Money and Morals: Navigating Spending in Beijing: Rachel in Beijing

I was most shocked by the bathrooms. Having previously only used a Western toilet—and having not even known that the toilets I grew up with were considered “western”— adjusting to the bathrooms was a shocking experience. I was most intrigued by the food. As a vegetarian turned meat eater, I was in awe of the variety of dishes, the flavors and spices used, and even the way in which the food was served intrigued me. I was most delighted with the company. I left the US with a group of 11 classmates and came back with 11 close friends, while leaving behind dozens of new friends made abroad; the company and companionship during my trip brought me daily joy, laughter, and thought.

I was most I was most challenged by the money. While mentally converting Yuan to USD was slightly taxing for each transaction, I was more so challenged to think about money differently. From day-to-day differences in tipping and bargaining to in-depth discussions about quality of living, social norms, and politeness about money, I found myself learning and experiencing finances Beijing in a way I didn’t expect.

I spent the month of May studying abroad in Beijing, China conducting a cross-cultural educational psychology research study through a Global Course Connections program at Beijing Normal University. I expected to leave Beijing with a better understanding of research practices, more in-depth lab experience, and (of course) statistically significant results. While I happily left with all three, I also left with a more meaningful understanding of Chinese culture, deep connections with my BNU student counterparts, and a more realistic perspective on money in a global context.

Before departing, my professor gave my classmates and me a mini crash course in spending, tipping, bargaining, and calculating Yuan, so when I encountered my first transaction I (naively) had the confidence that I could navigate the scenario with no problem. But of course, that was not the case. My first solo purchase of the trip took place at the Silk Market—a bargaining zoo. A small group of students and I traveled to this notable market to buy souvenirs for our friends and families with the hope of being able to bargain our way into some good deals. I quickly learned in my first feeble attempt to speak back and forth with a salesman about pricing that I was not nearly as prepared as I could have been. Any mistake I could have made, I did; starting too high then trying to go lower (unsuccessfully), allowing the salesman to know how much money I had to spend, going back and forth without either party budging, the list goes on and on.

I try to give myself the benefit of the doubt having never experienced this type of shopping before. Growing up in a small town in Michigan the only bargaining experience I had was limited to negotiating my high school curfew with my parents. I had grown up in typical western shopping environments where I saw a price tag and either paid full price or didn’t purchase the item. Therefore, I was definitely challenged to stand my ground, persuade and negotiate with the sales workers during my trip. Bargaining was everywhere from the spice market to jewelry salesmen outside of campus, it was hard to avoid. I felt as though I was facing a moral dilemma; I wanted to get the lowest price I could to benefit my own wallet, but at the same time I felt guilty for continuously attempting to bring down the price at the expense of the sales persons own commission and revenue.  After much reassurance from my professor, students from Beijing, and community locals I learned that this was simply the norm for shopping in markets like these. While I would never attempt to negotiate my dinner bill at a restaurant, I learned the sales workers expect the challenge of setting prices and bargaining. It helped for me to think of every purchase like a game, how can we mutually benefit in civilly navigating the debate and how can I leave with the upper hand and a purchase worthy of the price.

After spending the first few weeks perfecting my bargaining abilities I put my skills to the test after visiting the Terracotta Soldiers. Outside the exhibit, vendors sold mini replicas of the soldiers, a perfect present I had been searching for, for my father. I went in firm, setting a low price, negotiated with the salesman, and left happily with an only slightly lighter wallet and great experience in bargaining. I can definitely say I came home that day with a sense of pride, I felt as though I had overcome a challenge that initially intimidated me and I had independently and successfully adhered to a Chinese cultural norm.

I was further faced a few moral dilemmas when it came to tipping. Having been accustomed to tipping at least 20% of my bill in the US, I was completely conflicted on the lack of tipping that takes place in Beijing. Everywhere we ate, we paid the price on the menu, and that was it. Not to mention the prices of our meals were very inexpensive. A very high quality meal was often half the price of that in the US, even comparable to a bill from purchasing a meal at a fast food restaurant. Another adjustment that made me think about the way I spent my money. Once again, I felt torn between appreciating the simplicity of only paying the listed price with no tax or tip, and feeling that I wanted to show my appreciation for the waiter/waitress and tip them for their services. Understanding that food workers in the US make little in hourly wage and commonly rely on tip money for their pay, I often felt odd and even cheap for not leaving a tip. However, once again I spoke with students I met at BNU and they explained that this is just a normal part of their culture and the way in which restaurants work. While I quickly learned not to leave extra Yuan on the table at the end of my meal, even at the end of the trip I found it challenging to simply leave without acknowledging my appreciate for the service with a tip.

Luckily throughout my struggles of navigating social norms in spending, I had the knowledge and wisdom of students living in Beijing to help answer my questions and prevent me from making too many monetary faux pas. I also had the privilege of talking with many of my new friends about how money is discussed and handled socially and culturally in Beijing. To my surprise and delight, I had many open and honest discussions about financial struggles many BNU students face, typical incomes for families in Beijing, the work lives and wages of many of their parents, and how gift giving and money can often correlate to respect. I shared my own personal information about my parents, my own part-time job, and spending habits of typical college students in the US. Through each of our discussions, I not only appreciated everyone’s willingness to share personal experiences but also the mutual respect and interest in what we each had to say.

I have a passion for traveling, meeting new people, and trying new things. In each new place I explore I hope to be excited by the adventure, challenged by unfamiliar encounters, and humbled by learning new things. My travels to Beijing met all of these hopes and more. I left with new friends, tried new foods, learned about culture, and was most definitely challenged. While some encounters gave me anxiety others gave me a rush, and all contributed to an outstanding learning experience in cultural sensitivity and personal growth.

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