Friday, May 20, 2011

Opulence. I don't has it.

We live here. No fake Greek statues, parking space with a Cefiro or colored marble in sight.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about real estate, rent prices and location (yes, it was actually an interesting conversation). As is common in Taiwan, he asked me how much our rent was, and since I don’t mind sharing, I told him. It’s no secret that our apartment is dirt cheap, and honestly looks the part – though I think we’ve painted, decorated and maintained it very well, so it is more reminiscent of a funky pseudo-industrial bohemian hideout (think “Rent”) than a true downmarket ghetto pad.

We live a one-minute walk from the MRT, though, and a two-minute walk from a large night market, so you can’t beat that.

Oddly, though, I found myself quickly adding “…we prefer to spend our money traveling!” as though I somehow had to defend myself and my cheap apartment.

I wasn’t lying – every year we take at least one vacation that is usually six weeks long. This year we’re taking an eight-week vacation but nothing else (in previous years we’ve done quick getaways to Hong Kong or the Philippines in addition to our longer travels). I don’t know many – scratch that, I don’t know any – Taiwanese people who do that, although I do hope they exist.

It is absolutely true that rent and mortgage rates are correlated to salary much as it is in the rest of the world, and people will judge how much you make based on how much you spent on your living quarters. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to be as true in China and Korea, where people who make more will seek out nicer accommodation, but generally speaking will prioritize more visible markers of prosperity such as a luxury car or the new It Bag.

As an expat who inhabits a murky realm between younger travelers who usually come to teach in cram schools or study (heck, that was me not so long ago) and older ones who have either stayed on or who have come on a company package, I feel as though I don’t fit into either group – and my social circle starkly reflects this.

I do feel that when trying to “place” me and draw up a set of semi-assumed likelihoods about my life, most people I come into contact with place me in the latter group – closer to the older, business-oriented expats (probably precisely because that’s the locally correlated group of people I teach here, so that’s who I have the most contact with). I’m not sure how true it is, but it does seem to be how I am mentally categorized by new acquaintances.

As such, I feel there is an expectation that our lifestyle also fit that mold. Nobody expects us to have an office car and driver (do any expats in Taiwan actually have that anymore?) or even to own an apartment – although I am constantly asked “do you rent or own?” and when I say “rent”, I’m asked if I ever plan to buy real estate in Taiwan (probably not). I’m talking more about the lifestyle accoutrements you’d normally find among white collar professionals. I have, however, seen surprise on people’s faces when I admit how low our rent is (“we prefer to spend our money traveling!”), or that neither of us owns a smartphone or an iPad, or that we not only don’t have a car, but neither of us owns a scooter and I often ride my bike to work when not taking the bus or MRT. I encountered surprise when I admitted we don’t have a dryer (“but you can get one for just NT$10,000!”) and that our hot water is still from an old-style heater hooked up to a gas tank, as is our stove. Most of our friends live similar lifestyles – that’s usually the way, isn’t it – but most of my acquaintances, especially through work, do have all of the things listed above, and probably have newer, nicer apartments, too. Think of it this way:

Me: “I love your scarf! Where did you get it?”
Student: “Thanks! I got it at SOGO. I like yours, too. Where did you get it?”
Me: “Erm, the night market.”

Student: “Oh. Well, it’s nice.”

My students, typically, do not prioritize their finances as we do (not that I ask – that’d be rude even though I am asked all the time) and it does come as a shock that we don’t drive and we don’t live in anything like those curlicue-gated and marble-bedecked new apartment buildings dotting Taipei, or that we get our gas the old fashioned way.

Honestly, if you were to see our apartment and lifestyle you’d think we make a lot less money than we do (more akin to a cram school teacher), and while only one former student has ever been in our apartment (three if you include some former students from my year at Kojen, but I haven’t worked there in half a decade so I don’t really count that), I do wonder how often the things I do say about our life cause acquaintances to extrapolate what our salary likely is – and by doing that and leaving out all the travel, they’d probably come up with a number that’d be shameful in the corporate world for anyone above the level of a secretary.

