: You just bought a television set. It's a very nice Sony - I think its 37 inches is my guess.

LEI LEI: Forty.

SIEGEL: Forty inches. Excuse me. How much of the mortgage, how much of the price do you have to put down, and at how much, what percent of it do you have to pay?

LEI LEI: Thirty percent for (unintelligible). Thirty percent.

SIEGEL: Thirty percent. And is it one interest rate for all 20 years? Or could the interest rate change?

LEI LEI: It will rise. It will change.

SIEGEL: It will change.

Ms LEI: Yeah, as time goes by.

SIEGEL: And what is it now? What is the interest rate now?

LEI LEI: It's about 7 percent, 7 percent.

SIEGEL: Seven percent, 7 percent.

People only began buying their own homes here during the past 20 years. And real estate really took off just a few years ago. The real estate market softened this past year, but an apartment is still seen as a good investment. In fact, there aren't a lot of other investment choices.

LEI LEI: There's not many things. The year before, we invested some money in stock exchange, and now it's not very good.

SIEGEL: The stocks were doing very well, but this past year, not so well.

LEI LEI: The year before, it was doing very well, but in 2008 now, the stock exchange has been influenced by the stock exchange in America, in Japan, in Hong Kong. So it went down.

SIEGEL: There's a lot of talk about the stock market among China's new middle-class. It may be a little disorienting, but no more so than the scene that greeted us when we first arrived at Lei Lei's new apartment. Her in-laws were there, and they were watching a movie - a drama set in the Long March, the 1934 trek of the Red Army led by Mao Zedong. It was on that 40-inch Sony LED-screen TV, sitting on the brand new living room credenza - a glimpse of the new China.

Tomorrow, we'll meet a couple for whom things have not worked out quite so well.

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