Tuesday, August 07, 2012


When you first enter a country where the basic unit of currency has a much lower value than you are used to at home, it can be a dangerously exhilarating sensation. Walking around with a wallet or pocketbook or money-clip stuffed with great wads of colourful cash denominated in 100s or 500s or 1,000s makes you feel like Rockefeller, and there is a serious risk you may start spending impulsively, recklessly, unless you keep the exchange rate in mind at all times. (In China, 100 is still the highest denomination of banknote, so you have to carry a particularly fat wedge around with you if you're planning a big night.)

After a little while, though, this initial rush wears off; and, as you become used to the new currency, I think the higher numbers you're dealing with every day actually tend to instil more caution - they do, at least, with thrifty old me. I wouldn't think too much of dropping £20 on one round of drinks back in the old country, but the idea of blowing 200 RMB in one night in China causes a little consternation.

Partly, of course, there may be an awareness of the comparative cost of living at work here. China is - or ought to be! - still quite a bit cheaper, on the whole, than any of the developed countries; so, 200 RMB is actually worth more like £50 or £60 in equivalent spending power in the UK (and it would have been well over £100 when I first moved to Beijing a decade ago). However, I think much of the anxiety is simply an instinctive baulking at the magnitude of the figures involved. I don't think I'm always calculating - even subconsciously - how much the sums I spend in China are worth in pounds Sterling, or how much that might buy me back home in the UK; I just wouldn't very readily spend hundreds - or thousands - of anything.

After long immersion in a society where you have to spend 50 or 100 units on almost anything, there is a danger of becoming inured to it, and thus perhaps careless of handing over those sorts of amounts in another, stronger currency. As with the 'motorway driving syndrome' where long periods of driving at high speed can cause you to seriously underestimate your speed when you return to driving on minor roads, after years of drinking in China you have to be careful to guard against the possibility of blowing £200 or $200 in a single evening's bar crawling in England or the States. 

On this latest trip home, though, I've been noticing an opposite phenomenon: it seems that I am rather too aware of the different worth of the currency, that mentally I tend to over-value dear old Sterling - and hence I'm more hesitant to spend £3 or £3.50 on a beer here than I would be to spend an exactly similar amount back in Beijing.

Of course, I don't like having to spend 35 RMB on a beer in Beijing; but, over the last few years, I have been forced to get used to it. Here in the UK, I still find a price tag of £3.50 a pint quite outrageous

Partly, I suppose, it's just a case of being out of touch with the cost of living here: having three years of inflation catch up with you all at once is a rude shock to the system. But, you know, I don't think the price of beer has really gone up all that much since I was last here. I was starting to find the beer in England "too expensive" even a decade or so ago, before I moved to China. Nostalgia is probably a big part of the problem for me, particularly when, as now, I'm staying in Oxford, the scene of my wild student days: whenever I'm here, I somehow expect 1980s prices, and am perpetually disappointed. A further problem may be that there seems to be more of a 'beer spread' in England these days; there always has been a lot of price variation between different parts of the country (with Oxford, unfortunately, being one of the most expensive places outside the West End of London), but now there can be a huge difference between one pub and the next on the same street, and I'm no longer au fait with where the best bargains are to be had (and it doesn't help that most pubs have stopped displaying their prices - what the hell's up with that?!).

Despite these difficulties of adjustment, my experience here in the UK has reinforced my position on the excessive level of pricing in Beijing's bars these days. Even in Oxford, one of the most expensive places in the country, a beer - a full pint of good draught beer! - is rarely as much as £4, and, if you shop around, can be got for around £3, or even a little less occasionally. There is, therefore, NO WAY we should ever be paying more than 30 RMB for a draught beer in Beijing.

When - IF - I return to Beijing, I think I'm going to go dry.

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