Snobbery, Guilt, and Good Will

30 Oct 2005

I admitted to Micah the other day that he was a part of the inspiration for the 老百姓 snob I wrote about recently. I didn’t mean it as an insult or anything… it was just an observation of his lifestyle in Shanghai.

Micah recently responded:

> But let me say a few words in defense of the 老百姓 snob. I think the reason I put forward the effort to be this kind of snob is because I reject the status boost I might get from the stereotypes that Chinese hold about Western folk: they’re educated, creative, high-flying, party hard, and come to take charge. Consequently, I have to actively try to frame myself back into the same “social status” that I would have had back at home: just your average college graduate working his way into the middle class, feeling out of place in places like Rodeo Drive in Hollywood, considering his pocketbook when he dines out, and still having a warm spot in his heart for the street food and home-cooking of his youth. It’s not that the 老百姓 snob is absurd, it’s that he’s more sensitive to taking advantage of people thinking he’s something he’s not.

> Not that I don’t realize I’m different; I will take advantage of being a foreigner abroad by taking English-teaching or translating jobs, but taking a higher salary just because I have a white face is something that weighs on my conscience. Maybe a useful metric to live by would be, if I was an immigrant from Nigeria would I have this option (of taking this higher salary, being invited to this party, being asked to take part in the filming of this commercial)?

On the one hand I kind of admire Micah’s stance. I, too, have felt the sort of “guilt of the priveleged” on many occasions while living in China. I see it differently, though.

Can’t a middle class American get a similar feeling when passing through a poor neighborhood in the USA? Yet he doesn’t respond by lowering his standard of living. He learns pretty quickly to cope with any guilt he might feel for being better off than some. He might donate to charity as well, but that’s pretty much the extent of it.

In China, the guilt effect is magnified. That American is automatically even better off than he was back home, and it’s obvious to everyone around him. He can’t blend in. The difference is right up in his face, and reflected clearly in the eyes of the Chinese laborers from the countryside that stop to stare at this first foreigner they’ve ever seen. The American sees how China’s poor live. It weighs on his conscience heavily.

The guilt effect may be magnified, but does that mean the reaction to said guilt should be completely different? To me, it just doesn’t make sense. Most peple spend their days on this planet trying to improve their quality of life. If an American moves to China, that quality of life takes an immediate jump. This is undesirable?

I frequently return to a certain conclusion: foreigners in China are opportunists. No, they’re not necessarily completely without principles, but they’re still taking advantage of certain conditions in China to make a buck, or to live an easier life. I think almost all Westerners in China fall into this category.

Enter the 老百姓 snob. “No, I’m not here to make a buck,” he says. “I readily give up the easy life I could have here in China. I am really here to understand the culture and the people.”

A part of me finds that attitude admirable, but I still don’t think that taking the advantages thrown your way necessarily preclude the depth of cultural experience. At the same time, taking the advantages thrown your way doesn’t mean you can’t remain humble. I still think that attempts to reject those advantages are somewhat absurd. No matter how hard he tries, the 老百姓 snob cannot have a certain “social status” just because he wants it. Social status is granted by society, and only partly determined by individual effort.

I hope it’s not too cheesey, but I’m going to conclude with a quote from the movie Good Will Hunting. I first saw it at an impressionable age, and it made an impact on me.

> Chuckie: Look, you’re my best friend, so don’t take this the wrong way, but in 20 years if you’re still living here, coming over to my house and watching Patriots games, still working construction, I’ll fucking kill you. That’s not a threat. That’s a fact. I’ll fucking kill you.

> Will: What the fuck are you talking about?

> Chuckie: Look… You’ve got something none of us have.

> Will: Oh, come on! What? Why is it always this? I mean, I fuckin’ owe it to myself to do this or that. What if I don’t want to?

