Today Ayi sat down with Owen and a stack of books. I thought she was going to “read” to him by pointing at things and saying the identifying words in Chinese, like she sometimes does. Instead, she turned them over one by one and checked the price on each, asking me to convert the American dollar amount into Chinese Renminbi. She would then analyze each book’s cover and make a pronouncement: a book was either “tai gui” (too expensive, said with a series of disapproving tongue-clicks) or “bu gui” (not expensive, said with a big grin).
Every time I return from the grocery store, Ayi helps my un-shoulder my bags and unload the groceries, then searches the bags for the receipt. She pulls it out and scans each item, appraising my choices: organic vegetables are not worth the extra money, and our imported beer is very expensive. Then she reads the total amount out loud and clicks her tongue in that way again, asking, “Do you think food here in China is cheap or not cheap?” “It is cheaper than in America,” I say, thinking about our $70-a-week grocery bill here as compared to…well, we won’t talk about what it used to cost in the States if I decided to go to Whole Foods. She smiles proudly. “Yes, food is cheap here. Cheaper than America.”
The woman who cleans the lobby of our building (whom we see very often; she is one of Owen’s best friends) stopped me today on my way out for a run to ask how much our jogging stroller cost. Unwilling to tell her, I said I didn’t know, but that it was a gift from his grandma. “It must be expensive,” she prodded. “Yes,” I admit, “a little expensive.” She tried again, with a huge and well-meaning smile, “Well, how much in Chinese renminbi?” “I…don’t know,” I stammered. Then she directed all her attention towards making Owen smile, which she is excellent at.
The income disparity here is overwhelming, and while these conversations may come off superficially as pure nosiness (a trait in which Chinese people in general are not lacking, for better and for worse), they are more likely motivated by curiosity and, honestly, shock that someone would spend so much money on something as small and inconsequential as a child’s book or a package of organic carrots.
To offer some perspective: there is a woman who works outside our apartment in the parking lot, which is a 1-block-long strip of cars that in America would be tended not by a person, but by parking meters. She is always there, from early morning until late night, in all weather, wearing the rubber clothes provided her for the job. At mealtime, she sits in her chair and eats a container of noodles. She is always alone, always watching the cars, always keeping track. Her world—during daylight hours anyway—consists of the 30 or 40 cars that park on this strip of pavement. Yes, it is a job, and that is better than no job, of course. But we are here, seven floors up, putting our baby in a stroller that costs nearly half her yearly salary.
So when I am approached by complete strangers asking how much that stroller, or Owen’s outfit, or my Patagonia rain jacket costs, it jolts me: at first because I cannot help but feel embarrassed and shocked, but then immediately because it makes me realize just how much we have, and just how little our Chinese neighbors have. While I am still uncomfortable telling strangers the price of our belongings, I understand why they must ask. It must be hard—verging on impossible—to believe that anyone would spend so much money on things. I have never felt so filthy rich as I do here, and the feeling is uneasy.
And now, a bonus anecdote that doesn’t exactly fit with the narrative:
Panhandlers here often set up karaoke machines and sing to make money. Unfortunately, the music that comes out of these machines is awful, and played at the highest possible decibel. I try to cover Owen’s ears when we walk by, in an attempt to protect his hearing and save his sanity. On Tuesday night, on our pre-bedtime walk through the bustling streets of Hangzhou (this place is Times Square, all the time), we rushed past a karaoke singer in a quiet moment between songs. As we passed, he yelled into his microphone (in English), “Hello, baby! Hello! Baby! HELLO!”