Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The way I lived then....

My recent professional ponderings on salary levels and the standard of living for foreign teachers here in China got me to thinking back - oddly wistfully - to my early days in this country.

I had an archetypally dreadful Chinese employer in my first year (to whom I had been 'sold' by a more-than-archetypally dreadful recruitment agent in the UK), and was being expected to survive on a salary of 4,250 RMB per month. Back then, that was round about £350; today, with the ever-increasing strength of sterling, it would be barely £280. Now - rather mysteriously, and probably illegally - I wasn't being asked to pay any tax on that (or only a negligibly small amount; I can't quite recall now). And I was getting a small additional allowance that was supposed to cover my utilities bills (although one of the many annoying, penny-pinching sneakinesses of this college was that they contrived to calculate the monthly electricity bill on our compact two-room apartments - paid to them, rather than directly to the power company - as considerably in excess of that allowance; considerably in excess, as I now discover, of the utilities charges I run up today with an enormous three-bedroom apartment).

So, basically I had a little above or a little below 4,000kuai to spend every month. That's fairly typical: most teachers over here on their first gigs seem to get offered between 4,000 and 5,000 by the state sector and small private Chinese schools, and only slightly better from larger schools and foreign education franchises.

The problem was that I had completely exhausted my savings in the UK: I came here with nothing. Thus, to be able to afford to fly back and spend a month or two with my family the next summer, I figured I'd have to save at least 2,000 RMB per month, a full half of my pitiably small salary.

I was ruthlessly disciplined about that. Every month I set aside 2,000 RMB, and then tried to survive on slightly less than that for my living expenses. For a local, that would be a pretty good salary (heck, it would be a very good starting wage for a graduate, and considerably more than most blue-collar workers can ever expect to earn). But for foreigners, it's really hard to get by on that. We don't live as simply (we're not content to wear the same clothes 3 days in a row, for example; or to subsist for days on end on instant noodles.... well, not to the same extent that the Chinese are, anyway!). We get charged more for things (even when we get smart and savvy and ruthless about our shopping technique - we still can't live as cheaply as the locals). We want our own Internet connection, and we want to make a lot of international calls. And of course, we have our other expensive vices too (beer, cigarettes, pizza, etc.).

What would typically happen would be that I'd allow myself 2 or 3 "nights out" early in the first week or two (nothing too extravagant - just a token visit to a decent but not-too-dear Western restaurant, a few hours in a nice bar at a subsidised networking party, the cheapest seat at a classical concert), and blow most of the money by the mid-point of the month...... leaving me to limp through 10, 12, 14 days with just a few hundred renminbi. Now that really does require you to tighten your belt and live like a local.

Things got better. After my first Christmas, I started to find quite a bit of lucrative part-time work outside the college. Although I still mostly tried to set this additional income aside as 'savings', I did start allowing myself a few more of the 'treats' that had earlier been only a rare and guilty first-half-of-the-month indulgence.

I did rather enjoy that poverty-constrained existence, though. (Hell, it wasn't so different from the way I'd been living in the UK for the last few years before my departure!) The beer here - in small restaurants and streetside kiosks, anyway - is virtually free. And tiny, grungy local restaurants have far more 'character' than the swisher places. I love that life. I'm a little regretful that I have grown slightly away from it as I - and, more to the point, most of my friends - have become steadily more affluent in recent years.

Many of the habits of thrift I developed as essential to survival in those early months still persist, however. I still quite like taking a bus or the subway (unless it's in the height of the rush hour) rather than a taxi (although - heavens! - the taxis are really very cheap in this town). If it's less than a few miles, I'll usually just walk. And I much prefer sitting out on the sidewalk with a 2kuai or 3kuai Yanjing beer to paying 5 or 10 times as much for a half-size bottle of disgustingly gassy Tsingtao in a raucous 'foreigner bar'.

I'm not cheap. I just know that I still don't have that much money, and I have clear priorities about how I like to spend it.


Anonymous said...

affluency does tend till kill all those character-filled moments which would be suitable material for the next great novel, huh?

the best stories I've heard are of pheonixes emerging from the ashes. (is that an appropriate metaphor? I'm having a pretend-ESL moment. shotgun/gunshot, which is it HiK?

I went to 5 star, slept in a featherbed and had a full continental breakfast waiting for me when I leisurely awoke the next morning... uh, no, just doesn't count as literature.

Anonymous said...

May I offer, please:

Getting started

Most blues begin with you waking up this morning. After that, it is permissible to pass comment on your woman.

"I got a good woman" is a bad way to begin the blues. If you got a good woman why the hell you singing the blues? The only way around this is to stick something nasty in the next line. For instance: "I got a good woman / With the meanest face in town / Got teeth like Margaret Thatcher / And she weigh 500 pound."