> Chuckie: No. No, no no no. Fuck you. You don’t owe it to yourself man, you owe it to me, ’cause tomorrow I’m gonna wake up and I’ll be 50, and I’ll still be doin’ this shit. And that’s all right. That’s fine. I mean, you’re sittin’ on a winnin’ lottery ticket. You’re too much of a pussy to cash it in, and that’s bullshit. ‘Cause I’d do fuckin’ anything to have what you got. So would any of these fuckin’ guys. It’d be an insult to watch if you’re still here in 20 years. Hangin’ around here is a fuckin’ waste of your time.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Da Xiangchang Says: October 30, 2005 at 5:20 am

    If I were a laowai, I would have ZERO GUILT whatsoever about my status in relationship to the average Chinese. Just like I have ZERO GUILT everytime I pass a homeless guy in America asking me for money and me completely ignoring him. Just like no matter how rich I get, I will not give a single penny to any charity. The reason is simple: I didn’t cause the poor people to be poor. And if I didn’t cause their problems, why should I be responsible to them? And in a lot of cases–certainly the case of America’s poor–the poor are poor cuz of their own fault. If you give them more money, they’ll continue acting irresponsibly–like a lot of countries in Africa. Cut off the flow, and they’ll be better off.

    So while I admire Micah’s idealism, IMHO, to live like an average Chinese guy in China defeats the ENTIRE PURPOSE of living in China. I would think most laowais go to China for the same reason I did (even if they deny it): increased status, more money, less work, and easy success with the ladies. If you want to be an average schmuck, you’ll have the rest of your life when you return home. Haha.

  2. Donkey Haute Says: October 30, 2005 at 9:14 am

    Well said, John.

    In my opinion, the justification used by most people for being a 老百姓 snob has one major flaw. The problem is distingushing which habits exhibited by the Chinese are truly cultural and which are done by necessity. For example, is using a bycicle as the main form a transprtation a Chinese thing, or is it done because using other methods of transportation is not practical for the majority of the population. I’d have to choose the latter in this scenario.

    Therefore, while I believe doing things such as learning to play 麻将 or 象棋,raising birds and learning how to cook chinese food are a way to respect and immerse yourself in the culture. Doing things such as eating nothing but 雪菜 every day, because your local vegetable seller does so, is seen as an insult. I know my examples are a little extreme, but I’m just trying to make a point.

    Here in China especially, where it seems that everybody’s sole aim is to be rich and successful, this choice of lifestyle will never be understood.

  3. parasite(Justin) Says: October 30, 2005 at 11:08 am

    I for one am damn glad to hear Da Xiangchang’s response, it isn’t often I get to hear such a strong, uncompromising, making no sorry exceptions, moral stance coming from anyone.

    Other than agreeing 100%, I would add to it that I think acting and thinking in this manner is also a sort of moral imperative, if there were such a thing. The wealthy and prosperous nations didn’t get the living standards of their average citizens up to THIS level by bleeding their hearts all over those who were poorer than them. They got up and built stuff, they took action and built the world that they have. Do you recall the last time you heard the story of a nation that brought its GDP up to $20,000+ by sheer virtue of the fact that 100 other nations offered their deepest ‘pities’ upon that nation’s pitifulness ? I THINK NOT. Therefore it is morally imperative to KEEP DOING exactly what got us here — and keep setting the example of what needs to be done.

    To talk about charity is to intrinsically accept and promote the old primitive economic theory that the amount of wealth on this earth is a static quantity, and for us to have a quantity AUTOMATICALLY NECESSITATES that someone else lack that same quantity. If that were the case, for Americans to have their GDP everyone else in the world would have to be BEYOND DEAD, because this much wealth didn’t exist in the entire world combined 200 years ago.

  4. I somewhat agree with Micah not because I wan to live in an impoverished way or want to somehow ‘become Chinese’, but “taking a higher salary just because I have a white face is something that weighs on my conscience” rings true.

    Standard of living (though I earn 10% of what I earned in the UK in absolute terms), lifestyle, etc, are great, but I do feel guilty if the reward is not commensurate to the effort put in. If reward can come without effort that’s great in material terms, but feels somewhat hollow.

    So I learn Chinese, I put in a lot of effort with lesson plans, etc, because I get a mental/spiritual/whatever payoff. I get satisfaction.

  5. >>foreigners in China are opportunists. No, they’re not necessarily completely without principles, but they’re still taking advantage of certain conditions in China to make a buck, or to live an easier life.

    If that is true (and i’m not saying it isn’t), then what about Chinese who come to the US? Are they in the US to “understand the culture and the people” or are they there to “take advantage of certain conditions in the US to make a buck or to live an easier life?” The answer is obvious. And this merely indicates that the reason probably 98% of people move/go anywhere is to better their lives or take advantage of better opportunities elsewhere, whether they are laowai or Chinese.