I don’t doubt that this happens, actually, considering the nosiness about others’ affairs here. I’m not ashamed of the differences in expectation and reality (although I have been thinking recently about whether/how to either make our place nicer or move), but it does make me wonder. I do like to think that people have better things to do with their time, but I can’t deny experiencing this kind of nosiness among neighbors and being asked frequently how much we pay in rent. I do wonder what is expected as an answer as an expat whose acquaintances are mostly upper middle class Taiwanese. I wonder what they extrapolate from that. I wonder what they think when I don’t meet that criteria.

I do have to say that while most of the reasons why we diverge from lifestyle expectations revolve around spending priorities (“we prefer to spend our money on travel!”), part of it is also taste. There are more expensive, nicer apartments available but when you get into the “accommodation to reflect a high income” you start to dive into marble, faux gilt, crystal chandelier, hideous upholstery, faux “Greek” statuary and wrought-iron The wrought-iron is OK. The rest – no. As one friend put it, a lot of what is considered “high class” in Taiwan is sadly reminiscent of this: Opulence. I Has It!

There are other options, of course, but I did feel it was important to note this undercurrent in “taste” in Taiwan and how insidious it is – and how, like owning a Cefiro or shopping at Bellavita (or even Shinkong Mitsukoshi), I am simply not interested (although, I admit it, I have been known to buy things at Shinkong Mitsukoshi. Rarely. But it happens).

I do like to think that if I am judged for that, that I am judged well, and I do tend to get along very well with students generally. I have a very high opinion of them as a whole. If I were judged harshly, it would genuinely bother me if I were to find out.


Catherine Shu said...

I think you would be judged in NYC, but people here seem to freak out much less when they learn that someone is frugal. Sure, people might be surprised by how careful you are with your money, but I feel like it's tinged with admiration. Back home in the US, however, people seem to equate living below your means with having a mental illness, even if you are saving towards a big goal like travel (though I know being "cheap" definitely became a more positive thing after the economic crash... "In Cheap With Trust" is a very good book about how American attitudes toward saving money and frugality have changed over the past 300 years).

From my own observation, I think real estate (including "opulent" real estate) is the one luxury most Taiwanese people are willing to actually spend big bucks on, especially those that grew up before the 1980s. I know the obsession with "luxury" goods and the proliferation of malls like Bellavita and Breeze Center give the opposite impression, but I'm willing to bet Breeze makes the bulk of it's money through its food court, movie theater and more modestly-priced specialty retailers like Muji and Hands Tailung (I have no idea how Bellavita survives because it doesn't have "anchor" stores like that). Luxury stores like Louis Vuitton and Gucci depend on the same tiny roster of big spenders to return season after season. I read an interesting book about luxury retail called "Deluxe" that covers how that market works. All those brands focus on luring in a few rich customers by making themselves seem as exclusive as possible, but they whet the appetites of less wealthy people by selling them high-margin stuff like key chains, wallets and sunglasses. This is why I am so passionate about covering independent designers and artisans… for the same amount of money you would spend on a crappy, sweatshop-produced clutch by some conglomerate with a cynical marketing plan, you can get a handtooled leather purse by a young artist who is truly passionate about his or her work.

Where was I before this tangent? Oh yeah. When I lived in NYC, I felt judged for not having nice clothes, a nice hair cut, a nice bag, nice weekend trips, an HD TV, an iPhone, an apartment that wasn't in Queens... I've told you before that I could sense people (especially other women) looking down on me for having an engagement ring with a diamond smaller than 1 carat, even though my ring suited both my tastes and our budget. I simply couldn't afford those things because I chose a low paying career that I knew would make me happy (most of the time). *That* was my luxury and certainly one I feel extremely privileged to have, but it was really hard to explain to people who couldn't understand how I managed to survive with the same 13-inch TV/VCR combo I'd owned since freshman year.

I don't know if this is true in your experience, but I feel like even though Taiwanese people expect Westerners living here to have a luxurious lifestyle (because most of us do make more than the average Taiwanese person), most of the expats I know are actually quite good with money, because they need to save for trips to see their families or eventual repatriation to home countries with much higher costs of living.

If you ever feel like someone is judging you for being careful with your money, remember the words of my Hakka grandmother: "That dress was NT$2,500? I bought these pants off the street for NT$300 and the fabric and quality are both fantastic."