Then you repeat it. We don't know why. You just do.

Getting around

The first thing to remember about the blues is not about choice. Your car stuck in a ditch today, your car stuck in a ditch tomorrow - ain't no way out.

Chevys, cadillacs and broken down trucks are the blues. Volvo estates, Ford Mondeos and anything made in Japan are not. When John Lee Hooker wrote Cool Little Car he sure weren't thinking of no damn Nissan Sunny. If you got no car, other permissible transportation includes a Greyhound bus or southbound train, preferably in the company of hobos. EasyJet or Virgin Express ain't doing it.

Walkin' plays a major part in blues. As does fixin' to die and meeting the devil at the crossroads. Getting stuck in a 5 hour traffic jam on the M5 is not the blues. Just unfortunate.


Blues can take place in New York City, but not in Hawaii or anywhere in Canada. Hard times in Oklahoma is plain depressing, but hard times in Chicago, St Louis or Kansas City is the blues. Losing all your American Express travellers cheques on vacation in Acapulco is just a pain in the butt. You cannot have the blues any place that don't get rain.

Good places for the blues: highway, jailhouse, empty bed, bottom of whisky glass.

Who can sing the blues?

Teenagers and schoolchildren cannot sing the blues. They ain't fixin' to die yet. Blues is for adults and adulthood means being old enough to get the chair if you shoot a man in Memphis. Blues is not a colour thing. Tiger Woods cannot sing the blues. Colin Montgomerie probably could. A man with male pattern baldness ain't the blues. A woman with male pattern baldness is. Breaking your leg while skiing in Val d'Isere is not the blues. Losing your leg to an alligator in a Louisiana swamp is. You cannot wear a suit and sing the blues unless you happen to be an 80 year old ethnic person. And you slept in it.

Also, no matter how tragic your life, if you own a laptop computer you cannot sing the blues. Maybe your big ol' mean woman done sit down on it. We don't care. You ain't going nowhere with blues like that.

Do you have the right to sing the blues?

Yes if: you're older than dirt / you're blind / you shot a man in Memphis / you can't be satisfied.

No if: you have all your own teeth / you were once blind but now can see / it turned out to be a flesh wound / you have a retirement plan, company pension or trust fund.


If you asked for water and baby done give you gasoline, it's the blues. Other acceptable beverages are: Thunderbird wine, whisky or bourbon, muddy water, black coffee. On no account ask for gin and tonic, a Bacardi Breezer, Snapple, Tokay-Pinot Gris Grand Cru furstentum 1998 or camomile tea.

Fixin' to die

If it occurs in a cheap motel or a shotgun shack, it's a blues death. Stabbed in the back by a jealous lover is another blues way to die. S o is The Chair, substance abuse, or lonely on a broken down cot. A heart attack playing squash, bizarre liposuction mishaps or being electrocuted while strimming the lawn is not the blues.

Your name

Some blues names for women: Sadie, Bessie, Big Mama, Fat River Dumpling. Some blues names for men: Willie, Big Willie, Little Willie, Blind Willie. Persons with names like Sierra, Sequoia, Auburn, Rainbow and Kevin cannot sing the blues, even if they take a machine gun to the men of Memphis.

Make your own blues name

A. Name of physical infirmity (Blind, Leadbelly, Lame etc), size of person (Big, Little, Tall, Shorty) or special ability (Howlin', Screamin', Mumblin').
B. First name (as above) or name of fruit (Lemon, Lime)
C. Last name of president (Jefferson, Johnson, Washington etc.)

Important note: This system is not entirely foolproof as, while Blind Lemon Jefferson is considered a perfect name for a bluesman, Big Strawberry Bush, while using the same procedure, sounds somewhat unsavoury and is very likely to get you banned in exactly the sort of states that that would appreciate your music best.

Hope this helps
Lame Mango Washington
Professor of Blues, Memphis, Tennessee

Froog said...

Not your own work, I suspect, Mr A.

Do you remember the Brown Flannel blues, composed for Mr Barnes?

Well I woke up this morning
With a shakin' in my hands
But I got out my brown flannel
And wiped around.......

And I felt ALL RIGHT
Yeah, I felt fine.
That old brown flannel
Sure is a good friend of mine.

I should do a post on the blues sometime. Or a 'Beijing Blues', perhaps.

Froog said...

I think I'll take Stout Melon Coolidge as my 'blues name'.

Anonymous said...

JOHNA: that is hilarious! thanks for sharing.

I started off reading it thinking "what the >>>" but then got into it and was laughing thinking of all the possibilities and impressed with the detail of it. i see it's not yours, but kudos to you for finding it and recognizing what a gem :)