    That doesn’t mean it all boils down to dollars — maybe it is health care or the natural, political, cultural, or business envirnoment that people want to “take advantage” of elsewhere. I think I would call the guilt “White liberal guilt,” because I’ve never met any non-white non-liberals who shared this guilt. (I mean “liberal” in a broad sense, not in an crackpot Democrat/Republican AM radio sense). Although I understand the good intentions behind it, I think this kind of guilt is ultimately patronizing: “Let’s live like the poor natives.”

  6. a better word for ‘liberal’ in what you just said, I think, is ‘elitist’. which is what almost all people who have this ‘white liberal guilt’ are… just by being so, they must be elitist. patronizing is the word you used and it’s totally correct

  7. Firstly, giving the example of a person who passes through a poor neighbourhood without feeling guilt, yet feels guilt in China when faced with the even greater disparity in living standards, in no way suggests that the former response is the morally correct one.

    Secondly, doesn’t the very concept of charitable giving contradict what you say about most people directing all their energy towards the pursuit of a higher standard of living?

    John, you have a gift for subtlety (at least more so than some of those who have commented above), but reading between the lines your post is a moral defense of selfishness. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    Finally, on the topic of the 老百姓 snob, let’s consider his or her opposite: the big-spending expat. By only visiting expensive venues, only associating with wealthy, educated people, and never having to deal with any of the inconveniences that thift entails, this person really does limit their opportunities to understand the life of Chinese people in the broadest possible way. My concept of “culture” differs from Donkey Haute in that I think the habits of the poor are just as much a part of culture as the habits of the wealthy.

    Actually, I accept that relieving one’s sense of guilt, or trying to change one’s social status are somewhat absurd reasons for catching a bus instead of a taxi. But these are not the only reasons why a foreigner in China might try to avoid such an extravagent lifestyle. For example, to save money, to broaden their experience, or because their Chinese friends can’t afford it. I don’t think these reasons are absurd, and I don’t think that a foreigner who catches a bus is necessarily a snob (ie. considers themselves superior to foreigners who catch taxis).

  8. Hmmm… lots of interesting comments. I think I’ll respond to Todd right now, though.

    Firstly, giving the example of a person who passes through a poor neighbourhood without feeling guilt, yet feels guilt in China when faced with the even greater disparity in living standards, in no way suggests that the former response is the morally correct one.

    That’s correct. But it’s a socially acceptable one.

    Secondly, doesn’t the very concept of charitable giving contradict what you say about most people directing all their energy towards the pursuit of a higher standard of living?

    I don’t think so. An overall goal of a higher standard of living doesn’t mean some small deviations aren’t allowed. Some people would consider charity a worthy reason for deviation.

    …reading between the lines your post is a moral defense of selfishness. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    I suppose you could put it that way. None of us can live a completely selfless life.

    But these are not the only reasons why a foreigner in China might try to avoid such an extravagent lifestyle…. and I don’t think that a foreigner who catches a bus is necessarily a snob.

    I completely agree.

  9. 88,

    …the reason probably 98% of people move/go anywhere is to better their lives or take advantage of better opportunities elsewhere, whether they are laowai or Chinese.

    True, but the reason the Americans get the guilt in China is because it’s perceived as the world’s rich taking from the world’s poor.

  10. Penfold,

    I totally agree with that stance. I guess it’s just all in one’s attitude as to whether one is perceived as a “snob” or not.

  11. That Will’s got some wicked smarts!

    Yep. Cheesy to the core John. How do ya like them apples?

  12. >>True, but the reason the Americans get the guilt in China is because it’s perceived as the world’s rich taking from the world’s poor.

    I think the patronizing element, though, is that when the 老百姓 snob is in his own country, this guilt evaporates. Why? Because the poor in the US or the UK aren’t quaint. The 老百姓 snob would probably view them as white trash who voted for Bush and shop at Walmart. In other words, it isn’t so much the poverty as the novelty and supposed victim status of the poor Chinese that is appealing.

    Is it nobler to take advantage of a cultural environment or a business enviornment? All I can tell you is that no person who has ever actually been poor will concern themseleves with these fine distinctions. And no Chinese I know would think this “noblesse oblige” thinking is anything but insane or insulting.

  13. Da Xiangchang Says: October 31, 2005 at 1:05 am

    Well, there’s a simple reason why one can feel MORE guilt passing a poor person in China than one in America.

