Simple Privilege and Missed Opportunity

As most of you know, I married the daughter of a powerful provincial official.

How powerful?  Powerful enough to be seen on CCTV meeting with Zhu Rongji.

“Well he must be rich”!, you are probably thinking to yourself.  All the power, money and privilege at his disposal!   Not at all.   My father in law was an official from the 70’s, ie not corrupt at all.    

You could say I married into China’s Elite at the wrong time.  The very wrong time.   Timing is everything, in Everything.  If I’d married a generation later, I’d probably be marrying a woman with multiple houses in both China and America.   And a bank account in Switzerland.

My wife has the same problem. If she had married a Chinese, rather than a poor American boy like myself, she likes to remind me, she’d have several luxury cars by now, massive piles of cash from tax evasion, etc.

I remind her, her Chinese husband would prob be in jail. (As China has exploded in wealth and opportunity for the select few, I do admit it's tough on my wife to think back abt what could've been.  To her benefit, hers was the last generation to get free college tuition.  Still, it's hard on the husband laowai as well.   Marrying a laowai and going abroad meant she missed out on all of the opportunity that took place in China.)

The definition of Power, Prestige and Influence in China in the 80’s and 90’s was not based on money.  Literally nobody had any.   The disparity of wealth in Chinese society at that time was nearly nonexistent. I didn’t see my first BMW in China until 1991.  And that was in Guangzhou.  The owner of the BMW was the local private school.   I remember walking by the driver as he standed outside the car, gawking at me.   I told him a school had no business buying a luxury German car.  He just smiled and uttered something silly.

So let’s talk abt how the powerful differentiated themselves in the China cities, before the Rat Race took off.

Let’s look at my wife.  From early on in her childhood, she had special privileges, Chinese style.  How so? 

For one, her grandmother had the key to the neighborhoods only TV.  As most of us that have lived in China know, it was no strange phenomena to see a group of 20-30 people crowding onto a sidewalk to watch TV.    You can still see vestiges of this tradition today, in the public squares, when an important event takes place.  A large TV will be brought out and a crowd will gather.  Usu for a political or sports event.  Look for it the next time an important official passes away.  TV’s will be everywhere. 
On evenings she would push the cabinet with the TV out into the courtyard and everyone would come out to watch.   How can one not develop a sense of entitlement from this!  This of course(tongue in cheek) afforded my wife’s family great prestige and power!!!

But nothing compared to the regulation of the water well.  Mind you, this is 1970’s China.  In the City.  Not the countryside.   Each day only one bucket of water was allowed to be pulled up by each family.  Each family had to “sign in” for their bucket of water.  This was China pre Rat Race, remember?  The Honor System was used.  And sure enough, my wive’s family felt some hukou were not following the rules!  What was my wive’s job?   Her sole responsibility as a child was to sit by the damn water well, ensuring everyone wrote their name on the paper as they took away their rationed one bucket of water. 

Think about that….just one bucket of water….to bathe, to brush ones teeth, to wash dishes…..being in control of managing the neighborhood water well thus afforded one great Power and Influence!
The easiest way of course to know who was who is where one lived.   This is probably the most important.  If everyone in the same city all had nothing but a bicycle, one could still differentiate who was who simply by where they lived.  Location, location, etc.  In China, all the officials in ancient times(ie up to the mid 90’s) were congregated in the same part of the city.

Let’s use Hangzhou as an example.  The traditional center of the city in Hangzhou is of course West 
Lake.   And guess where the officials lived?  Near the lake of course!  The nearer the lake one lived, the higher ones status.   Simple.   As for my wife?  Well, she lived abt a 7 minute walk away from the lake.  Simply walk out into the alleyway, turn right towards the intersection, cross the street and simple as that, she was at the lake. 

Complete strangers, or mere acquaintances could tell of her family’s prestige within Hangzhou by simply asking where she lived.  Nevermind she had a rusty bike, and often took the bus.   Her father worked maybe 10 minutes away.   All we need to know is it too, was near the lake and had guards out front.  

But what did she live in?  She lived in a simple, plain very nondescript concrete  aprt building that was 7 stories tall.  She lived on the 5th floor.   There was no elevator.  Think about it.   The Chinese had no cars, biked everywhere, and no one had an elevator.   Combine that with fish and veggies everyday…..(funny thing today, with all the cars, fast food restaurant, fatty food and no one rides a bike nowadays…and wala….everyone is suddenly fat)

She lived in a 3 bedroom aprt with one bathroom and a kitchen.  There was no dining room.  The dinner was eaten in the living room.  A foldup round table was kept in the living room, which really wasn’t much but  maybe a 10 by 15 foot room, with a TV in the corner.   However, my wife’s aprt had two things hardly anyone else had:

A western style toilet and a phone.  An actual phone!  Oh yeah…and a hot water heater in the bathroom. (folks will remember from my China 1990 Post Part 1 what a luxury that was)
I very much depended upon the Western style toilet (though I tend to believe now that the Eastern style toilets really are more hygienic).   The toilet paper may as well been sandpaper though. 
My wife’s phone was the first phone I’d seen in a Chinese citizens house.  And it rang.  Having an actual phone line in one’s house was probably the truest sign of prestige at that time in China.  Fortunately for China, the mobile phone came of Age and China was able to skip a whole generation of investment.   I would always wonder what to think when the phone actually rang.  “Who else had one”, I would wonder…..(other gov’t officials of course!)

