I was told there would be no math.
Before I left the states, I followed the advice of my recruiter, and saved up my money to move to China. A local bank gave me a good rate (about 1 to 7) on RMB. I found that the little red envelopes they give out on New Years will hold about 3,000 RMB comfortably. I needed a few of these to come to China. Why so much money? I would have to be working for a month before I had my first payday. I was expecting to be “ten-dollared” to death. (Well I need a toaster, that’s another ten dollars).
In the flurry of activity that is setting up in China, someone said that after about a month, I’d be able to set up a bank account. Until then I was stuck living on cash. With so much going on, that statement passed without comment. But that led to the situation where our first month’s pay was entirely in cash.
The currency in China is officially the RMB, called yuan or kuai. The RMB is further split in ten, with bills and coins for those. Despite the large numbers on everything, the largest bill is the 100 RMB.
So when I went to the Lahujun campus to pick up my first month’s pay, I walked out with a stack of cash that is rarely seen outside gangster films. There’s an old Mitch Hedburg routine about how carrying large amounts of cash is psychologically perilous. You start to think you can buy anything. “Why, of course I need an ivory hello kitty backscratcher!” Being still new to the country, even the prices don’t resonate.
That aspect hits everyone differently. I got sticker shock. Seeing the large numbers on items made me hesitate in buying what were essentially cheap things. All I had to do was divide by seven, but the emotional hit of seeing triple digits for groceries was still there. For a lot of our new group, the opposite happened. The RMB wasn’t real money, so they could have put any numbers on the price tag, and it would be just as meaningless.
This is considering you even get price tags. For a lot of places, price tags aren’t a thing, and there’s an expectation of haggling. I first encountered haggling culture at the markets in South Africa. Most people not raised in the culture recoil from the haggling experience, simply accepting the first offer as the stated price and paying more for the privilege to have the transaction over and done with. There are people who embrace haggling as a challenge, and looking for opportunities to practice. My Chinese teacher once told me that in China, everything is negotiable.
One of my Chinese friends is relatively well off, but is constantly looking for a bargain. Whenever I suggest a purchase, it’s almost always too expensive, and she says “I can find that cheaper”. I’m happy to pay a little extra for convenience, but for her it’s not about the money, it’s about victory. “I am a miser” she likes to say and laugh. I introduced her to the word “Skinflint”. This reluctance to part ways with my money left me not spending a lot during this period.
So for a week, I walked around with Liberia’s deficit in my skyrocket. Then the magic day arrived: I was allowed to open up a bank account. I walked proudly into the local bank and immediately begged for help. The kind woman who spoke a little english told me to fill out the forms, English was ok. She took the forms to the back and returned with her phone, translation app opened to the phrase “write clearer”. So I redid them.
Ten minutes later she came back. Her app told me “Do Chinese, pinyin is ok.” So I redid them.
“Write clearer” So I redid them.
“Chinese characters only, please” “write clearer”.
“I’m sorry, bank is now closing, please come back tomorrow.”
I did, and with a vengeance. I wasn’t leaving until I got a bank account. I
painstakingly copied the characters my phone told me to, and after verifying my address, signature, phone number, and my picture, I had a bank card.
I was later told that the campus would have helped me with this process, and that the person responsible had just been out of the office that day. Either way, I could order food, Shop online, and have groceries delivered.
Despite there being a requirement that businesses accept cash, China is moving to a largely cashless society. Most people pay for everything with their phones, either through Wechat or through Alipay. On one hand this is very convenient and secure, on the other hand if you lose your phone, you’re not only out of contact, you’re broke too.
But even with your phone, spending your hard earned scratch can be confusing. The apps for food, rides, and shopping are an onslaught of ads, offers, and promotions that can radically change your bottom line. If you can’t read Chinese, most of these are nonsensical, but they always apply. So when I order something on Taobao, my final price is usually 15 kuai cheaper because I’m paying through alipay, or I clicked on a red envelope, or I’m ordering when the moon is full.
This offer idea extends to the shops. Almost every store is having a sale. Keep in mind, Chinese discounts are backwards to western ones, and in groups of ten. A 9 discount means 90% of the original price. A 6.5 discount means 65%. Now take that and divide by seven, carry the three, and you might be able to predict what you’re spending. You’re left with the idea that nobody knows what the price of anything is. At least I don’t.
I don’t own a car, so I have to carry everything I buy. Usually I plan for this, but Chinese shopkeepers have been, without being asked, been just giving me things. I was buying some ibuprofen from a drug store before work, and the shopkeeper turns around, takes a large jar of honey from behind her and puts it in my bag. Whether it was part of a promotion or she just liked the look of me, I’ll never know. I was stuck lugging around the honey for the rest of the day. Even on the internet, when I buy something, there’s almost always a promotional item or some offer inside.
All of these discounts add up to a tidy amount of savings per month. Many of the teachers want that savings to be in their western banks. This is a tad problematic as the normal method, a wire transfer, requires a document from the local tax office proving you’ve paid taxes on that money. Not anything expensive, but it’s a hassle. Most people get a Chinese citizen to PayPal them the money. This works reliably and quickly, for a small fee. Because of this fee, most teachers like to make the transfer in large amounts, but I’m all too aware of how those large numbers effect me.
They say a fool and his money were lucky enough to get together in the first place.
Questions? Want to share a story?
Contact me at Chris@oweneducation.com
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