    In China, most people are poor not bcause of their own fault; their history, leaders, etc., have totally screwed them.

    In America, however, 100% of the poor people are there because of their own fault, whether it’s laziness, irresponsibility, blaming whitey, or whatever. That’s why I despise the poor in America but feel sorry for the poor in China.

    However, just because the poor in China are there because of their leaders doesn’t mean I’m responsible for them. Or any Westerner who visit there.

    And, of course, Chinese come to America to “take advantage of certain conditions in the US to make a buck or to live an easier life?” But I don’t think laowais go to China for this reason. They go there primarily for an short-term adventure and go back home when it’s done. Chinese who go to America intend to stay there.

  14. Dalian Dragon Says: October 31, 2005 at 8:55 am

    I see a lot of good ideas and comments flowing here, all with good (however, sometimes contradictory) points. However, my own feelings are…….

    I’m planning a partly-business partly-social trip to America in January. The trip is going to cost me somewhere around 40,000 yuan for a 1 month in the States. So, I’m doing whatever I can to get all the money together.

    Being in this position, I find that… even though I make 6 or 7 times the amount of money per month than my chinese colleagues, saving this amount of money takes time. In fact, I’m having to gather the majority of this money outside of the business from which I currently have my work visa through.

    What does this have to do with this conversation? I’m now finding out that, even though I make a lot more money than chinese people, it’s often not enough!!! Also, I feel that I’m truly entitled to this money and that I EARN it every day!

    EXAMPLE:

    Even though I have several jobs which require teaching English (which is my native language and requires no effort to speak), this is not something that everyone can do well. I have to make out comprehensive and useful lesson plans for each level and age. I have to assess students and find ways for them to make personal improvements. I, sometimes, have to give my personal UNPAID time to help my company with anything English oriented to make sure the results are good….etc…. This is my job. This is what I get paid for. And, again, it’s not something that ANYONE could do.

    Also, I think that the crap that I put up with everyday counts for something…

    EXAMPLE:

    1) The daily riddicule. — It happens everyday as I (and other foreigners) walk down the street. A group of chinese ppl will yell “hello” and maybe some other nice english words your way while yelling chinese profanities at you at the same time.
    2) We’re overcharged for everything — I tell my boss “What good is making 3 times more money than you if, everyday, I get charged 3 times more at the stores and markets?”
    3) Everything is soooo inconvenient!!! — Last time I tried to send some money home via “Western Union”, it took 3 days just to send. Why? Because chinese infrastructure is soooo screwed up. Every bank will accept foreign currency and change it to RMB without even asking your name. But when you want to change RMB into your own currency…..they want you to bring every piece of paper that you’ve received since you landed here AND MORE!!! And, even then, they want to rape you of 15% !!!
    4) The chinese government is very much AGAINST foreigners in some ways. For example, if you’re a foreigner bringing your foreign company into china…it’s easy. However, if you’re a foreigner trying to register a business from within China….good luck, because it’s near IMPOSSIBLE!!!
    5) And there’s more, but I’ll spare the rest of the RANT for a later time.

    Many of you are right. I came to China because I’m an opportunist. And, there ARE definitely opportunities to be had here in China. However, in some ways, I’m DEFINITELY not living a better, or even equal, lifestyle to that in America. So, in my oppinion, I’m EARNING my high pay and status (and success with the ladies).

  15. > I, sometimes, have to give my personal UNPAID time to help my company with anything English oriented to make sure the results are good…

    Just as a side note, DD, of course I don’t know the details but you might want to reconsider that habit. A business is a business, and your personal time is worth their money.

  16. White-trash Bush voter here.

    Some people may give charitably due to guilt. I do not. I give because I feel compassion. There is nothing in the poor person’s condition to make me feel guilty. No matter how rich I get, it will not be the cause of their poverty, I will not have taken anything from them, I will not have pushed them down. I do feel sorry for them, and a desire to help.

    In China I lived as cheaply as possible because I was BROKE. I went with no money. REALLY. I managed to put enough away so that I wasn’t broke anymore when I came back to the States. Considering the exchange rate, I had to save a lot in China to have a little at home. When I go back to China I’ll live that cheaply again, it’s in my nature (I said this in the other topic). But I might splurge when I get a chance to do something new or touristy. I’ll have enough money.

