This last weekend, I learned an incredible lesson that I will never forget and will likely affect my thinking on wealth forever. I was invited to our housekeeper, Luo’s house. She asked Tenille why we kept inviting people to our home. Tenille answered that is what we do with our friends. The following week, she invited us to her home.
Luo has been wonderful for our family. She is one of two native Chinese people that we have grown very close to during our stay in China. She has earned our trust with our kids, our most valued treasures, and our kids very much love Luo. So, when we got this invitation to her home, we were excited to see how she lives. She told us that she has a computer at home. I assumed from that, that she probably lived in a lower end apartment complex.
They live near the American Embassy. Around the East side of the embassy, we walked by strips of buildings that were being torn down by construction machines. Apparently, at the request of the American embassy. Then we got to the end of the asphalt and continued on a dirt road into a complex made entirely of brick. We walked past very loud speakers blaring music. Luo told us that the music sometimes plays until midnight, and people dance in the street. Seemed like a happy place to be. The roads quickly narrowed that a car could not fit through them. There were a lot of people walking about and some people riding bikes through the narrow corridor. She pointed at a small concrete box-looking building and said that was the shared toilet. Luo said many houses don’t have a bathroom so the bathroom is overused and stinky.
She turned a corner through a gate, and pointed to a doorway and told us, this is my house. She had warned Tenille that we had probably never seen anything like her apartment, and she was right. The doorway had strings hanging down to serve as a summer door. The house was little more than a room. The concrete floor does not change from outside to inside. It was perhaps around the same size as our storage shed in Bothell – maybe 12 x 8 feet. It was divided into two spaces – one for the parents, and one for their 9 year old daughter.
In the daughter’s space, there was a small bed (smaller than a twin.) There was a small shelf with two bins of food supplies. Luo said she keeps packets of milk and a little bit of bread and jam on hand for her daughter to snack on. Otherwise, she buys her food on the street or at markets on a daily basis. There was a rice cooker and a water machine. There was a fan and a computer on a small computer desk.
Tenille later admitted that she couldn’t believe how poor her circumstances were, and it made her very sad. She was fighting back the tears and covered up her emotions with compliments and understanding. Luo was quite happy to show us around.
In the parent’s area, you could only walk on one side of the bed. The other 3 sides were touching a wall. On the open side of the bed, there was a TV. Some clothes hung above the bed. Apparently, there were pictures over the walls, but Luo had ripped them down to clean it up for our visit. I think she had meant to put something else up, but we came earlier than she expected, so she apologized that it looked so messy.
Her daughter was very polite and welcoming and instantly started taking care of Caleb. She offered him some juice. It was some Chinese equivalent of Tang and she had mixed it herself. I had some sanitation concerns, but I felt it was more important to be gracious. Caleb tried it and enjoyed it. They had two apricots and a cherry. Luo offered it all to Caleb. He ate the cherry.
They had a fan in each area, but the one in the parent’s area was broken. Luo showed us a window in her daughter’s area that she had punched two holes in. She said it’s for the winter. They burn charcoal in a tin can to keep warm, and they need ventilation. The winters in Beijing are nothing like Seattle. It gets frigid cold like in Salt Lake or Boston. Her daughter sleeps together with them during the winters.
Luo’s husband came home. He greeted us enthusiastically and welcomed us. He didn’t speak any English, so it was a bit tough to communicate.
Then Luo and her husband offered me a tie as a gift. I had mailed a package for her in the United States a few weeks ago when I was back in the States. She had asked how much I had to pay, but I told her that it wasn’t a big deal as the amount was trivial. The tie was a thank you for that. Tenille gave her some indoor slippers and some chocolate.
Right outside their door was a a makeshift table with what looked like an old portable gas burner. It had a wok on top. When you look out into the courtyard, every family seemed to have this arrangement. The courtyard was about 20 feet by 20 feet and there was a lot of activity among the 8 other families that lived in this compound. The compound was two stories and surrounded the courtyard. There was one communal faucet in the courtyard where a man was washing his chicken legs. One lady was washing her hair in a bucket. One man was cooking his chicken in his wok/burner setup. Many of the women came up to us and were welcoming to the kids. Some people asked Luo why she brought us here. I think implied was the question, "aren’t you embarrassed?" Luo told us straight out that she was not embarrassed, but wanted to show us how she lives and thought that it was something we wouldn’t normally get a chance to see. She told us that the rent including all the utilities is about 400 kuai per month ($60).
Then we went outside the courtyard and took a walk through her neighborhood. There was a main strip of retail activity along a dirt path. People were selling food, live chickens, toys, plastic buckets, and whatever else is necessary for everyday life in this neighborhood. It was about 100 meters long. Luo said she knew or at least recognized most of the people in the neighborhood. On our way back, we saw a lady cut a live chicken and put it in a pot. Maybe it’s to let the blood drain?
Then, we met her husband on the road and went out to the main street to catch a cab. Andrew and I went in a cab with Luo’s husband and their daughter. Tenille went with Caleb and Luo. In the cab, I talked with Luo’s daughter who was quite good with English and wasn’t as shy about using it. She loves all her subjects at school and likes to read books and play basketball with her friends. I told her my favorite food was chicken wings. (This is the extent of my survival Chinese.) I tried to pay for the cab fare, but Luo’s husband would not let me. He quickly handed the driver a 100, and that was that.