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Thing is, we're not actually "frugal" - we just spend it all on travel (we do save, too). So we look "cheap" (although my taste for high-end Belgian beer takes its toll) but really, it's all going to six weeks in Turkey or five weeks in India and Egypt (seems cheap but we don't get paid time off). So we look like we're as careful with money as your Hakka grandmother, but we're not. We're really just typical middle class Westerners who spend their money differently.

But I know what you mean about being judged back home. DC was actually *worse* than New York in that regard, if that's at all possible. When you get to the higher echelons it's all poorly dressed policy wonks but my social pickings included the fancy-dressed twentysomethings who'd look at you funny if you had the wrong bag.

Kath said...

I was told by someone that to be taken seriously in Taiwan I would need a diamond ring (rock sized), a label bag (leather only) and a high end watch. Therefore by deduction I assume nobody takes me seriously, like ever ;) Goodness knows if it's true (I don't really feel like it is) but owning these things not only seems to me to be a waste of money but it makes me uncomfortable. Nice for those who like it and have it - I have no issue with that - but not for me. I prefer to spend money on books, travel and 'experience' stuff.

I'm in a similar position to you - I'm between groups. I'm not a 'trailing spouse' because hubby is Taiwanese and hired locally and I'm not an English teacher either. It's an odd space to be in, especially when I get looked at strangely by some folks for suggesting someone takes the MRT rather than a taxi because it'd be a heap cheaper and of similar convenience.

What can I say? I like public transport and I'd rather save for a plane ticket than spend it on a taxi fare, unless it's *really* necessary!

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Kath - hah! That actually made me feel a little guilty because a.) I do take a lot of taxis, but it's for work and I get reimbursed (I rarely take taxis for personal reasons unless I'm out too late to catch the MRT) and b.) my bag really is brand-name and real leather (but it's not a famous brand name. No Gucci for me - it's Sazaby, a Japanese brand). I didn't pay for it, though - I bought it with a generous gift certificate. Being Japanese, it may have been made in a factory, but it's quality. If I'd gotten the certificate for an independent designer (or something I could have used at such a store) I would have bought that.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

And the thing is - I have tons of local friends. They seem to accept me just fine, and I don't have many friends with brand-name bags or who take taxis, and none who own a car. I don't *think* my students judge me too hard on my lack of opulent accoutrements, but I do wonder. I like to think (pretend?) that my winning personality makes up for presenting a relatively simple face.

Honestly, plenty of locals - and foreigners - don't have these things. I bet if I was here mostly to take classes or work in a non-corporate environment, I never would have written this post.

My messenger bag is totally indie, though, from a woman who makes them by hand and sells them in Jingtong (on the Pingxi line)!

Catherine Shu said...

Kath: I'm surprised to hear that about diamond rings because my .33 carat rock feels very showy here, especially when I'm hanging out with other young Taiwanese people (but I still wear it because, hey, it's my engagement ring and I love it).

I have to admit that focusing on indie design as a reporter has given me a really different take on "brand name" goods... Booday is my Gucci, Bomb Fry Metal Jewelry is my Tiffany's and Red On Tree is my Dean and Deluca. Fortunately for me, all of them are reasonably priced. I did recently splurge on a ridiculously overpriced imported all-natural scented candle, though :-). Now my living room reeks of Bulgarian roses and blackcurrants.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

The diamond ring thing surprises me too. In the USA there is a lot of "IT HAS TO BE A DIAMOND OR HE DOESN'T LOVE YOU OMG", although I tend to disarm them with "why would I want a boring expensive diamond when I can have this cool dragon!" (my engagement ring had no gems, just gold with curlicues and a freakin' awesome dragon). Nobody has any answer to that because dude, there's a dragon.

Here, I generally hear "it doesn't have to be a diamond" although I know at least one person whose now-wife not only insisted on a diamond, she also wanted a Cartier diamond wedding band (and got it). I didn't feel judged at all for having a non-diamond engagement ring, although some people may simply not have realized that it was an engagement ring at all. It came from one of those sets of gold jewelry that a man has to buy for his fiancee to give her when he visits her parents for the official engagement. I've always liked those sets.