Sam's Trip to China

Two years of college Chinese was not enough 😅

錢可通神 (qianketongshen) "With money you can reach God"

9 December ’18

The value of a dollar is a funny thing. In high school the value crashed, toppled by the thrill of being able to spend my money how I wanted. I spent hundreds of dollars on videogames I still haven’t played (steam sales pushed my psychological buttons to a breaking point), a hundred plus dollars on (I am embarrassed to admit) League of Legends skins, a $250 bow that I barely used, and of course countless snacks and drinks that I bought for no better reason than “because I could.”

But high school consists of many mistakes, and during my college years I learned many things, including a better feel for a dollar. I was an avid reader of lifehacker, and their lessons on frugality began to sink in. Although I was still loose when it came to food and drink or outings with my friends, on the whole I still felt like I did better. I managed to dig up a report I made for my parents about my freshmen year spending (below if you’re curious). One of the findings is that much of my spending was food, and between cafeteria meals and eating out I spent about $2,500 over the course of the year. Which is about $2500 / 9 months = $277 per month, or ($277 / month) / (30 days / month) = $9.26 per day, which I think is pretty good!

Freshman year spending report. If it's not working in your browser, you can download it here.

Sometime during my junior/senior year I definitely crossed from the “frugal” territory into the “cheap”. Going to Olive Garden and getting their two for one deal, filling up on the soup and breadsticks then asking my untouched dinner to be boxed up, even having the gall to ask for a soup to go. Going to computer science events and taking home whole leftover pizzas (they always served pizza), freezing them, and eating nothing but reheated pizza for a whole week. Hoarding mayonnaise and mustard packets from Chick-fil-a, or hot sauce packets from Taco Bell, so that I could use them at home. Eating at Taco Bell. Not considering anything other than the two or three cheapest items on the menu. Repeatedly having just beans and rice from Taco Cabana for lunch. Bringing my own lunch and going to Taco Cabana to flavor it with the free condiments. Stringing out leftovers as long as possible, being unafraid to eat items that had been sitting in the fridge for well over a week. Renting out my friend’s closet (it wasn’t even a walk-in closet), over the summer because I could save a few hundreds dollars on rent.

Yup, I really slept on this for two months.

It was so cheap tho.

The value of a dollar had skyrocketed - by about seven times in fact. The exchange rate from US Dollars to Chinese Yuan is about 1:7, and by this time I was pretty dead set on my plans to go to China. Faced with the daunting illusion of every purchase being seven times more expensive, it seemed justifiable to scrounge like crazy.

Nobody ever wants to admit they’re cheap, but I was finally forced to face what I had become when the $30 “boots” I had bought from Target fell apart on me in three months over the summer. Putting on my taped up shoes became a daily reminder of the depths I had sunk to. In the interim period between my summer internship and before I went to China (while safely sequestered in my father’s house, spending very little), I came to consider my value of a dollar. Although taken individually most some of my actions were logical not too unreasonable, as a whole the accumulation of these patterns had changed me. I realized I had become not only stingier, but more importantly, pettier. In my early college years I wouldn’t think twice of getting a friend a small gift or buying an appetizer for the table, but by senior year those actions had fallen from my vocabulary. Somewhere I remember an author writing about the perplexities of human nature: “why do people penny-pinch when they know that in the long run the goodwill created from being generous with their money is far more valuable?” With a sinking feeling I realized that even if this didn’t quite describe me right now, it soon would. So I came to China hoping to take at least one step backwards.

A chicken burger from KFC (which tasted strangely of peanuts). ¥17.50 ($2.50).

Of course, this is all much easier to say when the US Dollar is so strong against the Chinese Yuan.

For the first time in my life, the value of a dollar really has changed. I still haven’t internalized how much ¥1 is yet; reading that a coffee is “20” took a bit to get used to. A “1” bill has become 15¢, a “5” bill about 75¢, a “10” bill about $1.50, a “20” bill about $3 and a “100” bill about $15, but my brain still panics when it sees that numbers in excess of “100”.

Beijing style hotpot, notable for the "volcano", which allows for control of air to the fire below. About ¥100 ($15) to stuff myself silly. This might cost about $40 in the states.

As I’ve adjusted, I’ve found that everything costs just about as much as I feel it should (in Beijing - other cities I’m sure would be different). As if there were some platonically ideal price for every item on earth, dictated by yours truly. A coffee (or a milk tea) is $2-3, rather than $4-5, a meal at a not-too-fancy restaurant is $5-7 rather than $9-11, fast food is $3-4 (ok maybe that’s the same), Hotpot is $15-20 rather than $30-40, a big 500mL bottle of beer is just about $2.50 (though it’s only 3% ABV) rather than $4 or $5. In general, my gut feeling is that I’m paying a fair amount. $2.50 or $3 feels about right for a bottle of beer, a pearl milk tea, or a cup of coffee. I can still find much cheaper food if I’m looking for it (50¢ tallboys at the convenience store anyone?), but it’s far easier to be more open and giving with money when the prices don’t stress you out quite so much.

包子 (baozi) "Steamed Buns" tend to be particularly cheap. I split all this with a friend and in total it was about ¥30 ($4.50) for the two of us.

I’ve touched mostly just on food, because that’s where the vast majority of my experience is (both in the US and China 😅). I took a look at the price of the hotel that Microsoft rents for me and another intern I have to room with. At ¥358 per night, or $50 per night, it works out to be about $25 / night / person * 30 nights / month = $750 a month per person. Which isn’t bad - except that for that same money in Seattle or Austin I had my own room, but here I sleep 10 feet from my roommate. It’s not a fair comparison as a hotel is not exactly meant to be a long term residence, but it’s the only comparison I’ve got. It makes sense though, as in a city as crowded as Beijing space would be at a premium. I’ve also heard that clothes here are actually more expensive than they are back home, but I have yet to take a look.


Old habits die hard and I still get up to some of my old hijinks. Every day I grab one or two bottles of water from Microsoft to bring back with me - I’m currently sitting on a stash of twenty five or so - which the native Chinese interns find hilarious. On the weekends, if I’m feeling particularly lazy, I’ll sometimes fill up on 包子 (baozi) “Steamed Buns” from 7-11 because they’re only ¥2-3 each and I can fill up on ¥6 worth ($1!). Asking to have your leftovers packed up at a restaurant isn’t really a custom here and walking away from good food pains me (though I think this is probably how most Americans would feel), so I often stuff myself silly trying to “get my money’s worth”. When I search for nearby restaurants my eyes scan the average price per person first, then the ratings. But I’ve also made efforts towards generosity - small gifts for my friends or adding some extra meat to a meal for a few Yuan more (generosity towards yourself also counts right 😁 ?)

"Just in case"

Like a tense muscle during a massage the change has been slow, and, initially painful. I frequently have to override my gut instincts as it screams “NOOOOO” when I pull out my phone to pay. The hope is, with repeated practice, I will settle into the more comfortable spot of “frugal” rather than “cheap”. At least until I come back to the US anyways….

Thanks to Avikar Periwal and Kelly Woo for guiding me through several iterations of this post.
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