Monday, January 30, 2012

A Most Amazing Payday in Shanghai

[Note: this is the first in a series of posts about people I have met whose stories I think can help provide context for thinking about issues such as the expectations for jobs and living conditions held by many in China. An introduction to this series can be found here. The next post in the series can be found here.]

The first time I visited mainland China was in 2005. In addition to Hangzhou and Nanjing, I spent 9 days in Shanghai as a tourist. Of the several people I met during my time there, one was a 23 year old female who I'll call Xiaoxin (approximately sounds like "shiao sheen"). I first met Xiaoxin because she was standing outside at a popular bazaar for tourists trying to convince people to visit a "student art exhibition". Those who are familiar with such places will immediately appreciate the quotes. Typically, the exhibitions are merely tourist traps selling overpriced art. Xiaoxin later told me that she was surprised I had trusted her and so quickly accepted her invitation. In fact, at the time I knew what I would likely encounter, but I couldn't refuse a potential opportunity to escape the oppressive heat outside.

I spent an hour or two in the (thankfully air conditioned) art gallery with her as my guide. Our conversation focused on my questions about the various pieces of art and Chinese art in general. I learned a great deal from her, and it appeared she had gained many insights from her uncle who was hoping to make a name for himself in the Chinese art world. When I saw a painting that included chili peppers, I commented on my fondness for spicy food. This surprised Xiaoxin and she proudly told me she was from far away Sichuan -- a province in China famous for its chili-filled dishes.

Towards the end of my visit to the gallery I began considering a few of the items to purchase as gifts for friends back home. Although I knew the prices were likely too high, I was concerned that it could be bad for Xiaoxin if I didn't buy anything after she had spent so much time with me. As I was about to make a final decision she became visibly uncomfortable and then whispered, "Please don't buy anything here. It's too much money. I can't let you buy it."

Feeling touched I wanted to return her considerate act (her boss would probably have had other words for it had he known) so I did the best thing I could think of -- I invited her to dinner at a Sichuan restaurant of her choosing. She happily accepted and later that day we had a tasty (and very spicy) dinner at an authentic Sichuanese restaurant. During dinner I learned more about her life and how she had recently arrived in Shanghai so she could earn more money. I was particularly struck by the fact she was expected to work 12 hours everyday of the week. If she was lucky, she would be granted 2-3 days off in a month. While this seemed extreme to me, it was obvious she didn't view it as abnormal.

Despite her busy schedule, we had the opportunity to see each other several other times during my stay in Shanghai. On one day when we met she excitedly told me (note: for many in China discussing salary isn't taboo), "I got my first paycheck today! Guess how much I got!!!" I briefly considered how much someone could earn at an art gallery in Shanghai after working approximately 29 twelve-hour days in one month. I also considered that she was clearly very happy. After some quick calculations of her potential salary and the potential effects of me being wrong I said, "I have no idea. How much?"

Xiaoxin's eyes grew wide and her answer stupefied me. I quickly gathered myself and forced out, "That's great!"

"I know!" she replied while pumping her fists in triumph. "I'll be able to save so much money to bring back to Sichuan!"

I quickly realized I had no context with which to interpret what I had heard. I decided to put it aside for later consideration, and we hopped into a taxi. When we arrived at the Shanghainese restaurant I had wanted to try she took a quick look at the menu and said "Good! I can pay for this." I didn't want to let her pay, but it was a very special day for her and she wanted to share some of her bountiful earnings. I could see that no debate was possible. While the meal wasn't as delicious as what we ate at the Sichuanese restaurant, it felt more special in other ways.

I'll soon share a few more stories about Xiaoxin that highlight how much her life was changing and how some disillusionment, already hinted at, would add a wrinkle to her plans. I'll also share some stories of other young people I later met in China who couldn't expect a payday as large Xiaoxin's in their immediate future. These stories provided me an important perspective.

Looking back, I can now feel some of Xiaoxin's excitement. Having grown up under difficult conditions she had taken the risk to move to Shanghai alone with no real guarantees but found she was going to save so much money. She'd be able to do so much with it back home. She would gain so much face in front of her friends and family. Her Shanghai dream seemed to be coming true.

After all, Xiaoxin was making more than U.S. 70 cents per hour.


  1. Nice story here Brian and look forward to the update.

    Yes, Sichuan food is pretty good, with all those small ballistic explosions of heat. This is THE qualification to my previous comment about Chinese cuisine.

  2. Poignant story man, and a touching connection. When I am with friends from other countries I often think about the differences in perception of value. I also find myself worrying if a mid-priced meal here in Taiwan (500+ NT) is exorbitant to whom I am with.
    Wonder what city in Sichuan your friend is from. My old man is from LangZhong, himself.

  3. For the sake of reference, how much did the dinner cost in $US?

  4. KingTubby, thanks and more on the way (posts and Sichuanese food).

    AC, thanks and I have often considered price perception as well. I hope to touch on that issue in a future post. I'll share some clues (if not more) about Xiaoxin's hometown soon. But I'll give you an early one: it's roughly on the other side of Chengdu from Langzhong.

    Steve M, good question but my mind is a little fuzzy on that point. The restaurant was probably a midrange to upper-midrange restaurant (especially at the time). I'm guessing the dishes we chose were about US $4 to $6 (no tax/tip to add) and we probably had two or three. I can't remember if we had drinks. Regardless, from my perspective at the time it seemed expensive for Xiaoxin. There were certainly cheaper meals we could have found in Shanghai. Xiaoxin's feeling that the cost was "affordable" to her was likely influenced by a number of factors. This ties in with AC's point and is something I'd like to address further.