Tag Archives: cost of living

A Chinese Capitalism Primer Or “Would You Buy a Used Papaya from This Man?”

All the produce in China is priced per 500g. So, when you see a sign announcing 2.20RMB for a papaya, it actually means 2.20RMB/500g, or 4.40RMB/kg. Now, then, I’ve figured out why they do that–it’s to confuse the tourists! No, really. I can prove it.

Fruits in China
Fruits in China
Fruits in China

Most tourists, say an American (or a Jamaican who used to live in New York), thinks in terms of pounds. 1kg is actually 2 lbs, so when I see 2.20RMB, I think it’s 2.20RMB per pound, but it’s not. That’s confusing enough, but here’s where the trick comes in. The street vendors who sell produce use an entirely different system of computing prices. It’s called “free market, mood-based opportunity capitalism.” In other words, they charge by the pound, gram, kilogram, weather, nationality of the purchaser, color of your shirt, or day of the week, it really could be anything, depending on mood of the seller.

In 2009, when I visited China for the first time, I walked into a shop in Shanghai–within about an hour of landing at the airport–to buy a small 250ml bottle of water and asked the price.  Storekeeper told me 2RMB. Now I know enough to know it should be no more than 1RMB, or perhaps I was simply sensing intuitively that “the game” was on. I stepped out of the shop, called my translator in (at the time, I was traveling with Chun Yu Wang, author of Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin,) and had her ask the price. She’s Chinese. Caught in the act, the owner shyly admitted to her it was 1.00RMB. We all laughed at his obvious, failed attempt to play and win the game.

On another day, in Wuxi, I walked into a store to get a bag of cashews (7.50 RMB) and a bag of dried fruit (12.00RMB) with prices plainly written on the items. The shop cashier/owner punched in the prices in a calculator (she didn’t use the scanner like she did the day before), turned the small screen toward me indicating that my bill was 30RMB. Ahem. Now, I may not speak Mandarin, lady, but I went to school to be a civil engineer. We covered basic addition. First day, even. Heck, I can even do that one in my head. I took the calculator, silently punched in the numbers myself, turned the small screen back toward her showing her I would be paying 19.50 RMB. She waved her hand in disdain, took the 20RMB bill, gave me my .50 RMB change–all this in a wordless exchange of calculator buttons, bills and screen displays.

You might have already read my tale of The Greedy Innkeeper In Xishuangbanna.

Here in Hainan, I went to buy some nesberries, (that’s what we call it in Jamaica) sapodilla in America. The street vendor put my three nesberries on the electronic scale, punched some mood-based numbers, and asked for 20RMB, I gave him 10RMB, he laughed. I took my fruit and walked out. Say it with me now, “Someone will pay it….it just won’t be me!”

Around the corner from the Lost Hostel here in Sanya, there’s a vendor selling fruit. Asking price for a small papaya? 20RMB. Now, I shop at the supermarket in the city centre, so I know that a small papaya costs about 5RMB. I laughed and walked away.

The next day, as I returned from shopping, I decided I wanted a mango. I knew about what it should cost from my supermarket shopping experience. So, I walked towards Mr. Papaya’s stand, and fortunately, at the same time, there was a Chinese woman also buying mangos. So, sensing my own opportunity, I pretended to browse a little longer, delaying my purchase, lingering for a bit to give the lady a chance to select her mangos and pay for them. Then, I watched the screen of the electronic scale carefully, and noted that Mr. Papaya punched in 17RMB/kg for her mangos. (A day or two before, he had entered 29 for my mangos.) So, now that he had her mangos on the scale and told her the price, I approached him at the scale.

He knew that I had seen the price per kilogram that he had punched in for her. I knew that HE knew that I saw the price per kilogram that he had punched in for her. So, perhaps to avoid embarrasment, he had no choice but to give me the mangos at the same price. I could be mistaken, but he didn’t seem happy, though. I paid 15RMB for my two mangos (about what I would pay at the supermarket). He gave me my fruits and said “goodbye,” (An unusual thing for him to say, actually. I’ve never had anyone tell me goodbye before. Guess he wanted me to say “goodbye,” too (in other words. leave!) before I discovered the Chinese prices for everything on his stand!

