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spring ghosts and money talk
singapore sunset
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.

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For us, although I earn in dollars we also pay bills in dollars -- we have a car loan, and two sets of student loans, and we pay US State and Local taxes. We also have to save for retirement (so, life insurance and disability insurance for me, mandatory pension payments and whatever I put into my personal retirement savings, because God knows the US Government isn't going to take care of me when I'm old and frail...) and College for the boys, which we will probably but not certainly pay for in dollars. Plus, I have have to pay for US Health Insurance, and my union fees.

So while my gross salary is embarrassingly high, my net after taxes, retirement, insurance and various fees is actually not shockingly huge for any country we've lived in. (Yes, even Romania). I'll get a bit of a salary bump in Israel, but even then... we'd be strictly local middle class. Which is awkward, since our kids usually go to school with very upper class families and we have to explain why we can't jet off to St. Barth's for the weekend like so-and-so.

The big sticking point for us is that our housing is free when we're overseas. On one hand, it's a huge benefit because it'd be our biggest monthly expense otherwise. On the other hand, we have no control over where we live and our housing is chosen for 'security' reasons, which means I'm living places I ordinarily wouldn't and often have to take on extra costs in time and money (I'm pretty much going to have to buy a second car and I'm pissy about it). Not only does my government have free access to our house at any time, the host government ALSO has free access to my house, and I need to assume that anything I'm saying is being overheard by any number of agencies, foreign and domestic.

Also, my husband functionally can't work when we're abroad due to status, bilateral work agreements and constant career interruptions. So I figure it all comes out in the wash.

Thanks for your long reply, very interesting!

I think working in the government puts you in an exceptional position. When my father was working for the Army and we were posted in (West) Germany, that was a different situation to when he was working for a private company and chose to live as an expat in Austria. As an official representative of your country, whose kids will later study there, to where you will definitely return, I think it is reasonable to be paid by your country's standards.

I didn't consider that getting a "middle class" salary would put you in a different kind of awkward situation. I presume the upper class families you're talking about are private industry expats? It was different in the military. We didn't live in a economically or culturally important city so our school was just military brats. Of course, Germany isn't a great example because they're a rich country to start with. I wonder about the experience of military brats in Philippines or Turkey or something, and if they are closer to your experience in Romania and Jamaica?

In the US, at least, either military families would be assigned to a base that is big enough to have a DOD-funded base school or they're attaches to the country and usually work out of an Embassy or a Consulate and so have the same issues we do.

And most of the super-rich kids are locals. Some oil industry expats from the gulf, but mostly just rich local families who want their kids to get an American education and are able to pony up the cash for tuition.

It's actually a big problem, since the interests of the two communities don't really align. Like, the Romanian kids from rich families are going to get married right and go into mom or dad's business so they really don't care about academics. Whereas the expat kids have to qualify for university (and, often, scholarship or aid money to pay for it) and really DO care about grades and academics. The school in Romania was about 40% local and 60% expat, but the local families paid more and stayed with the school for 12 years, so the school catered to them. Which is pretty usual, actually... especially in countries with a big wealth divide where an American Education is seen as a class status marker. Jamaica was much the same, except with corporal punishment.

Ah, I forgot to reply to this. I was going to say that here in China it is exactly the same. Actually, I thought it was just a weird quirk of China, I didn't realize that rich people in other developing countries do it too. I wonder if it's a worldwide thing?

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