Friday, February 1, 2008

Thinking in Chinese Money

I’ve noticed that all of us in the program have adapted quite quickly to thinking of our expenditures in terms of kuai (the casual word for Chinese yuan). The exchange rate from kuai to dollars is roughly 7:1.

Tonight we had dinner at the ritzy restaurant downstairs. I bought what I got last time, spaghetti with “bacon”—they mean “ham”—but Traci was undecided about whether to get her usual spaghetti with “meet” sauce, or to spend big money and buy two, like Sheyron does. Keep in mind, we’re in China where everything, in general, is dirt cheap. We’re eating at a restaurant that’s someone’s renovated apartment and we’re ordering the cheapest dish on the menu. Still, 25 kuai is pretty pricey for one dinner, but if you start thinking about it in American money, you’ll never stop spending. Traci wobbled between justifying that a second plate would only bring her total up to $8 US, but when I pointed out that you could buy eight clementines for a quarter, she gave up and eventually stopped complaining.

I’ve found that I spend less than $1 on breakfast, less than $2 on lunch, and less than $3 on dinner, and then another $1 on snacks.

The third day we were in Chengdu, I was so money-conscious that instead of walking to the convenience store a block away to buy an over-priced hand towel, I took the towel that somebody left in our apartment and cut a hand towel out of it. It probably ruined the knife I was using, but it saved me 4 kuai.

We all walk about half an hour to school every day. If we went in on a taxi, it would cost us maybe 3 kuai each.

Today Rebekah and I went to practice our poem for Chinese New Year, and were so excited that instead of spending 20 kuai each on a taxi like last time, there was a bus route that took us pretty close that we could go on instead.

I lost a 100 kuai bill of Rebekah’s, and instead of just paying her back, I’ve started paying for things for her. I’m down to owing only 97 kuai, thanks to her not having a 1 kuai bill on her when we got on the bus. It’s like I think I have to spread out my payment so I don’t strain myself.

I’m not traveling during the break we get for Chinese New Year, and since I’ve connected with some American families I was familiar with, I’ve taken on watching a family’s dog for the next two weeks. They’re paying me 700 kuai (including taxi fare to get to school), which is a fortune. Tonight I was just enjoying their Internet, and around 12:45 I went out to see what was still open this late at night. There was a café, which was actually a bar, but they had hot chocolate, and it tasted really good. They closed at 1:00, though, so I only had a few minutes, but I still enjoyed it.

Then I asked how much it cost. In Chengdu, the locals can’t pronounce the “sh” sound, it just comes out like a straight s. That’s really pretty important, because the word for 10 is “shi” and the word for 4 is “si”, so when they say one of them, you only have different tones to help you out—and Chengdu people are known for having horrible tones. So I ask how much my hot chocolate was, and she says “si si ba.” Well, I knew that ba was 8, but I was still processing the rest of the price as I nodded my okay. Hot chocolate usually costs 20 kuai, which makes it a luxury, but those two si’s didn’t sound like they had anything to do with 20. It turns out my drink cost 48 kuai. Whoa! No wonder they asked if I could drink it in ten minutes. I’d have to lounge on their couches enjoying it for a day and half to make it worth it. Even in the States that price would be expensive!

So I guess my strategy for how to think of money is to spend so much that it’s expensive no matter where I am.

1 comment:

mom said...

Great comments on thinking in the local currency. It's hard at first to judge if something is expensive, since you first convert it to dollars and it seems cheap. But then later you'll be able to judge if it's expensive relative to the things that have a marked price (unlike the things that require bartering, which of course you NEVER really know how much would have been a good price.) Later, when you come back to the States, it is likely that you'll end up thinking everything is too expensive. Funny how the relative value of things keeps changing. Once Thailand, I was around some kids who grew up in China. They calculated from the Thai currency (bat) back into yuan (not dollars) to figure out if things there were expensive or not. Guess it all depends on your reference point. Here in Spain, the Americans are complaining quite bitterly about the fall of the dollar to the Euro. Some of them are losing $600/m just by converting their US salary into Euros to spend. Anyway, nice entry.