Mr Papaya in China
Would you buy a 20RMB papaya from this man? (Mr. Papaya)

I imagine that some people would have paid Mr. Papaya the 20RMB for various reasons:(1) to avoid a scene because they dislike confrontation, (2) Feeling ill-equipped to communicate effectively if there’s a language barrier, (3) It’s still cheap given the conversion rate to their native currency, and (4) perhaps other reasons I simply can’t relate to.  However, there’s just something in me that won’t allow me to willingly pay for something when I know the price is being inflated simply out of what I perceive to be opportunism based on a stereotype of the unaware, easily-manipulated, easy-target foreigner.

It’s a way of business I’ve seen in many places–different prices for different customers. It’s done in the tourism business on Saipan. It’s done in Laos, and everyone who travels has likely experienced it to some degree. Business is about seizing the opportunity to get the most you can get at any and every given moment. The cost is variable and based not on any pre-determined intrinsic or objective value, but the ability and willingness (unwitting or otherwise) of the consumer to pay.

Now, maybe I’m being too forgiving, but I’ m not mad at the people who practice “opportunity marketing.”  You know, In some ways, it’s no different from a hair stylist charging John Edwards $400 for a haircut. Yes, it’s a bit stressful for me, since I already hate shopping. But, I don’t want to impose an outsider’s standard of how business should be done. But, I’d like to hear what YOU think.

After he negotiated a good rate for my High Season Hainan Hotel room, my friend, Jian, emailed me the following:

“hey Walt,I read the news last night. People are complaining to the media that the whole tourist industry of Hainan is taking advantage of the Spring festival (Chinese New Year). The local Chinese government official commented: “This is normal.” (that is, no big deal. Don’t fuss.) Now you see why people say the Chinese capitalism is actually more real than the western one.

Mr Papaya in China


It occurs to me, as I enjoy my 5RMB supermarket-bought papaya here in Hainan, that my friend Jian is right!

Fret not thyself….everyone’s happy, well almost

FRET NOT THYSELF

First of all, thank you for the support of all who emailed me about my last post. Apparently, my dramatic writing flair was better than I expected, or perhaps my friends are accustomed to the drama I often welcome into my life. In any event, to set things straight: I am not going to be homeless on Hainan! I repeat, I am not going to be homeless on Hainan! So Fret not thyself, and stop sending out thoughts of worry and despair–you’re killin’ my buzz! However, you can still send any money you’d like to send if it makes you feel better to do so.

Perhaps I forgot to mention that there are ALWAYS other options, and, while I said I’m not above sleeping on the beach, I’m also not above paying extra if it’s practical. There are no electrical outlets on the beach for my laptop.


So, let me tell you what happened!

FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES

In our last episode, I told you the tale of the Hainan heist, the hotel that charged me 60RMB/night and then proceeded to raise the price once I was there.

Well, To paraphrase Country singers Garth Brooks (as well as Mark Chestnutt for those who think I don’t know Country), I have friends in high places, low places, and other-worldly extra-dimensional spaces who keep me grounded, guided and gifted with great advice and support.

A good friend back in the states suggested that I have a Chinese friend check in with me, and tell them that they have to honor their contract with me, or otherwise they could lose their license. He suggested that I tell them I’ll call the police – since I have a receipt of sale to prove it.

My friend also thinks I didn’t take advantage of “Junior,” and I agree, since it’s unlikely that Mom and Dad would entrust that responsibility to him unless he knew how to handle it.

I also sent an email to some of my friends across China, and here are some of the responses I received. Essentially, my Chinese friends, agreed to seek a compromise.

“What I would do is tell them that you will take all evidence (receipts, anything they wrote, pictures of signs showing prices, etc.) and file a complaint to the Sanya Bureau of Business Administration (工商局) and Bureau of Tourism (旅游局), but at the same time trying to negotiate a price a bit higher than what promised by the “Junior” but lower than the market. I believe they will be happy to do so.

This is the Chinese way. Chinese people usually do not like to push things to the extreme (such as complaints or lawsuits). Instead, they are more willing to find the “middle” way both sides can accept. If you are willing to step back a little by accepting a higher price, it will be easier for them to offer you a price lower than market. If they do not, then they lose all cards, and they will be looked bad in the eyes of regulators if you do file a complaint.”

So, long story short, after much back and forth with my friends, I decided to do things “the Chinese way” and have
my friend, Jian, call the owner on my behalf.

