Monday, July 4, 2011

Pennies and Moonshine

There is nothing funnier to a Dai Buddhist than a gigantic white chyc who can’t afford her dozen eggs. Yes, that was me in the market counting out every last bill (some worth no more than 5 cents) and still finding myself ½ a yuan (7 cents) short and my plastic wallet empty. The nice ladies are Buddhist enough to wait patiently and tell all their friends but not Buddhist enough to just give me the damn (and small) eggs. This morning I made the mistake of going to the market without raiding the cash drawer. We live in a completely cash-based economy. (Note to the New York Times and to Capital 1. The miracle Venture 1 Visa card does not work here. ) Money seems very much like play money; it’s the size of monopoly money and it reminds me of spending lira in Italy before the Euro—very hard to think in.

My market mishap, which also left us without July 4 watermelon, came at a timely moment. I’ve been trying to figure out our accounts today because we head to Vietnam for a visit to a disease lab and a vacation in Ho Chi min city and a beach resort at the end of next week. I’ve made it very clear that in addition to a cultural experience I want straight up Western luxury; wine, cocktails, food my kids will eat that I don’t cook, swimming pool with chlorine, hot water that doesn’t depend on a summer day, cable TV and really good not Yunnan style food.. (Manuel is concerned that I’ve watched too much TV and confuse Siagon with Paris which will lead to disappointment…) This involves taking stock of the financial situation because we want Manuel’s Chinese salary to completely support us here. The first not trivial question involves whether we can use Chinese money in Vietnam. The second equally not trivial question is exactly how much we have. Everything here is fluid, including salaries—when one gets paid, how one gets paid, how much, etc… To get a sense of the financial scale we have spent about $500 in six weeks here in the jungle. The house comes with the gig so that’s not part of the accounts. But it includes four bicycles, my fancy custom made dress, new sim cards for our phones, new shoes for all the kids, plastic crap to amuse the spawn, three sets of roller blades and two trips to the most expensive grocery store in China stocked with Western Imports. Despite the feeling of living in a glorified bamboo hut, we maintain a very expensive lifestyle by local standards.

As I’ve said to anyone who will listen I crave most a good glass of wine or a good beer. But I should make it clear that it’s not at all the case that people don’t drink. They just don’t drink stuff I want. There is a huge drinking culture, and it’s almost a competitive sport. When you toast you down the whole glass of whatever it is—kind of like the four glasses of wine at the seder. People give each other drinking names “does not fall down,” “can’t walk home” etc….. And I won’t mention any names but the hooch is so strong that it knocked a number of not petite Western Scientists off their feet and led my own npWS to have a nice nap on the bathroom floor when he came home the other night. And it’s everywhere. I noticed a couple of weeks ago that every so often the maintenance guys or the water guys leave water bottles with a mystery liquid in it around our house. I assumed it was a cleaning chemical and quickly got rid of it lest the spawn drink it. But actually they travel with hooch. This may explain why everything breaks!

And it’s July 4 and no one but our kids cares. Of the foreigners we are the only family with two American parents and the only ones whose kids have lived exclusively in the West. I’m not especially patriotic or invested in this holiday, but the kids are. Thanks to the help of my email advisors we are planning some minor festivities. More on that next time but the kids spent the morning decorating their bikes for a parade and Rebecca and Jonathan have spent much of the day lecturing on the Declaration of Independence. Coming just three days after the giant Communist Party Birthday, this makes for an interesting juxtaposition.

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