You can get lodging for about 100-200 euros a month (I think that these places must not have western style toilets and the like… but if you WANT to live cheap… ). Transportation is also quite cheap – 20 cents on the subway will get you wherever you want, except the airport, which is a comparatively extravagant at 2.50. And if you aren’t above native fair, a tasty all-in-one dinner of noodles and vegetables can be found for an easy dollar(or less). (All prices rounded and converted, for the readers convenience).
There are, of course ways to make life more expensive, but even if you frequent Starbucks the prices are cheaper than the same drink in Europe. But if you know where to shop, a months worth of food can be financed on 100 kuai – or 10 euros. (Again, I round a little, for convenience. The above prices are generally given in euros, as it is about a 10/1 conversion. Add 20% for a USD).
If you want to buy western products and live off western style food, it will be more expensive, naturally, but not necessarily that much more than a typical allowance in the states. Western products can often be twice the price as the same item found in europe or the US, but if you can use a local brand, life turns out to be quite cheap – and those indulgences that make life sweeter. You can eat dinner at a nice restaurant for $20, where the same meal could easily be 50 bucks back home.
If you hand a 100 Kuai (~10 euro) note over at a grocery store, the cashier will sometimes check up to 3 marks of qualification to make sure of its legitimacy. The note won’t even be excepted, but with some grumbling, by a taxi driver in the later hours of the evening (the 100 RMB note is the most commonly counterfeit bill).
An interesting situation arises when you start to become more familiar with the currency. As a merchant one would never look twice at a $20 note in the US – it’s too small for counterfeiters to make a meaningful profit on, and is relatively safe from that perspective. Twenty bucks is still a small enough currency to be quite missed, but not mourned, were it to be lost (depending, of course, one one’s own salary). Comparatively, a 100 RMB is 1/10th the yearly salary of a well positioned professional Chinese, in a western company.
When I think about this, I begin to feel a bit differently about the note than just its immediate conversion value. I value a 20 dollar bill, and am sorry when it’s gone, but this is a larger amount of money than a 100 Kuai, and the 100 Kuai seems even more important.
It’s similar to when you learn a second language – at a certain point you stop translating words literally, and begin to have a feel for them in their own right. You stop using equivalence in your head, (“Ein bisschien = a little”) but start to feel the meaning of the word in its own language. I no doubt have a deflated sense of worth for the RMB than most Chinese, but I have started to notice a valuation of the money in it’s own right, separate from that of its USD equivalency.
Before I leave this note, I realize I should be more specific in the words I use for Chinese currency. Kuai is the local Chinese measure word for ‘a dollar’ (“Ni you liang kuai ma” = “Do you have 2 RMB”), however the official term is the Yuan, and the more ‘financial’ term is the RMB (short for Renmenbi). Kaui = dollar, mao = dime, etc.