By moving to China, my wife and I made a class-shift we never could have imagined at home, bar a winning lotto ticket. Here, we can eat out as often as we like. We can take taxis about town. I can have shirts tailored and she jewelry customized. We found two paintings we wanted to pair, but they were sized incompatibly. Two weeks later, they were repainted to fit and hanging in our living room. We have a housekeeper, who visits twice a week and keeps our floors clean, our sheets fresh and our shirts ironed. All this, and we can save towards summer trips, retirement and the inevitable down payment.
I thought this meant that we could be free from worry about money. But quite the opposite is true. Even beyond the ups and downs of the stock market, I find myself worrying about money here far more than I ever did at home. Not about whether or not we have enough, but simply how to think about it. I know what a dollar can buy in the U.S., but in China, a kuai can buy different amounts, depending on who is spending and where they are buying. As I have written about before, the whole quality spectrum here is accessible, to everyone, sometimes within a single store. Further, our relative wealth here only increases my confusion. Every purchase spawns three questions: What need I pay? What could I pay? What should I pay?
Bargaining is an amusing cultural challenge to the traveler, but a real issue for the foreign resident. We don’t want to shop at Carrefour, but often, shopping locally means negotiating a price. More over, the further we get from Carrefour, the closer to impoverished seem the shopkeepers. This only adds to the intimidation. Just because I’ve stopped serving poor families means I want to start haggling with them. How much “extra” do we pay, knowing a kuai to us is like five or ten to the DVD monger? How much do we insist the small goodsman reduce his price when the difference is a matter of education or health care for his family? What is the real cost of a "great deal?"
On the other side, how often can we stand to walk away feeling cheated or taxed, simply for our American clothes and poor Mandarin? Just how poor is the retailer and when does her exorbitant gain start to become a meaningful loss for us? Sometimes we are offered an initial price ten-times the rightful fee for an item, sometimes less than we had planned to start with. Both are rare, far more usual is a price awkwardly in between, offering no help at all.
What we know is of little use, if my wife and I paid even U.S. prices for everything we bought, we would soon start losing money by living here. Despite what is described above, our salaries are around sixty-percent what we made in the U.S. Further, saving money is part of the reason we, along with many expatriates, came to China. We will have education and health care to pay for soon, out of the savings that build from paying the next little bit less.
How do we see a fair price from these two vastly different vantage points?
I just don't know.
New South Caronlina Online College
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