Quality of Life vs. Standard of Living

An e-mail to a friend this morning got me thinking about what it’s like to live in China.

By “live”, I don’t mean in the common temporary sense, as a short-term contract teacher or business person might, but rather as someone who has no firm plans on the if and when of their eventual departure.

Moreover, it got me thinking not just about living in China, but the quality of that living.

The big sales pitch that is always thrown around to lure folks here on a lower-than-home salary is that the “standard of living in China is much lower”.

Countless English teaching jobs, even at universities, pay their foreign teachers in around 4,000 RMB/mo. (about $575 USD) based mostly on being able to convincingly tout that line.

And it’s not to say there isn’t truth to it. Stuff in China’s cheaper, right? Food, housing, beer, etc. I mean, it’s China?!.

But when you put that “standard of living” line into context, and you contrast it with the quality of life that standard of living entails, there are some rather large holes in it.

There is no mystery to the fact that if you live more like a local, it will cost you less money. Average wages in the city still barely push $300 per month.

And though living like a local may bring with it a certain “zhong guo tong” prestige, in the long-term, it also brings with it cold nights, crap food and very possibly health concerns.

I made the conscientious decision a while back to begin demanding a bit more from my living environment here. However, I have a Chinese wife, and one from a family that’s not all that well-off, so it’s been a bit of a process explaining to Maggie that spending an extra few dollars here or there and not pinching every jiao does have its advantages.

First to go was the need to wear a jacket of any sort in my apartment during the winter months. I appreciate that heating costs electricity, and I could be reasonably cozy in two pairs of long-underwear and a winter parka – but looking like I’m ready for a snowball fight while watching DVDs just didn’t cut it.

Then came the purchasing of better quality foods – both from supermarkets and restaurants. There was a time when I would gladly slop down a greasy bowl of 5RMB lamian or a few 0.5RMB sticks of [insert random meat] chuar, all washed down with a 2 kuai bottle of China’s finest suds. Hell, it was short-term and I was eating my way to a better understanding of the “real” China.

What they don’t tell you at the stalls though is that the meat’s been sitting unrefrigerated for a day or two; the oil isn’t just full of trans fats, but it’s recycled (yup, recycled); and most of the cheap beer is fake and contains more formaldehyde than my high school science class.

Nothing that’s going to kill you in a week or a couple months, but when you start considering eating this stuff over the course of a few years – it’s time to make a change.

Last on my list of changes was where I live. Most the time I’ve lived in China I’ve lived in some form of school-supplied housing. Generally this is a budget apartment with the barest of necessities. Admittedly, the quality of apartment was much better than I had imagined before arriving in China, but again – over the long-term, it tends to lose its luster.

Unfinished and dirty stairways with no lighting, windows that let mosquitoes in and heat out, the absence of hot water outside of the shower, beds with box springs disguised as mattresses and foul odors escaping from all open drains for the country’s complete denial that U-bends were ever created.

Now the problem with these changes is, quite frankly, they cost a fuckload more money. When all’s tallied, living what would be considered a modest lifestyle back home could very easily cost you more money here in China.

High-quality items and better living standards have traditionally been for that smaller but much, much richer upper class that sits on the opposing side of China’s wide economic gap. As such, it has created a faux pricing system not all that in tune with the slowly-growing middle class or their moderate incomes.

I think the solution is not to go to extremes one way or the other. Find a hybrid between zhong guo tong and decadent expat that allows you to live comfortably and gives you the permission to spurge on what in any other country would be considered essentials, but at the same time allows room to accept that you are in a country that is still just getting a grasp on all this, and also doesn’t isolate you too much from the country you live in.

Will it work? Not real sure. Thoughts?

23 Responses

  1. Sounds pretty damn reasonable. I’m still on the dirty end of the spectrum after two years here, but I’m beginning to think imported breakfast cereals and the not-so-occasional cab ride might not be so bad after all.

    Rock on for a healthy and balanced lifestyle!