Here were my terms: Having already agreed to pay 60RMB/night, I told him (to relay to her) that I would be willing to pay 90RMB or 100RMB. In other words, it would have to be LESS than the 150RMB/day that my “Plan B” hotel down the street was going to charge, and furthermore, it would have to be LESS than double the current price (2 x 60=120RMB), since 120RMB/day was what I was paying at the youth hostel for a room in a better neighborhood that included internet access.

Jian called her this morning, (new year’s eve) and without resorting to threatening to get the authorities involved, she agreed to 100RMB/day for a ten day stay. So, I’ll get through the high season on Hainan paying 100RMB/day which is still effectively less than the 116RMB/day that the 3,500RMB/MONTH apartment with the shared kitchen in the other side of town was asking.

I’m sure the owner is a bit happier.


As I told a Chinese friend, “…this is very different from the American way of ‘you’ve got the proof and the legal right, so sue ’em for all you can get!’

Me? Well, for various reasons, including the fact that I’m in China, (and since the owner has access to my room), I’m content with taking the middle ground.

Even though a few friends with US mindsets also chimed in that it IS about the principle, when you compare it all in US dollar terms, I’m still paying only $15US/night for a Hainan High Season Hotel! And I can relax a bit for the next 10 days and not have to worry about trudging through the streets of China with my suitcase and back-pack, as crowds look on and point….under the fireworks and moonlit night sky of New Year’s eve in China!

But, come February 11, the adventure shall continue!

p.s. Tonight, I’ll do something I don’t normally do. If you know me, I don’t typically buy into these “arbitrary lines” of this day or that day. However, tonight, as I spend New Year’s eve on the island of Hainan, People’s Republic of China, I shall head out into the maddening crowd and participate in the festivities! Stay tuned.

p.p.s. I have no internet access, but….the universe is perfect. In ten days I can accomplish quite a lot without the distraction of constantly checking website stats, and email!

Homeless on Hainan & High Season Hysteria

So, here’s the deal. I’m in the city of Sanya, the southern part of Hainan, an island off the south coast of the People’s Republic of China. It’s a favorite tourist destination for many people, not just Chinese. It’s January 31, 2011. Chinese New Year is 3 days away on Feb 3rd. As a result, this is what’s called “the high season.” Yep, everyone’s high. There’s hysteria in the air. Not just the hysteria and excitement that comes with ringing in a new year, but the high that comes with the possibility of making a financial killing charging exorbitant prices on everything from food to hotel space. (Would you pay 20RMB for a papaya that should cost 5RMB? More on that later.)

Anyway, I’m currently staying at the Lost Youth Hostel. I’m currently paying 120RMB/night. It’s a nice place, friendly staff, piping hot water, and internet access. (No kitchen, but you know how I roll with the CPC!) I would stay here indefinitely, but on Feb 1st, I must leave because my room was booked in advance by others who planned to be here in Sanya with a bit more foresight than I had.

Lost Hostel Sanya Hainan China
Lost Youth Hostel

Lost Hostel Sanya Hainan China
My room 403, Lost Hostel

I also have to leave because on Feb 1, the rates go up from 120RMB/night (18US) to 450RMB/night (68US). That’s right, four times! Quadrupled! But, again, there are no rooms available anyway, even if I was desperate enough to pay that price.

So, soon to be homeless, I’ve been looking for a new place around the island. Here’s how it works. You walk around the neighborhood you’re interested in, look up at the buildings, and you’ll see typically huge orange banners with phone numbers on the balconies of specific apartments/rooms that are available for rent. They’re everywhere. You call the number, and…if you’re Chinese, you get one price. If you’re a foreigner, you get quoted another price. But, to be fair, while foreigners are, in fact, singled out to pay more (I hear the Swedes have it the worst), everyone, Chinese included, are paying “high season” prices to ring in the new year on Hainan.

Lost Hostel Sanya Hainan China
Signs are everywhere

Lost Hostel Sanya Hainan China
I mean EVERYWHERE

I’ve been looking and asking for a 30-day deal and a kitchen. Because it’s the high season, I’ve gotten quotes of 3,500RMB/month ($530US) and as high as 9,000RMB/month ($1,363US) for a single room. I was paying $250US/month for my studio on Saipan, but that’s another story.

