Save. Spend. Splurge.

Travel: What it’s like to visit China – Economy and Standards of Living

This is part of the Travel: What it’s like to visit each city series I’m doing, to talk about what it’s like to see each city I’ve been through, from a foreigner’s perspective.



Everyone says that China is the next great superpower, and will be as strong as the U.S. in the future.

I agree with this partly because it is a country that just has a LOT OF PEOPLE.


By volume, is how you can make money in China.

Countries with a lot of people, tend to move faster, be more dynamic and grow quickly.

Look at the U.S. versus Canada — the U.S. has 313 million people in total.

Canada has 34 million. The U.S. is smaller than Canada, but most of our land is really not habitable for people who aren’t interested in living in colder climates, and we all tend to group and cluster near the U.S. border anyway.

It’s the same idea when you look at China. Everyone tells them that it is a fantastic superpower that is rich and growing every day, but they individually do not feel that.

Individually, the rather poor to semi-middle-class Chinese citizen feels like they’re working very hard and just getting by.


A cobbler at work on the street in his mobile “shop” talking to his wife who had just been to the market to buy food for lunch

Of course, they’re saving the most in the world at rates of 39% of their meager income (impressive!!!!), but they certainly don’t feel rich.


In China, the gap between the very, filthy rich and the poor is striking.

They have who I call “professional” beggars who just stand around in the middle of super rich neighbourhoods.

Rather striking beside guys in very nice designer suits, wouldn’t you say?



Then you see this, in front of malls. A beggar with everything he owns.


We saw half-a-million-dollar cars (or so BF tells me, as he has only seen a picture of one, but never in real life) parked in the poorest neighbourhoods beside homes that are basically shacks.

Plenty of people set up shop anywhere they can, to try and make a living:


Photograph of a grandmother and her granddaughter looking at us curiously and trying to hawk their wares

I suppose when Chinese citizens (the majority of whom are poor), see these fancy cars, they have no idea how much it costs (at first), but it is sure more than they could afford to even make in a lifetime.

Still, they are happy and smiling.

You see small glimpses of how the rich live, like this older Chinese woman dressed in very simple, but rich clothing being escorted in a black Cadillac to go to the bank:


Rich older Chinese woman is all in white. Guy in green is the assistant and bodyguard of sorts who accompanied her up the steps.

Driver stayed parked in the area without moving, probably risking a fine.

Some of you may never end up visiting China (by choice, or for other reasons), so I hope I can go through what I saw, felt, and observed while I was there for 2 weeks.

Then in contrast, you see how the rest of the population gets around, by using bicycles and public transportation.

They ride their bikes:


Dressed up older woman going to work. Full makeup, purple bow in the hair, shiny/glittery striped top, and heels.

Then they leave them at the metro stations, the way we’d do with cars here in Canada or in the U.S.:


A common sight at metro stations. 

And then they take the metro or buses to get to where they want:


Photograph of a Shanghai metro screen to buy tickets in Chinese. They also had an English option, thankfully.

It is INSANE in the mornings during rush hour, this doesn’t even show how mad-crazy it is.


… which is surprisingly modern inside.

More modern than the old subway trains of NYC, or even in Toronto (although we have cool new trains running up the Yonge-Eglinton line now!)

….and ridiculously clean.



Inside an extremely clean Shanghai metro.

They were also more polite on the trains in the sense that everyone is policed by each other.

A kid was playing with this annoying whistle on the train and a guy sitting beside the child turned to the mother and asked her to get her kid to stop playing with it (or at least that’s what I think he said based on his tone and facial expression).

The mother immediately took the whistle away and although the kid started crying, she didn’t give it back.


The slightly richer folk, are lucky and have motorcycles and not bicycles, which caused a lot of pollution.

The still-richer, take car taxis (or foreigners):


Taxis and cars in the richest business area in Shanghai

And the taxis for those with less money, are rickshaws:


Or their very handy multi-purpose carts:


The very richest have cars, varying by cost (Toyotas to Mercedes-Benz to Ferraris), and names of cars I am not familiar with, because I have never cared about them.

For instance, this Porsche Panamera Turbo, which I am sure runs in the range of $175,000+ as it is highly customized — just look at its rims!




In contrast, the average salary in USD for a Chinese citizen is this chart I created:

(source: China Daily; but I adjusted the final annual amounts because the monthly numbers didn’t add up to their annual salaries listed in their posted chart.)

So if you can imagine that someone is driving a car paid with disposable that is worth 19X what a normal citizen might make in a year for living, it kind of puts things into perspective.

Oh and ironically, the car was parked right by one of the poorest neighbourhoods I’ve seen in China:


To the very right you can see in the alleyway all of the recycling and garbage from a very poor area of town, and the white Porsche is almost right in that area.

Here’s the poor area with the recycling and garbage shown in that picture just down the street.


In general, Chinese people don’t feel rich, or at least, they don’t feel rich in the context of other middle-class Chinese folk, or the uber rich.

What you don’t see, is that her home faces the place where people dump their garbage, sewage, pee pots, and all the crap right outside of her door.


Kind of like this, or these people selling food right in front of recycling centers and disgusting garbage bins (that big metal thing he’s leaning up against on the floor):


Or this:


Their living standards for the majority of folks are below what we’d consider minimum standards of living in North America, but what can they do?

That’s the way it is while their government builds ghost cities.


  • Alexis

    I would agree with one of the comments above. They are quick to work so hard but I think they also need to focus on enjoying life! There is also a huge gap from the rich and the poor. A friend of mine is in China and talked about the many people that were living in poor conditions.

  • Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom

    I’ll be interested to read the rest of your posts in this series. The savings percentage on average was staggering for me to see. Thank you for showing what you really saw on your trip.

  • Chris Grande

    haven’t been to China but sounds exactly like my hard working friends describe it. Working their rears off but not making progress. Of course many years of holding the currency down means costs of things don’t get cheaper. During the rise of the US in the 20th century, the dollar was the standard and allowed citizens to buy global goods very cheap, especially commodities, which made up much of the cost of what people were buying – heavy steel cars, TVs, new houses, washing machines.

    All the Chinese can do is live meagerly and save 40% of their pay in those online trust accounts to earn interest (and some of those are blowing up on top of that). The yuan needs to strengthen so that people can enjoy things but of course the government won’t do that while China is manufacturing for the world. So the workers demand pay raises, strike, and wages go up and then big companies alternate to Vietnam, Cambodia and Africa for cheap labor.

    But that’s besides the point. Good job outlining the real life in China – not the glam NYC style life in Shanghai.

    • save. spend. splurge.

      I don’t think people realize what life is really like there unless they visit, they think the Chinese are making a ton and are super rich because they make everything there as depicted in those sensationalist media-fueled stories but in actuality the majority of folks are far poorer than that.

      No one lives the good life easily there is a big gap between the rich and poor. Much more extreme than we think.

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