Stories about Money and People

by on Tuesday, 26 February 2013 Comments

I should be the last person to want to write about money. Growing up in China during the waning years of Mao's reign, I thought happiness, or lack of misery, was when we did not need to think about it. To this day I still believe that wisdom consists of spending just enough time taking care of money matters so that we can free our mind from it the rest of the time. It is also wise to avoid the topic unless you are endowed with Benjamin Franklin's ease and wit. But then no matter where you hide yourself (such as in academia), how hard you try to turn a blind eye, at some point a thought creeps into your mind: money has permeated all aspects of human relationships. Workers, no matter how hard-working how talented, have become costs to be shifted, reduced or eliminated by the (job) creators with capital. The well-intentioned slogan of "the customer is king (God)" has perversely become an excuse for some "paying customers" to behave rudely, without necessarily realizing that the real king (God) is not them, but money. In some corrupted and money-worshiping societies, more and more human interactions are "translated" into monetary transactions. In such societies, incivility has increasingly become a common occurrence, because why would people bother to be polite unless they are, or expect to be rewarded with money, or its equivalents. Faced with such an invisible, dehumanizing force, I would like to attempt a contrary, almost quixotic act: to shed some light on the complex fabric of human relations interwoven with our money stories, which are seldom purely about money; they are almost always and sometimes foremost, about people.

One of my earliest money stories involves my best friend from high school. On my way back to Peking University after my first winter break in the early eighties, my train ticket and my student ID were stolen in Chengdu, because I committed the stupidity of putting them in my coat pocket. I had to buy another ticket, at full price, and had so little money left when I arrived at Beijing that I spent the entire month eating rice or steamed buns with salted preserved vegetables. Later, when I incidentally shared my unfortunate story with my friend, she was very upset that I had not written to her, because she would have reduced my misery by sharing part of her monthly stipend; by not even informing her, I denied her the opportunity to show how much she cared about me and at the same time signaled, due to the reciprocity of Chinese culture, that I would not do for her what she would have done for me. Her reaction made me wonder if maybe my self-abnegation actually reflected my selfishness, or maybe there exists a difference between what we would gladly do for others and what we can comfortably expect from them. I accepted her blame as her caring expression. By now the memory of my one-month hardship has long faded but she has remained a friend.

At Peking University, Michel Gauthier was a professor for both undergraduate and graduate studies. He taught a wide range of courses in French culture and literature, always including plentiful digressions, which offered glimpses of insights into French way of life and cultural reflexes. I learned how to write academic papers in French by working on my Master's thesis under his direction. We left China almost at the same time: he went back to Paris and I went to Boston College. During my years as a poor PhD candidate and beginning assistant professor in the USA, he hosted me on several occasions for two weeks at a time, until he passed away in 2002. It is important to note that the French are much more likely to host their friends than Americans. In fact, the finer points of French culture I absorbed during my stays with him through conversations and observations constitute an invaluable part of my apprentissage. Among Chinese friends, those who host usually pay for everything, and visitors are expected to bring appropriate presents; reciprocity is achieved when roles are reversed. This arrangement would not have worked as I went to Paris frequently and he was by then too old to contemplate trips outside of France. Michel would not let me pay for any restaurant meals either, which I do for my other French hosts, because he was an old-fashioned gentleman in that regard. Since I knew his favorite brands, I managed to buy groceries for him sometimes as a small gesture to show my appreciation. There was no way to make the situation "fair" financially. Like water that flows naturally to lower lands, in a true friendship, those who have the ability tend to contribute more, and reciprocity may be approximated when people genuinely enjoy each other's presence and give each other the best they have. In some circumstances, in a humbling way, we simply have to honestly recognize our debt, of which money is only a small part. This recognition may constitute our ultimate effort towards reciprocity.

I met Magali in China in 1987 when I was a graduate student and worked in summer as a tour guide for French tourists, an accompagnatrice who traveled with the group for the entire trip, which is different from local guides. We stayed in five-star hotels, had our meals with the group, and made less than 5 RMB per day. Young female guides sometimes received late night phone calls from mysterious personnel checking if we were alone. No matter how late we came back from sightseeing, the French would always insist on having some drinks, their sacred aperitif, in hotel bars before dinner. Each of those drinks cost at least 5 RMB, which explained why I always found a way to disappear during that time. It was the first group I accompanied and except for being a competent interpreter I knew very little about tourism service, but most people did not seem to mind. While the local guides delivered authoritative information about the cities and the sites we visited, the tourists asked me all kinds of questions about life in China, as if I were literally its embodiment. Magali and I liked each other right away, and within a few days she had shown me her fiancé's picture, let me know how nice he was, how they met, how many times her monthly salary the trip cost, etc. In White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou, their final destination, instead of accepting my excuse, she insisted on asking me to join them for aperitif and offered to buy me a drink:

- Tu me feras plaisir.