Lost Hostel Sanya Hainan China
It’s just a room and a hot plate, but she wants 4,000RMB for 30 days. Someone will pay it. It just won’t be me.

Lost Hostel Sanya Hainan China
While on the bus on my way to check out the 3500RMB apartment, I met Wang, who was nice enough to call the landlord on my behalf, help me find the place, and help me gain entrance by communicating with the current tenants who were inside. Helpful Hainan!

The place that Wang helped me find was nice. The owner wanted 3500RMB/month (roughly 120RMB/day), and after checking it out, I was going to take it, but she wasn’t willing to bargain AT ALL. Neither would she let me pay for the first 10 days (rather than 30). You see, as nice as the place was, it didn’t have internet access, and I just didn’t see the point of committing to 30 days at 3,500RMB and still have to figure out how to get online (there’s no Starbucks, and I can’t use my laptop at internet cafes)

Lost Hostel Sanya Hainan China
Modern, shared kitchen, refrigerator, 3500RMB/month, but won’t budge on the price or terms

The other reason I’m realizing I don’t want to commit to 30 days is this: In about 10 days, this will all be over. By about Feb 10, the festivities will be over, all the tourists will leave Hainan (except for a few stragglers like me), and prices will return to normal. Any deal I commit to now will be based on the high season prices. Why should I lock myself into paying 120RMB/day, for instance, and then continue to pay that rate once Feb 10 has passed? So, the new plan is, I’ll figure out a way to survive until Feb 10, and then I’ll approach some of the same owners anew to renegotiate based on the “not-so-high season” hysteria.

Lost Hostel Sanya Hainan China
The cool kids at the Lost Hostel have been nice enough to make calls for me to help me find a place

Lost Hostel Sanya Hainan China
Making calls

So, today I went back to a part of town where I had found a hotel at which I had been quoted 80RMB/night, and found out that they now wanted 200RMB/night! I walked out. Someone will pay it.

Lost Hostel Sanya Hainan China
Was 80RMB/night a week ago. Now, it’s 200RMB/night

And then, it happened. A few hundred hards further down the street, I walked into a nice establishment, and there was a 15 year old kid at the desk! Jackpot! I knew what was about to happen. I mimed for him to show me a room. He did. I asked him the price. He said 60RMB/night. I tried to contain my excitement. He was a naive, wide-eyed kid, and I was likely the first Jamaican he had ever encountered (trust me, I can tell), and I knew for a fact he was quoting me the “Chinese price.” Given the rarity of seeing a foreigner hotel-searching in this part of town, Mom and dad likely hadn’t forced Junior to read the part of the training manual entitled “How to Make a Killing Selling to Foreigners.” I accepted, and paid for 7 days. 420RMB for 7 days. He gave me the key, and I told him I’d check in tomorrow. He didn’t ask for it, but I left him my cell phone number because, even though I now had my receipt and the key, I knew what would happen the moment I left and the boss (mom or dad) found out what he had done!

So, in anticipation of that phone call I knew I’d be getting, I stopped at another hotel and started some negotiations for a room there as my “Plan B.” After much sign language, Pidgin-Putonghua, and calls to the helpful staff at Lost Hostel, I find out why I was having such a difficult time getting the receptionist at this new hotel to give me a quote for a 7-day stay. Turns out, that she could give me a room for 150RMB for TONIGHT, BUT she didn’t know what the rate was going to be for TOMORROW. This is like the freakin’ stock market!! The boss gets up the next morning and lets her know what the rate for the day will be. So, conceivably, I could check in today at 150RMB, and then tomorrow, I could be told the rate is 200RMB (high season hysteria)

Sure enough, about an hour later, once I return to the Lost Hostel, I get that phone call. It’s from an adult at the hotel where the 15-year old rented me the room. Turns out that the price on Feb 3rd is going to go up to 200RMB. But, I will get Feb 1 and Feb 2 at 60RMB/night! What a steal! So, tomorrow, I check out of Lost Hostel, and check in to a great 60RMB/night room on HighNan…I mean Hainan! Stay tuned, I’m sure this story will get even better.

p.s. Now, I know what you’re thinking: I took advantage of a minor. Well, the way I see it, I took the opportunity to get the money in their hands. With a paid customer, this close to the new year, I figure they have two options. (1) They could give me back my money (possible, but unlikely, given that as I’ve learned, putting the money directly into the hands of someone you’re negotiating with is great leverage. (2) They could honor at least a part of the agreement that Junior made (which they now have done), and attempt to extort me for more money after the first 2 days is up (which they are already preparing me for).