  2. I can appreciate the trying to convince the Chinese wife that not every jiao has to be saved for our retirement. Some can be spent now to make a happier, healthier home. After all, a happy hubby is a hubby who can and will work harder for his family.

    I live in Guangzhou. I tried living like a local my first few months here. Then one day I turned to my wife and said, “What part of spoiled, lazy expat don’t you quite get?” Now I live the high life in an apartment building with an elevator!

  3. I gave up a bit of my zhongguotong-ness when I decided to stop eating bread that made my teeth squeak and invest in the stuff with all the nuts and grains. But I draw the line at 50 kuai German jams.

  4. Aren’t we confusing “cost of living” with “standard of living” ?

    “cost of living” in China is low, and so is “standard of living”…

  5. I’ve found a relative balance, pinching where it doesn’t hurt and splurging where it doesn’t matter. I take the bus everywhere, my phone is a cheap model (yet still rockin after three years), and I eat the dubious local food. But I also enjoy a Western meal a few times a week, I get new tattoos usually every month and I’ll party it up on club nights. I think what most people have to decide is accommodations/amenities or activities. Having a wife definitely alters the picture of course.

  6. @Jon: We buy cereal from the bigger supermarkets. The selection is limited to healthier stuff (multi-grain cheerios, corn flakes, granola) but the 20-40 RMB in savings buying those over the imports is enough for me to pass on the Honeycombs. 😉

    @John: Oh! An elevator… it would take some serious convincing to get my wife in an apartment with one – haven’t you heard, they break ALL the time, trapping innocent conservative wives in them. Yours is probably broken right now.

    @Andrew: Tis a good line. I’ve found Carrefour’s import section to be the best here in Suzhou for price vs. variety. It’s not as great as the import shops (City Store, Summit, etc.) but it’s a lot cheaper.

    @Bill: You’re absolutely right. It’s the low cost of living that is touted, but it is the low standard of living that I’m ranting against.

    @Mark: I did the bus thing for about my first year and a half. It was shortly after getting my foot stuck in the door of an over-crowded bus for the second time that I decided the $1.50 taxi ride is an acceptable expense. Suzhou’s good in that I can take my e-bike most places and save both taxi and bus fares.

  7. Great post. I take the bus and the subway, drink the local beer, buy the cheap fruits and veggies, etc., but I do turn up the heat, and we do go out for expensive Western meals pretty frequently.

    I have Stick instead of a a Chinese wife. He’s not much of a jiao-pincher, but he does want to sample all kinds of dirty-bowl noodleshops and so I end up eating there as well.

    I’m still trying to find the ideal balance between roughing it on a couple kwai and living in the expat bubble.

  8. I don’t agree that the cost of living is that low in China (at least where I am). I happen to be living in Shenzhen and the prices have gone absolutely through the roof here. It used to be I would take the gf to a local Chinese restaurant and we would have a great meal and the bill would come and I would be “wow!” that’s cheap. Last year some time that went to “wow” prices are climbing. Now it’s “wow” you’re kidding me … that much for the crap you just served us? heck this past weekend they charged us ¥1 each for the plastic wrapped clean dishes! Go to a local bar .. tsing tao is now ¥25. Mixed drinks ¥35-40+. I paid these prices in the US. Heck …. even the knock-off polo shirts are over ¥120 each …. these are US prices.

  9. For me, an affordable yet large dishwasher would probably eliminate 50% of my ranting about the quality of life here, yet there is none to be found. Hot water throughout the house would be number 2. And no amount of money can ever buy clean air. Not even the Shunyi expats in Beijing can escape from that.

  10. @Meg: Yeah, I still drag Maggie into cheap noodle shops and I’m a sucker for chuar (cat or not).

    @Yokie: Prices have definitely risen over the last year or so, and you’re right – the prices aren’t in tune with the quality. I first noticed this with shoes (of all things). I can go to Payless back home and grab a pair of runners for $40 (2 for $60 if I’m lucky) and those will last me a year or more. Here, I pay the same price and the stitching breaks or the insole develops A/C. This price jump is one of the factors that got me considering whether it’s worth living “on the cheap”… because that gap is narrowing.