    By the way, it is rather stupid to go anywhere when you are broke. I don’t recommend it.


  17. Many of you are right. I came to China because I’m an opportunist. And, there ARE definitely opportunities to be had here in China. However, in some ways, I’m DEFINITELY not living a better, or even equal, lifestyle to that in America. So, in my oppinion, I’m EARNING my high pay and status (and success with the ladies).

    Oh just shut up now. The Chinese in America don’t get higher pay, status, or chicks, and most of them work harder than you.
    It is just an accident of birth that you can do something that not ANYONE can do, so yes, “you” are earning your status, but it’s the “you” part that you had no control over, so stop acting so damn superior.
    Finally, if the lifestyle in China is so crappy, absolutely nothing is keeping you from going back to the States.

    Man, I hate whiny Westerners.

  18. Believe it or not, I predict that in less than ten, maybe five, years Westerners will not get higher pay (than their Chinese coworker in China) just for his/her face, or his native tougue. So enjoy the privilege/opportunity while you can. For example, Micah, I suspect that already in today’s China nobody, not even a poor migrant worker, appreciates your choosing to be a 老百姓, one of them, at least they would have a hard time seeing your sincerity. To me this is sad but in a way it represents a kind of economical and social progress, and the bottom line is that we cannot help it.

  19. The wealthy and prosperous nations didn’t get the living standards of their average citizens up to THIS level by bleeding their hearts all over those who were poorer than them. They got up and built stuff, they took action and built the world that they have.

    Like the Europeans who came to a New World and destroyed the indigenous nations so they could have it themselves. Like how they built ships to bring slaves to America so that they could do everything for them. Like how immigrants have always been used as cheap labor to build this place. Like how people have never started off on equal grounds. The rich get richer and the poor never have the same opportunities, never start off on equal footing. My history, as an American, is a sad and sordid tale. If you think America just appeared one day as this big happy place where everything was always equal, I’d recommend an indepth look at history and then actually talking to poor people.

    The hardest working people in America are usually the lowest paid. Minimum wage can never support a family. Working 2 and 3 jobs a week, 80 plus hours, and you can not even keep a roof over your head. Instead of hard work, it is education that decides how much people make. Education is really what counts. Unfortunately, many people do not have the resources of time or money to go to College or School when it is hard enough supporting their families.

    The injustices of many people have never been rectified in America. So the lower class is just supposed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps in the face of 400 years of injustice?

    On the other hand, China has done a lot to get past its recent crappy history. Attempting to feed 1.3 Billion after the disasters of 30 and 40 yrs ago say alot.

  20. Fortunately for me, I don’t build my ethical rules on whether somebody appreciates them or not, especially not the blinded-by-dreams-of-money kind of 老百姓 you mention. That would be a mess. Neither do I “enjoy… while you can” because the rewards to hard work that I appreciate most come whether I’m acclaimed for it, or go unnoticed.

    LOL, since when did Sinosplice comments turn into the Ayn Rand Fan Club? Now it’s all about money, and taking advantage of people, and looking out for yourself? You can count me out. To quote a book I just finished recently:

    His father, Unoka, who was then an ailing man, had said to him during that terrible harvest month: “Do not despair. I know you will not despair. You have a manly and a proud heart. A proud heart can survive a general failure because such a failure does not prick his pride. It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.”

  21. Actually the thing that gets me about the 老百姓 snobbery is that it very often seems predicated on ‘rejecting’ being a westerner.

    The “I only eat Chinese food” affectation always gets me because after 25 years growing up in the west, what makes me most comfortable is a hamburger or good pasta dish. I like Chinese food but can’t reject the fact that, given the choice, I’ll eat western food anyday. And that’s why I never find it strange that my, Chinese, girlfriend can’t stand toast and cereal and coffee in the morning.

    I just can’t see how someone can wipe out decades of cultural conditioning and change their taste so completely. Or, I feel sad that people can do this in an apparent attempt to “fit in”. Note this is a non-discriminatory sadness – I feel the same way for the Chinese I know who try to adopt everything western.

    Frankly, I am a westerner. It doesn’t make me ‘better’ or ‘worst’ than a chinese. It just makes me different.

  22. I’ve heard “Are you used to the food here?” asked plenty of times in China, but I didn’t realise that there are westerners with the same attitude. I think I could pretty quickly get used to the food in any country. That’s not to say that my tastes would change, it just means that I don’t think there is any country where I couldn’t find food which appeals to my tastes. While I was in Dalian, my foremost “comfort food” was spicy pickled cabbage fried rice.