I liked the idea and the expression. By drawing my attention to her pleasure, she showed me how I could reciprocate. We remain friends to this day, through many visits and trips together, mostly in France, and recently in my home, followed by two weeks in California and a series of national parks. The more things we do with our friends, the harder it is to avoid dealing with money-related issues, but the most important part to remember is why we get together to begin with. The underlying principle of reciprocity manifests itself in various ways across cultures and evolves with time. Those of us who live in "multiple worlds" sometimes have a difficult time assessing which sets of rules to apply in each given situation: you need to figure out who you are with, their cultural reflexes; if they have lived in different countries at different times, which country's rules at which time they currently follow; how to be generous without appearing condescending, taking into account personal situation and susceptibility... I prefer to be flexible and spontaneous: if we enjoy someone's company, we do not need to do careful calculations and split things exactly down to the middle. Some rough estimations of turn taking or division should be enough. Of course, I respect people who need to do calculations, which is probably the most practical way in some cases.

Due to the wide disparity of our social situations, true reciprocity does not necessarily mean equal amount of money. The quintessentially Chinese book "The Dream of the Red Chamber" contains an emblematic story. Zhen Shiyin, a country gentleman, had a new neighbor, Jia Yucun, an impoverished scholar from an old aristocratic family. Zhen intended to help Jia but did not find the opportunity until one beautiful moonlight night at the Mid-Autumn Festival. They spent the evening doing what traditional Chinese scholars enjoyed the most: drinking, conversing, composing and reciting poems inspired by the moon... Zhen appreciated Jia's talent and ambition as revealed in his poem. When he found out Jia needed money to travel to Beijing for the Imperial Examination, he eagerly seized the occasion to offer him money and two sets of clothes. Based on traditional Chinese ethics, the most important component of Jia's debt towards Zhen was the "debt of gratitude", contracted when a person's merit was recognized by someone in a position to offer help (zhi yu zhi en), never to be forgotten. Chinese novels and folktales are full of similar stories of "generously opening one's purse", based on needs, between people with congenial minds and mutual appreciation. It does not include the expectation of returning the money but carries numerous implicit understandings, of which Zhen mentioned the desire to see each other again, "what a delightful thing!". However, Jia, who succeeded in his examination and became a government official, did not make any attempt to be reunited with his benefactor. Meanwhile, Zhen renounced the world to be a Taoist monk after enduring great misfortune due to the abduction of his only daughter and a fire that destroyed his entire estate. When Jia chanced upon Mrs. Zhen's family, the amount of money he sent to them far exceeded Zhen's original gift. If this were a financial transaction, Jia would be a blameless man, but stories about money and people are always more complex... When Jia had the opportunity to rescue Zhen's daughter, he did not want to risk offending a powerful family and looked the other way. Jia's excessive ambition foreshadowed that he would fail the test of friendship, as his name suggests, phonetically, fakeness.

Having lived in the U.S. for more than twenty years, I cannot possibly end my rambling without adding a somewhat optimistic note. A few years ago, when my daughter Lydia was about 10 years old, she spent three weeks in Shanghai with my sister-in-law's family, who enrolled her in a summer camp with children from the Great Britain and Shanghai. The day the camp went to the Old City God Temple, the children were allowed to shop. Lydia told all the shop owners, in Chinese of course: "Uncle (auntie), I came from the United States of America, and need to buy presents for my friends. Would you please give me good prices? Thank you!" Now it is no secret that street sellers tend to rip off tourists, not to say those from foreign countries. Apparently all the Shanghainese children knew that, and one of them told my sister-in-law about it. I could imagine all of them laughing, splitting their sides. My sister-in-law was still laughing when she told me the story, but assured me that, amazingly, based on Lydia's purchases and receipts, all the prices were quite reasonable. Perhaps the merchants cared about their international reputation, but I would rather believe, or hope that, on a human level, it was simply too difficult to rip off a sweet and innocent little girl who addressed them so politely, and decency can overcome greed.

Illustration by Bendu

Jin Lu (魯進)

Born in Sichuan, China, I have studied French literature in Beijing, Boston, and Paris. I am currently a professor of French at Purdue University Calumet, USA. Joséphine Baker has two loves; I have three, or perhaps more? If you do not want to tear yourself apart, you need at least three things, and that gives you balance. I enjoy dreaming, reading and writing, among others.

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