Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"fake poor"

I want to preface this post with the disclaimer that I don't consider our current plight remotely similar to people who are truly living paycheck to paycheck or amassing thousands of dollars of credit card debt just to pay for the necessities, but I do want to talk what a strange experience it's been to literally have no money for the first time in my life. As most of you know, I spent 3 years in NYC living entirely off of a meager student loan each semester, so it's not like I'm rolling in cash in NYC; but there, I have a pretty low-key, and low-expense lifestyle so I've never really needed to think conscientiously of cutting back.

Before we got here, we incorrectly assumed China would be similar to the US, but just with more cash instead of credit cards. As in, you pay monthly for things you rent and pay upfront for things you buy. However, here, you pay for everything upfront--you want an apartment? Pay 1 month deposit and 3 months rent before you get the keys (and one place we looked wanted the whole year's rent!). By the way, it's furnished, but you're gonna have to drop 300 to 400 dollars on what you consider basics in the US--sheets, pots/pans/dishes that aren't caked in 10 years of grease, towels, water cooler, cleaning supplies, etc. Want internet for 9 months? Great, but you have to pay for it all out of pocket right now. Want to learn the language? We would definitely give you a deal on a 10-week class, if you pay for the entire 10 weeks at this very moment.

We had no idea this was how it works before we got here and were completely unprepared. Alison has a nest egg (mine was pretty much liquidated by paying for pre-trip preparation like research materials, visa, vaccines, etc that the Fogarty will pay back sometime this year), so we were able to transfer money to live off of after my stipend quickly ran out. But today we found out that there was an error in my next stipend payment, so instead of a small fortune (for China) being deposited into my bank account today, we have to wait for a check to be mailed to Arizona and then deposited (thanks, Mom or Dad!). Consequently, despite tremendously careful budgeting since the transfer, Alison and I are basically going to be living off the $140 dollars we have left until the next deposit goes through. Don't worry: that is actually a lot of money for here, so it's not like we're going to starve or anything, but it means we have to be constantly thinking about money, cost, and whether we can afford something. And either way, Alison is supposed to get paid September 5th, so we'll be fine then. (The whole situation also impacts Sarah, whose landlord is demanding 6 months of rent, because we can no longer lend her the 3000 RMB we were planning to so she could pay in full!)

This week has made me think about how lucky I've been to never have had to think about money or having enough of it--my family has staved off my hitting financial reality by paying for college and for all of my flights home and to family-related events as well as taking care of taxes. Also, I know that if we truly were desperate for money, friends and family would bend over backwards to help bail us out until payday, and we're truly fortunate to have such a strong network. The irony to this whole situation of "fake poverty" is two-fold: not only are we both being paid exorbitantly by Chinese standards (the post-docs here make 100 RMB a day, or 15 dollars) but since these costs are one-time only, come October we'll be free flying.

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