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spring ghosts and money talk
singapore sunset
amw
Thursday this week it was Tomb Sweeping Day, which a lot of people stretch out over Friday and into the weekend. I guess it's similar to Mexico's Day of the Dead - a day of honoring dead family members and ancestors. As i've seen during Spring Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival, Shenzhen basically empties out during these sorts of holidays. Although my favorite little mom'n'pop joints close up shop, i do quite enjoy the relative peace and quiet.

Summer arrived. Or "hot spring". The weather got sultry and the sky has been thick with pregnant clouds. The street-side fruit vendors are selling small yellow mangos whose sweetness fills the air. On the advice of a worker at one of my lunch spots i also tried a Hami melon. I've never been a big fan of cantaloupe, but holy heck these giant, wrinkly capsules from Xinjiang province pack a sweet, crisp punch.

Yesterday it turned. The ghosts of a billion swept tombs came out to play. For a moment i thought the clouds would finally break - that i'd be caught in an ankle-deep torrent, raindrops beating on my lips... but it never happened. The wind howled and howled and i buttoned my shirt to the collar and hurried home.

We were denied the explosive release, but the temperature did drop from 30 degrees to about 15 degrees in the space of a few hours. Predictably, now i am sick.

The other thing that happened this week is i got my second paycheck.

You know, i had a whole list of stuff that i was going to buy with my first paycheck, but i never did because i was too busy working. Meanwhile, i got an email from a former colleague who quit his job in Berlin to become a digital nomad.

R is currently somewhere in Bali, presumably slinging code while sitting under a palm tree. He has to leave Indonesia every 30 days to renew his entry stamp - similar to the process i had to go through every 30 days when i was still here on a tourist visa. Since Bali is an island, for him that means having to fly to Malaysia or Philippines or even further afield every month.

A part of me is jealous. I also have a First World passport and i am white and a raver and a software developer. That checks a lot of digital nomad boxes. It would be awesome to only work a couple days a week and go to festivals and live wherever i pleased. But i think i would feel guilty on every visa run.

Living in Shenzhen to study Chinese i didn't feel too guilty hopping over to Hong Kong every 30 days, because i was not earning an income, i was injecting large amounts of cash into the local economy, and my travel was all-electric. If i was working, i would be contributing much less to the local economy while simultaneously collecting a paycheck taxed elsewhere. Let's not even get into flying internationally every month or using your status to duck out of paying duty on electronics and alcohol and other luxuries. It would make me really uncomfortable.

Anywho, R suggested we should meet up on one of his visa runs and asked me how much my monthly costs ran here in China. He shared his own: 300€ room rental, 35€ motorbike rental, 1-4€ per meal. I don't know what he charges as a contractor, but 100€ and up isn't unusual. He could literally pay his whole month's costs in a few hours' work. Now i've gotten my second paycheck, i can see exactly how much my moral high ground is costing me.

My monthly salary here is 17000元 - about 2200€. This is double the average salary in urbanized China, which estimates put around 9000元. For reference, job ads pinned up for servers and clerks in the city list around 3500元.

I calculated my after-tax monthly income to be around 13500元, but it seems that my employer has calculated it to 15000元, since that's what appeared in my account this month. I need to talk to HR about that, because 2000元 tax on 17000元 seems shamefully low, and i fear they have decided to not pay my social insurance contribution. I know some of my colleagues request to be paid in Hong Kong to avoid being taxed altogether, so it wouldn't surprise me if HR think they're doing me a favor by pulling some bullshit expat deduction scam.

Whatever. Here i am with 15000元 coming in every month. My rent is 2500元. Gas bill was around 20元, electricity/water/garbage/etc is a combined fee around 100元. I am spending about 35元 on 4G data, plus 50元 on public transport and share bikes. And, according to my bank statement, i withdrew 1000元 twice last month. So that covers groceries, coffee, eating out, after-work drinks (likely my biggest expense) and other cash incidentals. Let's say my costs are 5000元 a month. That's 650€ - more than R's Bali costs, but less than my Berlin lifestyle, which was about double.

Let's summarize. From my paycheck, 2000元 goes to my community via taxes. 5000元 comfortably covers all of my living expenses. 10000元 is gravy. My disposable income is more than what the average person in this city earns in total.

I know this is no different to how things were for me in Germany, but it's still obscene. Imagine if i was living here and still earning my German paycheck. Or contractor rates! I don't know how people can live with themselves earning like that, especially when so many in their community are getting by with orders of magnitude less.

I guess that's why a lot of rich people build their own communities, so they don't have to face it. A lot of expats i meet here live in bubbles, linguistically separated from the people around them. Perhaps digital nomads are even less connected? Perhaps they don't care about the inequality because they don't see themselves as part of the communities they live in anyway?

Sometimes i wish my granddad was still alive so i could ask him, having spent much of his life in poor countries working for the Foreign Office. I don't know how he lived after he left Hong Kong. If i find out where he's buried, next year i could fly to the Philippines to sweep his tomb. Perhaps his ghost could give me some insight.