Stuck In the Honey Pot

Looking at a photo of Audrey Hepburn looking at diamonds. It's almost like having money.

There’s a certain stage of one’s life when things like health insurance and retirement funds start to feel relevant. Moving steadily through the working weeks, I’m beginning to develop an unfamiliar sense of finality. My 20-something self is losing its youthful identity in a sea of red tape and jargon designed by adults to humiliate and mock other less advanced adults.

I suddenly care about what would happen if I were to be struck down by a senior citizen riding their bike on the footpath, when they should be in the designated bike lane. (The bike lanes are as wide as freeways here, may I suggest you use them old man.) I worry when cab drivers who’ve been exposed to too much Grand Theft Auto drive in a fashion that suggests they deliberately wish to run me over, steal my wallet and take photos of my corpse with their camera phones.

I could say this shift has to do with my fear of death, but that’s a singularly morbid and entirely boring explanation. No, this preoccupation with time’s tendency to be fleeting (and the fact that I’d like to retire one day to a beach where a man dressed like Don Draper serves me cocktails and calls me “sweetheart” in a sexist, yet charming manner) boils down to the fact that I am broke. I blame Beijing for that, and my inability to make sensible financial decisions; but mainly I just blame Beijing.

Beijing is a developing city in a developing country – let’s save the political arguments for another day, shall we, and just go with that for now. As such, expatriates are like imported golden kiwis (the fruit, not the people), or a well-made Hermes knock-off. Everyone likes them, but at the same time are baffled by their extravagance and wonder how they got here.

Expats who wouldn’t dream of hiring help suddenly find themselves with a nanny, a housekeeper, a driver and a cook. When you’re not eating the organic vegetarian meals prepared by your servants, you’re going out for champagne brunches. Getting the supermarket delivery guy bring you two cans of diet coke in the middle of a snowstorm is completely normal. Frankly, it’s un-Chinese not to.

Rather than living modest lifestyles, my fellow expats and I collectively note the exchange rates of our respective home countries, look at our bank accounts and decide that putting aside ten percent of your salary simply so you can say “I have a savings account,” is not worth it.

People much smarter than I love to use the phrase “return on investment,” if they are particularly obnoxious they’ll whittle it down to “ROI.” Simply put, the conversion rate makes saving money in Beijing a bad ROI. And if there are people out there saving their renminbi like responsible grown ups, bully for you, but there’s no way I’m going without my daily Starbucks coffee just so I can proudly hold an extra two dollars in my hand when I land back in Melbourne. Which by the way, I am shocked to discover, has raised its coffee prices to over three dollars. They’re lucky I have an addiction otherwise there’d be no way I’d pay that.

Earning Chinese currency that is essentially useless outside of China, forces things like health insurance and savings accounts to move their way onto your “Things To Do When I Sell My First Book” list. You ignore them and hope that no one holds a grudge against you that requires vengeance, and therefore expensive hospitalisation.

As I edge my way towards a respectable age, I’m starting to realise that the parachute is gone. The clowns waiting at the bottom of the burning building with a giant trampoline are out to lunch. I’m alone with life – with my life, and that beach crawling with martini-carrying Don Draper lookalikes won’t pay for itself.

Unless, of course, China suddenly decides to float the RMB, in which case this whole article is redundant and I’ll probably be earning more than Bill Gates.

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