    Considering that in Australia I was able to eat food from a wide range of different cuisines, I am not exactly overjoyed that now I eat Chinese food every day, but I don’t have much alternative. “Multicultural” food is not readily available in China, and what is available is either very expensive or not very nice. And I like a fresh hamburger as much as the next person, but I hate the food at MacDonalds.

    Those of us without a personal chef do not eat Chinese food to “fit in”, we do it to “get by”.

  23. Gin,

    I’d like to add something about the historical luck of people from places which are perceived to be “core” English speaking countries (e.g., U.K, U.S., New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, Australia).

    As long as highly polished written or spoken English are thought to provide the broadest and most direct access to the international business and science world, a mediocre, inexperienced college graduate from these countries will have a pretty easy time going abroad and getting a wage which (if not really so high) is still out of reach for his or her mediocre local counterparts- and which will allow him or her to live independently, and maybe even have substantial spending money.

    I think that circumstances will continue to favor these English speakers for the next several decades, if not longer.

  24. I can’t stand white foreigners in China who automatically assume they deserve preferential treatment. It makes me sick. I especially detest white americans who think they do indeed have the right to a better status in terms of jobs, higher salaries, and their pick of female “companions”. Being american with an asian face, and having these type of people as my collegues definitely created an negative impression for chinese who think that I should be lumped into the same “culture” as them, just because we share the same nationality.

  25. Personally, I’m not a member of the Ann Rynd fan club, I don’t think white foriegners deserve special treatment, and I don’t think most people are poor because they are lazy whiners. I thought the issue was whether it makes any sense to go out of your way to be poor and live like a 洋农民,as if this somehow makes you morally superior to those who (gasp!) make money in China. This really sounds like an argument that could only take place in a dorm room with a sufficient amount of weed, teenage angst, and white middle-class guilt. (“Should I sell out and get a job or should I go change the world?”)

  26. Micah,

    Obviously, my enjoy … while you can line was an advice (haha) to others. I know you made your choice for your own conscience — I was merely point out the tendency and esp. changes in the attitudes of the Chinese population. And that is what I felt sad about.

    Ed,

    Native speaking teachers will likely always be in demand but it will be harder and harder for folks to get higher pay for JUST their native tougue, meaning without much training in teaching or linguistics. Likewise, it will be increasingly difficult for native speakers to enter business entities in China as mere translators without any packaged commerce or technical background. These trends need to be pointed out for the benefit of young man/woman who prepares to be a China snob one day.

  27. Let me rephrase it a little bit.

    I was merely pointing out the tendency and esp. changes in the attitudes of the Chinese population. And such current attitude is what I felt sad about. On the other hand the changes, which are evident to me, are what I feel positive about.

  28. I don’t view the poor as simply the ill prepared in some sort of Darwinian game that foreigners in China have the good luck to be winning. I can’t imagine anything less satisfying than looking back on my life and having nothing but the accumulation of wealth/status/gonorrhea to show for it. It’s sad because the attitude among young Chinese college students mirrors some of the people commenting in this space–“I guess since everything I was taught to believe in might not be true, I’ll just make as much money as I can, and screw everybody else.”

    It’s not disengenius of Micah to live simply. In fact, it’s something that should be applauded and admired. And it’s not as if Micah is not “getting something out of it”–which has some of you worried. He as a Westerner is getting a closer look at a culture that has been a mystery to most of the world for a long time. Living simply does allow him to connect with the average Chinese easier. I’m sure his language skills are improving more rapidly as well. China is changing rapidly, that is true, but that is what makes it the most exciting place in the world, right now. And if immersing yourself helps you see it from a ground level and illustrates to yourself and others that your time spent in China is an investment, then why not?

    Not everyone sees the value of time spent only in monetary terms/ status (if you really care about status…you suck) /amount of ladies you can pull. If that makes Micah a snob, I think China could benefit by having a few more snobs like Micah.

  29. I think some people (possibly Micah included) are forgetting something: this entry was not about judging Micah. It was about examining the behavior of the 老百姓 snob. I said that I thought Micah has exhibited some symptoms of being a 老百姓 snob (sometimes), not that he is one.