I’m sure they feel THEY have some leverage once I move in. However, the way I see it, is that I’VE got more leverage cause I’m not afraid to move out and sleep on the beach if I have to to make a point.

Now, I know what ELSE you’re thinking: “Pay the &($&($ money, Walt, even at 200RMB it’s still $30US a night which is WAAAAAY less than you could get anywhere in the US or its territories!” True, but what you don’t understand is that I’m now Chinese, and I think in terms of RMB not USD, and as all cheap people are fond of saying, “It’s not about the money, it’s the principle!”

Note from Walt: If you’d like my personal recommendations of places to stay in Sanya, check out the ad below:

Recipes from the Coffeepot Cookbook!

Addendum March 5, 2011: Great news! There’s actually now a Real Coffeepot Cookbook, inspired by the blog post!

Okay, there’s something you need to know about me for when we hang out together for the Jamaican in Russia adventure: I take my diet very seriously. At the same time, I’m not ruled by my gut, at least not the same way other folks are.

So, when I say that I don’t eat meat, I don’t mean just for today. I mean yesterday, today, tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that. I’m not suddenly going to forget and take the piece of pork you’re offering me because YOU forgot that I don’t eat meat. (I had a hard time explaining that on a date in Xishuangbanna.) I’ve been vegan since 1992, so I mean never. It also means I don’t eat fish, because last time I checked, fish aren’t vegetables.

When I say I’m fasting, I just don’t mean “just for right now,” and then proceed to take the rice you’re offering because it’s after 5pm. When I fast, it means I’m not eating.

And when I say I don’t eat MSG, or meat flavoring cubes or white sugar or table salt, that’s just what I mean.

So, today as I slowly resume eating from my fast, I felt like I wanted something warm rather than the fruits I’ve been eating for the past 2 days.

However, for reasons I’ve just stated, I won’t eat in a non-vegan restaurant, because I can’t be 100% sure that even though I request no MSG, no salt, no meat oil, no eggs, etc. I can’t be sure that the chef will honor those requests to my satisfaction.

So, even though there’s no kitchen in my hotel room I will still cook today, because I have…..wait for it….wait for it……The Coffee Pot Cookbook!

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, The Coffee Pot Cookbook by Walt F.J. Goodridge, healthy meals you can make with just a coffee pot and a little creativity! I had the idea for this back in Kunming, but didn’t get around to blogging about it, so now it’s time.

Today’s dish is Walt’s Nomad Veggie Soup and noodles from Chapter 7 of the cookbook.

cooking in China, vegan in china, coffeepot cookbook

EQUIPMENT:
Electric Hotel Coffee pot (provided in most hotels)
Soup bowl (borrowed from the hotel front desk)
Knife
Spoon
Empty water bottle

organic food in china, coffeepot cookbook, hainan
bok choy not shown

INGREDIENTS (purchased from local supermarket; grab some extra plastic bags while there)
4L bottled water
Rice noodles (optional)
Bok Choy
tofu
scallion
Garlic
Ginger
Sea salt (ordered from iherb before leaving Xishuangbanna)

DIRECTIONS:
Before beginning the process below, If you’ve only got one bowl, you can pour hot water over dried rice noodles, let soften, remove from bowl, place in hotel teacup, and enjoy as a side dish or include in soup.


Wash bok choy, tofu and scallion with your bottled water. If no basin or pot is available, cut the top off a smaller empty 1.5L water bottle (shown) you’ve been saving in your room for just this sort of thing, insert vegetables, pour in water, cover with palm of hand and shake vigorously.

Finely dice garlic, ginger and scallion. If no cutting board is available, spread a piece of plastic (the extras you got from the produce section of the supermarket) across the wooden desk of your hotel room. Dice gently, then discard the sheet when done.

Dice tofu into cubes

Chop bokchoy

Place diced ingredients, tofu and bokchoy into soup bowl.

Boil water in coffee pot.

