Sunday, January 25, 2015

Daily Life, Part IV: The Cost of Living in China

When we were small I remember when someone said something that seemed unrelated to the conversation people would retort, "What's that got to do with the price of eggs in China?"  The saying itself doesn't have much to do with getting off topic either, but there you are.
Exactly what IS the price of eggs in China?  Well, for me it's a wet market purchase, so if you follow my blog regularly you'll know that I'm not quite sure what I pay for things there, because they ball up all your purchases and announce a price, all without a receipt.  But the price of things in China is an interesting topic.
Some things are much cheaper than the U.S., and others are outrageously expensive.  In the first category I would put most Chinese restaurants, and by Chinese I mean those that are serving mostly Chinese people, and also those Chinese who are NOT part of the burgeoning consumer-class of pretty well-off people who are very much into conspicuous consumption.  Just your average Chinese citizen can get a pretty good meal for a few bucks.  In my last blog I wrote about a restaurant that is probably for fairly affluent customers, but the bill was still only around 12 USD.  However, if you go to many of the very new restaurants here, Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, and all of the western menu ones, you are going to pay high end prices.  It's good food, but your bill for two is going to be similar to what you would pay in America, which is NOT what I'm looking for while I'm not in America. Today for brunch I paid 8 USD for a waffle.  It had some other weird stuff on the plate, a scoop of vanilla ice cream with unripe mango, but still, that was steep. Coffee drinks are another example of high end products.  While I'm not a coffee drinker, S is and I'm always a little alarmed at how much those fancy mocha, latte whip-creamy-type coffees are.  However, I'm pretty sure they are expensive in the U.S. as well.
Produce is another subject.  Fruit is usually cheaper, though when I buy blueberries here I pay 20 RMB, which is 3.20 USD for a half-pint.  However, I don't fuss about it because (1) they have fresh, quality blueberries for sale, which I never saw in India and (2) it's amazing that they have them fresh here this time of the year and (3) they are supposed to be a super healthy food, so I put this item under "health needs" on my budget instead of food.  Avocados, same story.  I paid 12 RMB (2 bucks) for an avocado, and I thank my lucky stars I can enjoy the luscious fruit once more.  Vegetables are cheap, extremely cheap.  Even beautiful, diverse, extremely fresh mushrooms are about 1/4 of the cost they would be in America.
Clothing is another item where racing to be Western (or just consumers) has resulted in quite expensive clothing.  I was at a gym in Chengdu and saw some great yoga pants.  They were over 100 USD. I thought I wasn't calculating correctly but the Chengdu Panda pulled me away, warning me that the price of clothing would not be Indian-like.  Not even close.  If I go to H & M or Mango, I can expect to pay what Europeans are paying for the clothes, if I can find my size, which the marketers of the stores smartly decided wasn't going to be the size of the average Chinese shopper.  High end clothing items abound, including shoes.  I found a Clarks Shoes store, and saw a shoe I bought for 50 USD over the summer; they were 240 dollars here, American dollars, not the Chinese RMB. The import taxes for luxury goods must be crazy high, or the stores think crazy people will buy them.  Which is another fact of life here; while there is a good supply of high end malls selling high end goods, there are NOT people lining up to buy the goods in the high end shops that I see.  Of course that could be because rich people don't shop on the weekends like us normals, or it could be that they send normal looking people to do their shopping for them.  I can't tell, and have no inside information on this yet.
Our apartment is 6000 RMB/month, which is about 1,000 USD. It's got 3 bedrooms, one quite small, but I wonder how much cheaper that is than a similar sized city in US.  I've not rented an apartment for a long time in the U.S. so I couldn't say.  Our utilities are probably pretty cheap, but the way in which I pay for them makes it difficult to tell. Here's how the school figured out would be easiest for us.  They assign us a realtor who helps us find an apartment.  After we have our apartment that person then becomes our life line to anything local.  We can call them with any question, and many do.  However, for the paying of the utilities, I give this real estate agent some cash.  They then receive all our bills for internet, gas, electricity and pay the bills until they are out of money, at which point they call and request more money.  When they come to collect the money, they give us all the old receipts for the bills they've paid.  That's all great but the receipts are in Mandarin, so I pretend to look them over then toss them.
Last, the price of services in China seems strikingly low for the most part.  I imagine it's due to the billion or so people who live here, but it's a good thing for us.  We recently got our motorcycle, really an electric bike, repaired for 5 kuai, which is less than a dollar.  I had to pay a guy to come put nails in my wall, and he charged me by the nail, which was 10 rm., which was pretty steep.  I'm afraid he charged me the infamous ex-pat tax.  I would have done it myself, but I couldn't find either a nail nor a hardware store.  He came without a hammer, though, so I had to lend him mine.  I wanted to charge him a "didn't-come-prepared" tax.