    Truth be told, I think Micah’s lifestyle is not a whole lot more 老百姓 than mine, but he clearly has different reasons for living the way he does. My reasons are mainly practical and economic reasons. Many of his are ethical in nature.

  30. Donkey Haute Says: November 2, 2005 at 6:03 am

    While I too admire Micah’s ethical stance, I still can’t help feeling that the average Chinese person, working hard and saving every last penny to get their family out of what they perceive as poverty, will never understand the behaviour of the 老百姓 snob, and may even see it as a mockery of their lifestyle. When reading the original post and comments, the following quote comes to mind.

    KRAMER: Hey. (to Elaine) Oh, I just saw your old boyfriend on TV.

    ELAINE: Egh, Jake Jarmel?

    KRAMER: Yeah. I really liked those glasses he was wearing. Where’d he get those.

    ELAINE: Why? You don’t wear glasses.

    KRAMER: I know, I know. But I need a new look, I’m stagnating.

    GEORGE: I have to say, as a glasses wearer I take exception to that. That’s like me buying a wheelchair to cruise around in.

  31. I really can’t see how it is the duty of a foreigner in China to live extravagently or risk offending the working class. I can’t imagine that a foreigner riding on public buses or renting a cheap apartment has ever been perceived as mockery by any Chinese person who witnessed it. Miserliness perhaps…but then again, in my experience most Chinese are not so rigid in their thinking that they automatically assume any foreigner in China is rolling in cash.

    The consumer choices of the 老百姓 snob are not notable in themselves, and as many commentors have pointed out there are a lot of foreigners who make the same choices but do not belong to the 老百姓 snob category. What is unique about the 老百姓 snob is the reason they make these choices. Perhaps they’re doing it to assuage their guilt, or because they think it proves they have adapted better to Chinese culture, or so they can claim the title of “local”.

    I should probably conclude this comment by passing my final judgement on the 老百姓 snob, but actually I can’t be bothered. Let’s all talk about China for a change!

  32. I’m coming in late, and I think Todd and Micah have pretty much summed things up, but I suppose I may as well add my two cents:
    I don’t think it’s fair to characterize people who decide to live low-key lives as ‘snobs.’ It may not even be for moral reasons: there are some foreigners who come here and decide to live like Manhattan socialites, and then there are some of us who just don’t particularly want to live like that, even if we suddenly have the means. Some of it may be motivated by personal ethics – discomfort, say, at paying the same amount for a couple of martinis that a migrant worker gets per month for losing a hand in a power loom – but for most of the people I know, it’s more a matter of taste.

  33. I’m coming in even later, but a few relevant points to make:

    1) Living the 老百姓 lifestyle, even if you can afford better, is a basic Western/Protestant value. Every kid who ever went to an American school knows “waste not want not,” or “a penny saved is a penny earned.” In the US, “The Millionaire Next Door” was a big selling book. Minorities and immigrants are frequently criticized by WASPs for being free-spending.

    2) Xintiandi sucks. A lot of the upper-class Chinese lifestyle isn’t to American tastes. To me, it often seems like a self-conscious imitation of the American lifestyle, I want to see something new and interesting, that’s why I came to a new country in the first place.

    3) 老百姓-types exist in America. Personally in the US I could have afforded a nicer apartment, car, etc., but I liked to keep a little extra money in my bank account. I’d eat at the $1 Taco Trucks and there were plenty of businessmen in suits doing the same. And even though I could afford it, it would have caused me physical pain to pay $10 for a Martini, I didn’t take the taxis, etc.

    4) The idea that Chinese people could never sympathize with pseudo-老百姓 (all 1.3 billion people hold the same opinion I guess) is ridiculous. Say “I go to cheap local restaurants instead of going out to the fanciest places” and people will be lining up behind you. People living the 老百姓 lifestyle don’t pay extra for their cheap apartments, or pass an easy job teaching English to become a day laborer, either of which would be ridiculous in China just as in the US. They’re saving a substantial amount of money. Isn’t that what being a thrifty WASP is all about?

  34. I agree. I have have to add that in addition to not really wanting to live like Hugh Heffner, I will probably return to the States one day. If I were living there now, I’d be putting a lot more money into retirement and other accounts, so saving as much as I can might help keep me from spending my waning years in a single wide trailer (and probably put me in a nice double-wide). This and I’m just a real cheap-ass.

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