Life on Less Than $5 Dollars a Day

One of my jobs on this trip is to keep a pretty close eye on the expenses. It isn’t a hard job and if I don’t crash anything or lose anything, it isn’t particularly painful either. I am trying to keep track so that we understand what the average cost for 6 people is in the different countries and cities we visit. Australia and New Zealand were about what we expected, China has been cheaper than we planned. We’ve had the occasional splurge, primarily one set of plane tickets, but for the most part we have lived comfortably without spending much money. Yangshou ended up being our cheapest city. For the 5 days we were there we lived on less than $75 dollars a day. I thought this was pretty good, I doubt the family has ever lived on $75 dollars a day since there has been more than 3 of us. We were also doing it fairly painlessly. As I took pride in our artificial penury, I was smacked in the face with a figure that quickly humbled me. Laurie and I were talking about the life of the locals and he commented, “The daily wage for a laborer is 30-40 yuan, or about $3.80-$5.00. Our $75 a day became less a metric to be proud of and more yet another example of our plenty.

Let me point out labor in China is not like labor in America. It is not like labor in Japan, Korea, Europe or any other part of the developed world. It is back breaking, put-you-in-an-early-grave, sorry-we-have no-machines-to-help-you, you-must-do-it-all-by-hand labor. Watch people dig holes by hand, move mountains of rock on their backs, or repair the Great Wall with donkeys and you get a deep appreciation for the amount of work these people have to do just to stay alive.

donkeys at the great wall

Woman carrying rubbish

You also become thankful for even your worst day at the office. In the few instances where I could ask working people about their lives, I was amazed by their answers. There was the taxi driver in Beijjing. I asked him if he worked 5 or 6 days a week. He said 7. I asked him his hours and he said 10 to 10 everyday. He had a daughter who was going to university and this was the only way he could pay. There was the girl who ran the restaurant at the hostel in Xian. We were amazed that we would see her at 7am and 1am every day. She opened and closed it. At least she only worked 6 days a week. Then there are all the people I couldn’t ask. The old people who appear to be all that are left in the villages, who are working in the fields or are hunched over from the various burdens they carry on their backs. China is a harsh place for them. I think of what they’ve been through, from the failed communist blunders, like the famines after the Great Leap Forward and the bloody Red Guard of the Cultural Revolution. Even before the communists, China has existed only on the backs and through the energy of its peasants. I was intellectually aware of this but was surprised it was quite so blatant still today. For younger people there is good news. The last 15 years have brought about great change. There is a burgeoning middle class, there are more opportunities for the youth, and if China can avoid an ecological disaster from the pollution and falling water table, this place should grow for years to come raising the living standards of future generations. However, this generation of older peasants will be left behind. They will go on and figure out how to continue to live on less than $5 a day. They will deliver the food, remove the rubbish, and clean the streets, and new China will pass them by.

grain harvest in china

For us it means we are a little less critical when the taxi driver charges us an extra $.25 or the orange vendor charges us a foreigner surcharge of $.12. Sure it all adds up and in the end we might spend $80 a day. $5 for us isn’t going to make a difference, but for the lower class Chinese, it is the same as 12 hours of hard labor. That’s a price we can afford to pay.

harvesting the snails in the Li River

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