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?

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