Understanding, Answering and Dodging Money Questions When Working in China

Understanding, Answering and Dodging Money Questions When Working in China
May 22, 2018 By Daniel McCool , eChinacities.com

It's no wonder Chinese people talk so much about money. If you're a foreigner working in China, however, constant questions about your salary and your rent may be jarring and annoying to deal with. If you're bothered by China's obsession with money talk, how can you respond?

Before labeling Chinese people as materialistic, I recommend we first attempt to understand where they come from, both historically and culturally. In this article I will take a look at why Chinese people talk about money so much and how to answer and/or dodge this kind of embarrassing, probing questions.


Historical context

China is regarded as one of the first civilizations to standardize currency and, thanks to block-printing dating back to the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), the first to use bank notes.

Money is very much a part of the country's ancient history, but has become especially important in more recent times. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Chinese goods were in high demand, resulting in European silver pouring into China. To counter the trade imbalance, the British East India Company began selling opium in exchange for silver, eventually draining China of its currency. This naturally did nothing to help the Qing dynasty (1644-1912 CE) at a time when it was facing civil unrest, with the ultimate result being the dissolving of 2,000 years of Chinese imperialism.

Even more recently, China's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) saw consumerism stamped out, food scarcity and other untold hardships.


Modern-day China

China has since fought its way back from its monetary troubles and now has a strong GDP, second only to the United States. Despite this impressive accomplishment, the wealth gap between urban and rural people is growing. In many parts of China, BMWs can be seen driving past people selling baked potatoes and candy from the curbside.

Money is, of course, the vehicle that people use to deliver themselves out of poverty, and is therefore viewed as the “solver-of-problems”. Although the country is now financially strong, personal financial security is far from absolute.

Chinese youngsters often complain that their parents push them towards lucrative careers, such as those in business, finance and medicine, regardless of the child's personal interest. Chinese parents are notorious for this, but it's understandable that they would want their child to earn a decent living, especially as they expect to be looked after by their offspring in old age. Their relatively privileged children care less about money, having never lived through hardship like their parents' generation.

Generally speaking, Chinese people are incredibly financially independent and renowned as great savers. As there is a lack of social welfare in the country, citizens tend to save rainy-day funds for future uncertainties.

There's also a history of distrust of the banks, with some people storing money at home or buying apartments as alternatives to keeping their savings behind a vault. An understandable fear of losing what they have accompanies the people as their disposable income grows.


Displaying wealth

As spending power increases, many Chinese people are now able to display their wealth in a way they could never do before, with designer clothes, fancy cars and expensive products all dutifully posted to social media. In China, as in most countries, wealth is synonymous with status.

Salary or spending power seems to represent a person's skill, ability, experience and value, making money an integral symbol in China's meritocracy. People who work hard and long hours are first in line for promotions, which leads to a higher salary, which in turn means more spending power.

Showing off your wealth is an easy way to exhibit your worth to others. Such actions are admired in China, rather than frowned upon, as they might be in the West.


Money questions

“How much does it cost?” “How much did you pay?”“How much do you earn?” These are common money questions your might be asked as a foreigner working in China.

When asked about my rent, my answer is usually followed either by “too expensive” or “so cheap”, without me answering any more questions about the apartment itself. The same applies to discussing salary, with conclusions made about its suitability without any word on my responsibilities, career opportunities or benefits.

It seems that price and salary are the absolute indicators of value and worth, with all other considerations being superfluous and irrelevant. It's as if the bottom line is all that's worth knowing.

Unlike in other cultures, salary is not a private matter in China and has a common place in social discourse. If a young woman wants to introduce her boyfriend to her parents, the likely first questions they will ask are: “What's his job?”, “How much does he make?”, and “What's his father's job?”

Foreigners living and working in China often find themselves talking with Chinese people about matters of money. I can't count how many times a taxi driver has asked me how much I make.

Perhaps talking about salary is the easiest conversation starter, or maybe people are just genuinely curious. Locals will naturally wonder why we would leave our ‘lavish' countries to live and work in China, and so they assume our salaries must be sky high.

