A friend’s journey home

The general theme of this blog is giving people an insight into what life in China is like through the eyes of a British guy who speaks enough Chinese to know what’s going on, has lived here a few years, and can sling out the odd anecdote that may be revealing to anyone coming out here, or someone who wants to learn about China and needs a counter-balance to the rubbish written in the British press. Everything that I’ve seen written about this country either exists in surreal hyperbole; ranting about things over here in an ill-informed way, or else is just not news. Fake Apple stores? Well, everybody here knew that already. If you write a newspaper article that says you discovered them it means that you’re either pretending that this is news, or you were genuinely surprised by it, and are fresh off the boat and pretending to be an expert. The controversial issues are worse. You get solely negative comments based on wilful ignorance of this country’s history and why things are done the way they are. This leaves people with no way to understand what’s really happening, and fundamentally ignorant about why it’s happening. It’s too different out here to understand without making more effort than that, and being a bit braver in leaving behind the comfort blanket of British values. If you expect a country with an entirely separate history to be the same, then you should also expect to be disappointed. Sorry I can’t be more specific than that.

Today’s anecdote is about one of my friends who has just told me that she’s leaving Guangzhou and heading back to her home town. This is all pretty mundane and ordinary, but the reasons and background are things that a Brit interested in China could learn from. If someone in Britain goes to work in a different town they’ll come back when they get bored. Here, the reasons are different.

I’ve met people doing menial jobs making £2-300 a month (that’s with two full time jobs and ungodly hours), and one of them told me that he has about £18,000 in savings and wants to go back home to the countryside to build a new house. The way that people get savings like that on earnings like that is partly through there being almost no such thing as being tight with money here. Everyone wants to make and save money and they’re not shy about not hanging onto it. Why should they be? Some people save cauliflower and broccoli stalks and pickle them in chilli for a free side dish. There’s also no real minimum amount of money you can spend. You can rent a flat for 300 a month or a single room with no A/C for £30. A poor job probably provides dormitory accomodation and meals, to offset the miserable salary, which is almost all saved. It’s maybe like working at Butlins. You can eat in a lovely restaurant fifty floors up the TV tower for £100, or get noodles for 30p. It depends how low you need to go.

The particular friend who I first mentioned has a dad who is not well, and her mum is sick, too. In Britain you’d get paid sick leave and free healthcare on the NHS. If you were self-employed you’d probably be insured. In this case my friend’s folks run a mahjong parlour where people will sit and play, smoke, get horribly drunk, and then blunder home singing at 3am. It makes a living wage, but these people are working these hours while unwell, and they have little alternative. The pressure on people here is of a different magnitude to anything in Britain, with giving up normally meaning either that you starve or become a burden on your family, because the welfare state is minimal, and the normal way to pay for all healthcare is pay cash from your savings. An extended stay intensive care might cost tens of thousands of pounds, even here. I’ve heard of an old lady who spent her last days in intensive care and who’s son found himself with a £90,000 bill.

People looking at newspaper articles about life in the developing world will often see things about people living on $2 a day, and be unable to comprehend what that kind of life is like, except that they know they wouldn’t want it. Well, the lowest incomes are in rural areas. Developing countries have their industry and services in the big cities, which are reasonably comfortable, but the countryside is often just subsistence agriculture. Families grow enough food to eat, sell what’s spare, and also sell some dried chillies, a pig or a chicken when they can. They own what’s normally a poor house, heat it with collected wood, drink free water, and only buy what they absolutely need to. This normally amounts to a few clothes and stationary for the school kids. Areas like this in China are shrinking back farther away from the big cities and now the provincial ones, too, as the country becomes middle-income. People who have a little business like the mahjong parlour get by through spending as little as possible, staffing entirely with family members, and riding their luck on some things. You don’t need home contents insurance if you put bars on your windows and get a steel door. And you don’t need medical insurance if you don’t get sick. People just cross their fingers, because they’d be hard pushed to buy insurance.

My friend will soon be home with her parents, taking care of them, hopefully getting a job only slightly worse paid that what’s available in Guangzhou, but only if she can fit it in on top of caring for two sick parents and a mahjong parlour. Now I need to try and figure out what my point was in all of this, and I guess it’s that we have things pretty good in Britain, life here is different and the problems are not what you’d expect. Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s all doom and gloom, though. A few months ago I wrote a blog article about how nice, and how happy this particular person’s home town is, I just don’t know where I saved it.