    @Chip: No doubt about the air quality. My new apartment has a dishwasher AND a clothes dryer (this along with a backyard!). It’s the small things.

  11. Ryan, I was surprised to notice that in winter many people in Canada wear sweaters in their houses because they don’t want expensive heater to run all the time. And they have big houses to heat.

    I bought a pair of sneaker for CDN $25. They broke after half a year.

    Probably electronics cost in China as much as everywhere else: laptops, TVs etc.

  12. @維特利: Sort of a weird comment.
    1. Sweaters aren’t winter jackets.

    2. $25 isn’t $40. But you’re not totally wrong – cheap shoes are cheap shoes.

    3. Foreign electronics are as expensive or more in China. Domestic electronics are cheaper – for a reason, there’s always a reason.

  13. Nice post! Well, as Mark said, having a wife certainly alters things, and so does having a baby. My “quality of life” bringing up a baby here in China is much better…mainly because we can afford a maid. Hiring a maid in England would be UNIMAGINABLE. And I don’t get taxis in England either. BTW, you should drink Asahi Japanese beer, it’s about the same price as Tsing Tao and very quaffable. Oh, yes, and I can eat sushi here in China too, whereas in England I’d blow a week’s wages on a good sushi session.

  14. Wow! Your going to have a dishwasher, Maggie will be thrilled! Ok, tell me please, does the new place also have an oven so you can finally bake cookies?!

  15. Heh heh – to Ryan’s Mom : I had a nice little bench-top oven, about the size of a microwave oven. It was great, 2 heating elements, a timer, rotisserie, thermostat knob 100-280 degrees C. It worked well for about 2 years, until last winter. The kitchen was about 2 degrees C and when I used it to bake bread, the glass door exploded/shattered into about 178 pieces all over the kitchen bench & floor. Poor little thing, the “heatproof” glass didn’t like going from 2 to 200 in 3 minutes. Lucky I wasn’t peering into it at the time.

    Dishwasher ? Clothes Dryer ? You lucky B****rd 🙂

  16. My wife is Chinese, and while giving a tour of my brother’s new house in the states (about 3000 sq. ft) a while back, my wife said to me, in chinese, “wow, it’s pretty nice, we should get a place like this one day!”. My brother asked what she said, and I replied “she called you a greedy capitalist pig”. Unfortunately, she understood me.

  17. @Mom/Jamieson: We’ve got one of those little micro-wave sized Easybake deals. Have had it for a few months now and don’t know what I’d do without it. As for a full-sized oven… I’m not *that* kind of expat yet.

    @Chip: My wife couldn’t get over the house sizes in Canada either. The funny part is, in my hometown back home I could easily get a full house for what they charge for apartments in the area I’m moving to here in Suzhou. I don’t know if that says more about Suzhou or my hometown.

  18. You make some great points here. It is possible to live the cheap life here, but it’s not always comfortable. When my wife and I chose this apartment, it was because it had an enclosed shower in a large bathroom and there were mosquito screens on the windows. Of course, all those things have broken in some way in the last year.

  19. Four years in China (and length of stay indefinite) I’m still doing the greasy noodle life, and delighted at how it stretches my ideas about what is comfortable and what I need. I broke my China teeth in a small Sichuan town, and after a year in Nanjing am headed back there, partly in search of that simpler (but, I would argue, very much comfortable, and healthy)life. No one has mentioned how exciting it is to live in a place where the default way of life is far more sustainable than in the places we come from. Zhongguotongness aside, there is a lot of goodness in this “low standard of living.”

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  21. I amm interested in finding someone in China that can help us get an importing company setup without running afoul of all of the local scammers there. We have run into a myriad of them to this point with honest dealers being about a 50/50 shot. Could any of you make a suggestion as to how to do this? My son and I may be traveling there in July or maybe for the Olympics in August. Ray

  22. I have been here for a year and I go every day more to the Expat side! More bars, expensive meals, and even less chinese friends… I am more of an outsider now than after 2 months here… it is strage how life here turns up.

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