Pour boiling water over ingredients in bowl. Cover with plastic sheet or plate if you have one. Let simmer for a few minutes. Stir occasionally.

Add sea salt to taste.

vegetable soup with tofu hainan china vegan

Voila!

Enjoy!

(Total preparation time: about 10 minutes
EXPENDITURE (RMB):
tofu: 1.50
garlic: 1.20
scallion: 1.70
bokchoy: 1.00
ginger: 0.60
water: 10.0
noodles: 4.70
Total cost: 20.70RMB = 3.18US

Next time, we’ll make brown rice in a coffee pot. This could get messy.


Addendum March 5, 2011: Great news! There’s actually now a Real Coffeepot Cookbook, inspired by the blog post!


Breaking my fast

I’m breaking my fast today! Yay! I’ve been on a water-only fast for the past 6 days. I started about 2 days before leaving Xishuangbanna, and have been on it for the past 4 days in Sanya, Hainan. So, if I look skinnier than usual in any of the Hainan photos, now you know why. So, this morning, I will have a watermelon, then rambutan, papaya and other fruit throughout the day to break the fast. In my initial travels around Sanya, I’ve found a protein bar and some wheat-free cookies and I’m anxious to taste them!

Sanya, Hainan, China, beach

Found a good way to pass the time while I fast

beach, sanya hainan, china

Meanwhile, I’m currently staying at a youth hostel near the airport. In between jaunts on the beach, I’ve been on a quest for an apartment with a kitchn here in Sanya. I have found a 80RMB/night hotel a short ways away (no internet). The challenge is that Chinese new year is coming up on February 7, and all the hotels and landlords raise their prices to take advantage of the rush to celebrate new year on Hainan. I was paying 40RMB/night($6US) ( for my third floor hotel room in Xishuangbanna with internet access. Here, the cheapest hostel charges 120RMB/night ($18US). Some of the quotes I’m getting for a one-month apartment rental start at 6,000RMB/month ($909US). I REFUSE to pay $900 for an apartment! That’s a New York price!!!

The secret, for those of you planning a similar trip, is to go out and find the smaller hotels that are NOT listed on the internet. (you can only do that once you get here, of course, or if you have a friend on the island)

hotels in sanya, hainan

Now THAT’S a small hotel

Dollar-a-day Nomad

For those of you who think it’s expensive to do what I do, here’s a little info:

As I do my travels to various cities in China, I’m able to establish a routine, norms and requirements for my happiness and comfort. Depending upon how “furnished” my accommodations are, I may need to purchase a few items at each destination. At my first villa in Xishuangbanna I didn’t have to purchase much. However, the second place I stayed was an empty hotel room which the owner equipped with a single-burner stove, a small gas-tank to allow me to cook, so I had to buy everything else except toilet tissue.

Here’s what I ended up buying, and which now constitutes my standard shopping list for new nomad destinations.


Item RMB USD
sponges 1.20 0.17
bleach 13.00 1.91
mop 29.00 4.26
plastic wash basin 22.00 3.23
hooks 8.97 1.32
manual water pump 15.00 2.22
dustpan/broom 9.00 1.32
dish washing liquid 9.00 1.32
hangers(12) 5.90 0.87
stove adjustor 2.90 0.42
small pot (rice) 9.95 1.46
bulbs (3@0.97each) 2.91 0.42
cutting board 9.95 1.46
3 floor mats 15.00 2.20

Total cost in US $23.31!

See? It’s not that expensive at all–particularly if you’re on a US-based/derived income. Of course it helps if you’re low maintenance minimalist, willing to shop where the local people shop, but the fact is, your dollar can go much further in many destinations overseas.

Notes:

– I get a mop and broom as I prefer to clean my own room (have you seen the mops and dirty bucket water in most hotels?)

– the “stove adjustor” is that metal ring that sets atop the stove burner for accommodating smaller pots

– the “hooks” are a paste-on 5-hook thingy on which I can place utensils (spoon, strainer, etc.) that I use for cooking

cost of living in China, china hotels
all the purchases in my Xishuangbanna mansion

cost of living in China, china hotels

I’ll compare the above prices to those on Hainan in a future post (rumor has it things are much more expensive here)
So, my point is, when you think to yourself that traveling around the world is something you could never do, remember the dollar-a-day nomad and Jamaican in China!