Whatever the reason, Chinese and foreigners undeniably have different views about privacy and where the boundaries lie in terms of talking about money.


Money answers

If someone asks about your salary and you don't want to answer, just say, “Sorry, we don't like to talk about these things,” (Bù hǎoyìsi, wǒmen bù shuō zhèxiē shìqíng - 不好意思,我们不说这些事情) or, “Please don't ask me these questions” (Qǐng bù yào wèn wǒ zhèxiē wèntí - 请不要问我这些问题). This may seem very direct, but Chinese people are direct and it's unlikely they'll be offended.

Sometimes I try to skirt the question with,“Not much” (Bù duō - 不多), while my friend likes to fire back with, “How much money do you have in the bank?” (Nǐ de yínháng zhànghù yǒu duōshǎo qián - 你的银行账户有多少钱). Even for Chinese people this tends to cross a boundary of privacy, and your questioner will likely back off.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to simply answer questions about money directly. If someone asks your rent, tell them; if someone asks about your salary, tell them. If you're a foreigner your salary will likely be much higher than the average Chinese salary. Why not answer truthfully and win some respect? While we might find it embarrassing to display our wealth in the West, in China it's expected.

Final Thoughts

It may seem to newcomers that Chinese people are obsessed with money and prices, but I wonder if our foreign perspective is unrealistic and old fashioned.

My mother grew up with 12 siblings and her parents had difficulty providing for everyone, with the children sharing beds and not able to eat their fill every mealtime. It is no surprise that when many of my aunts and uncles grew up, they wanted to provide the best for their own children. It that really so different from what we see in China today?

I suggest we join the Chinese in celebrating the economic growth this country is experiencing and become much less precious about talking about money. After all, money is probably why we're here in the first place.

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Keywords: Working in China


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money talks

Apr 10, 2019 17:20 Report Abuse



"dissolving imperialism"? nice idea, too bad it'll never happen

Jun 05, 2018 17:43 Report Abuse



In China, just like everywhere else, money talks and truth walks. Just happens that Chinese are willing to admit it

Jun 05, 2018 17:41 Report Abuse



viki,Yawn... Spending 25K without proper research. Your the Fool! (Again, LOL)

May 23, 2018 07:50 Report Abuse



You are right, very stupid mistake, But contract is signed and deposit is paid. Too late to withdraw. I'll try to be smarter for mangaing my hard earned money. There are plenty of websites support site building and the hosting and domain cost are cheap. I will not pay 6000+1800rmb on site mainetance and hosting to my designer. I'll maintain my site by myself. But your reply has nothing to do with this article, if you want to talk with me, pm me.

May 23, 2018 12:53 Report Abuse



I really think as a startup, one person should be realistic and try to learn to do most of the work.iwolf said I better not spend time on learning thos thigns but I disagree, as a business owner, you least know how to deal many things, not nee dto be expert on a lot of unimportantant thing but should have some knowledge.

May 23, 2018 12:57 Report Abuse



Now I get the feeling that I went to gambline that lost a lot of money. My client is talking about giving me 2000pcs repeated order, I hope I get it. It will least make me feel better.

May 23, 2018 13:12 Report Abuse



If someone asks about your salary and you don't want to answer, just say, “Sorry, we don't like to talk about these things,” (Bù hǎoyìsi, wǒmen bù shuō zhèxiē shìqíng - 不好意思,我们不说这些事情) or, “Please don't ask me these questions” (Qǐng bù yào wèn wǒ zhèxiē wèntí - 请不要问我这些问题). This may seem very direct, but Chinese people are direct and it's unlikely they'll be offended. No, they will go around to talk bad about you. That is what I told them and they Kept saying bad name about me. Most Chinese allow themselves to cross line but not allow others to refuse answer their money question. If you are working with them, if you say that, you won't be surprised that you are isolated one day. They can torelate you to say no because you are a foreigner. They think I'm Chinese and I should not keep privacy, lol, foolish as hell. One girl used to work with me saying that I should hold the same value with Chinese because I'm Chinese, otherwise that I'm a betrayal.

May 23, 2018 01:46 Report Abuse