I think the time has come for me to accept the fact that living in China is not really cheaper for us than it was for us when we lived in America. For a while now I’ve been confused about why so many people ask me, “Isn’t China more expensive than America?” At first I thought they must be crazy and know nothing at all about what America is really like. And yes, there are expensive things in America (labor can’t get much cheaper than it is here in China), but I’m surprised by how much here is comparable in price to America, if not a little more expensive. I know I have written about how things are cheaper here, and some things are cheaper, especially the vegetables and eating out (if you do it on the street or at small local restaurants). We also only pay $600 a month for our apartment, which is quite nice (at least for us), and our utilities are cheaper than they were in America. Certain things like snacks on the street and hiring someone to clean your house for $3 an hour, and the fact that we don’t own a car but use public transportation for 30 cents a trip, all those things are cheaper than America. But that’s about where the cheapness ends.
Fruits and meat cost about the same here as they do in America (especially since I shopped at Aldi back home), except for strawberries in winter, which can be as low as $1 for a pound and a half if you shop in the right places. Any foreign import items, which I try to limit anyway, are more expensive than at home–cheese, butter, pasta sauce–and clothing, which is cheap if you only bought new, brand name clothes in America, but kind of pricey if the average price I pay now for a piece of clothing for my kids is $4-5, when I was getting by on garage sales, clearance and the kindness of friends in America. Electronics are MORE expensive than America–if you need anything like a camera or a computer, a smart phone or a tablet, it’s just better to buy it in the US and have a friend bring it back with them. But the thing that has made me come to terms with this is filing our taxes for this year. Because we have not lived on US soil this year, we cannot claim the child tax credit for each of our children, and we cannot write off our mortgage interest or the interest on our student loans that we are paying anyway. That’s a good $8,000 that was nice to get back each year (and that was without paying any income tax at all). We also do not have access to reliable health care, unless we pay substantially more than we paid for health insurance in America, which we cannot do, because Brian is paid less here than he ever made in America, minus another $500 a month in Chinese income tax and pension, the latter of which he will never benefit from unless he signs a form when we leave saying he will never work in China again, at which time they will refund it. I really can’t complain because our best friend who is a college graduate and an “engineer” of sorts at an architectural development firm, only takes home about $950 a month. It works out for the most part, because we don’t pay for health insurance, we don’t have a car or car insurance, and our apartment is pretty cheap, but I was just in love with the idea that everything about life here is cheaper than it was in America, and I guess I just have to accept that it’s not. At least not significantly enough to balance out the corresponding decrease in pay (though not having those student loans would certainly make a big difference, and people in China do not have those).
On the bright side, I do love China itself. At least Chinese people. Or at least Tianjinren. I finally learned how to say that Tianjin people are nice to foreigners, because it’s useful to say when people ask me if like it here and why I want to stay. “Tiānjīn rén duì wàiguó rén hěn rèqíng.” And they are! Some Chinese people tell me that Chinese people are not very nice to each other, but on the whole, in our experience at least (and I bet it pays to have small children), they are very kind to foreigners. In Beijing, when sellers spot a foreigner, they start shouting at you in English to come and buy from them (never happens in Tianjin!), and when they give you a price, they tell you 8-10 times the value of the item, whereas in Tianjin I hear the sellers giving me the same prices as those around me, and feedback from my friends tells me this is the case. They even offer me discounts before I ask, or sit and try to encourage me to bargain with them, like they’re teaching a 5-year-old how to tie her shoes. And there isn’t a more encouraging environment in which to learn a language (thank goodness, because there can’t be many harder languages to learn)–nothing like being patted on the back and exclaimed about because you can say “Ni hao,” or because your children call you “mama” (that always makes me laugh).