We got to the restaurant and Tenille was already there. When we sat down, I noticed it was a restaurant called Guolin which my coworker had recommended to me as good and affordable. Luo was very concerned about everything – the table being near too many people, thus being too noisy, too much smoking, the food being spicy, the glasses not being clean enough, making sure we ordered food that we like, etc. She was so concerned about being a perfect hostess. We were all very touched by her thoughtfulness and reassured her over and over that everything was just fine. Luo was very concerned that the food would not be suitable for Tenille because a lot of it was spicy. We reassured her again and again that it would be fine, and we ate at restaurants like this all the time. She kept insisting that we go to a more western friendly restaurant. After several minutes of back and forth, we finally convinced her that we could stay.
They insisted that we order, and I ordered 3 or 4 dishes that Tenille would like and were affordable. Then they ordered. We asked them to order things they like, but they kept asking what Tenille would like. They ended up ordering a duck, fried mutton, and shrimp. All very expensive (relatively). At this point, I was sincerely hoping that we could pay for dinner. It was way too much food, and there was considerable leftovers. When we were done, I asked for the waitress and asked for the bill. We found out that Luo had already paid for the dinner. She said that I worked too hard, and she wanted an opportunity to take us out to dinner. This was at least a 200 RMB meal. Honestly, it’s probably a bill that Tenille and I are accustomed to paying. But, for Luo’s family, this is half of their monthly rent. If I were to pay for a meal that cost half of our rent, it would be a $600 meal. I can’t remember doing that for anyone.
After the meal, they put us in a cab, and Tenille and I had a moment to reflect. Of all of our time in China, this was probably our biggest lesson in unfairness. We felt embarrassed, in some ways ashamed. We reflected back to how often we have referred to our apartment as small. We’ve seen people living in caves and small dwellings, but somehow it was different to see someone we considered our friend living in those meager conditions. There were two big lessons that we took away from the experience.
Our immediate reaction was how can we help them. But perhaps there in lies our own problem and a lesson for us. Luo will get a bonus from us for the wonderful work she has done with our family, but this experience has probably taught us something much more important and valuable about wealth. I’m not talking about the fluffy stuff about being wealthy in non-monetary things… like love in the home, health, and all that stuff. That’s important, too – but I’m talking about true monetary wealth and how it should be measured.
There are a few ways that people measure wealth:
1. A person’s lifestyle
This is the way most Americans measure wealth. Many Americans have a negative savings rate. They are spending more than they bring in. But, they are living a wealthy lifestyle with their iPhones and living in homes that their incomes can not sustain. This is the most visible measure of wealth, although more often than not, it can not be sustained for long periods of time without dire consequences.
2. A person’s net worth
This is how I’ve always measured wealth. The bigger your net worth, the wealthier you are. Many that are financially savvy tend to measure wealth this way also. Wikipedia defines wealth as net worth.
So, the odd thing is that I look at how Luo is living and realize that I’m incredibly wealthy comparatively with respect to net worth. Then how come we don’t feel incredibly wealthy? I was offered the following definition of wealth which very much resonated with me.
3. A person’s net worth divided by their expenditure to support an acceptable lifestyle
If I thought that living Luo’s lifestyle was acceptable for me and my family, I would truly be incredibly wealthy. I could likely sustain that life style merely on the interest I earn every year. That’s wealthy. The irony is that using this measure of wealth the more modest we choose to live our lives, the wealthier we become. Another way to say this is, how long can you go living your acceptable lifestyle on your assets before you run out of money. If your answer is forever, you’re done.
I’ve always thought that I needed a higher paying job to become rich. The funny thing is, I can just become rich by being happy with less (and convincing my wife likewise). [That last note was an AND not an OR] I can become REALLY rich by being happy with VERY little. Conversely, you can be very poor by never being satisfied with what you’ve got.
In our church, this message is drilled into us constantly through counsel to live modestly and within our means. However, in the thick of the battle, it’s often difficult not to compare with the neighbors and make purchases, vacation plans, etc, that seem in line with what our peers are doing. This quick visit to our good friend’s home was a life changer. We can obviously live on a lot less and be perfectly happy.
It has sparked a discussion about what we can get down to, and what is non-negotiable. For me, healthcare and my children’s education are non-negotiable. Providing these things in the United States does put a high bottom on how low we can go. But, it has sparked good discussion on everything else. For instance, I’m very much willing to change my eating out habits so that I can be filthy rich.
The second lesson we learned is about kindness and generosity. In some ways, I am reminded of the story of the widows mite. Luo doesn’t have much, but she just about gave us her all as she hosted us. And you could tell she cared for us and loved us with everything she did and said. She has set a bar that almost seems impossible in terms of expressing her generosity and friendship toward us. Tenille and I were later thinking, “what would we have to do, to match what she just did for us?”
We can only pray that the experience will take seed in our own hearts, that we may emulate her kindness and generosity throughout our own lives – to her and others we befriend along the way.