One could also tell of my wife’s status by her sense of entitlement.  Even then, I was shocked at the outright condescension the city people had of the countryfolk.   It was a serious, outright dislike.  Palpable arrogance.  It was something I’d never seen before.  Every society likes to mock the differences within their own country of the city and countryfolk, but it’s mostly in jest, isn’t it?
This air of superiority also carried over a bit in how they treated others.  While my wife was modest enough to go see the movies with her temporary ayi, she had no problem arguing with police officials. 

Yes, I know, Chinese argue with everybody, and maybe I’m reading a bit too much into this, but one night my wife was riding back from the movies with her ayi.  Her ayi was on the back of her bicycle.  
This was prohibited in the city, and an earnest traffic cop on the road promptly fined her the astonishing amount of …..15 yuan. 

Rather than copping a plea, she chose to sit there for several minutes arguing with the poor cop that was just doing his job.   This was 1992. 

Meeting my wives parents, mingling with them, was culturally entertaining in itself.
My wife’s parents hated each other.  Her dad was a handsome fellow and her mom equally attractive.  Yet like most couples from the 60’s their marriage was arranged.   They had one child.  My wife.  Why not another?  Only a few years after their marriage my mother in law realized she and her husband were not compatible and thus just not meant to be.   So the babies stopped.   Her mom even had an abortion.  

My wife is like most Chinese;  never seen their parents hug.  Never seen any PDA.  Never heard her dad say to her mom “I love you”.   Things of that sort.  My wife was never hugged as a child.  And that’s the norm, not the exception.    All Chinese up through their 40’s have grown up this way.   This is another reason why I think the imbalance between IQ and EQ is so stark amongst the Chinese today.

It didn’t help my wife that she was brought up by her grandmother, ie lived with her.   Her mom had a dorm room at school…ie she was a Teacher.  Her father lived at the factory(he was the factory mgr).   she rarely saw her parents and did not live with both of them until her high school years.   I’ve often wondered how this could emotionally effect a child?

So I was a bit surprised to see my wife’s parents though sleeping on the same bed,  have their own separate blankets, whilst sleeping at the foot of each other.   I thought it amusing at first.  Now I think it sad.  To be trapped in a marriage without love, nor any prospects for happiness.  Love is the basis of happiness.  Not to lecture, but when in love ones worries just don’t seem….that important.   Cares drift.  And yet I truly believe the majority of older Chinese couples feel the same way as my inlaws.
(How could a society that likes to argue so much, be so opinionated, not have a high divorce rate?  )

My wife’s parents have taken full advantage of their positions.  They have a combined monthly retirement income of 10,000 rmb.   They have full access to my father in laws Cadre privileges.  As a high provincial official, he has free access to a cafeteria.  He need not cook.   He has a monthly cash card of 2000 rmb, that most restaurants in Hangzhou accept.   This means he can eat free upwards of 2000 rmb every month, if he so chooses.   There is a restaurant near their present day aprt, maybe 5 minute walk from the gate.  Fantastic food.   It takes the “Cadre Card”.

He gets free bags of rice, as well as fruit and beer. (as you can tell, he too, retired a generation too early.  If he’d only been 10 years younger, he could have had the opportunity to flee with suitcases of money like many another officials did as well.  Alas, my father in law in my view, and I’m bias, has always been an honest man.)

He goes on free excursions paid by the State. (with his wife of course, who is the more frequent user of the Cadre Card)  In short, his life is swell.   Why would he want to stay in the States? 
They share a 170 sq meter aprt that has tripled in value.  It is not as near Westlake as it used to be, but the uptick in value has made them more than comfortable.  It is in my wife’s name, and someday will be given to our daughters.  They don’t know it yet, but if they so choose, they will both be able to live without being financially dependent upon a MAN.

So back to our story of the apartment:  my wife’s parents were quite frankly worried that the government would raze their original apartment right off the lake, and kick them out.   They didn’t want to lose that location.   The government decided to sell the apartments to each family.  In the interest of serving the Taxpayers, the aprt was sold to the Family for the princely sum of $10,000.   

Once her mom and dad bought the apartment they promptly flipped it.  They were in a rush to do so before it was to be razed.  However, it turns out to have been the biggest financial mistake of their life.  The building they had lived in, with it’s prime location near Westlake remained for several more years. And they thus lost out on a ton of money. 

After flipping the aprt my wife and I chipped in and helped them to buy another flat, which promptly doubled within a year.  Then they bought their current aprt for 10,000 rmb per sq meter.  It’s now well over 30k per sq meter.  (with an elevator!)  It’s only been 7 years. To buy a house in Hangzhou is now quite frankly impossible.   Overseas Chinese, Taiwanese, the wealthy from Shanghai, etc have now made Hangzhou real estate the San Francisco of China, in terms of pricing. 

I’m glad my wife’s parents have done well.  But if they’d only retired a generation later who knows?


  1. Enjoying reading your posts. I have young chinese GF but live in Australia

  2. Glad to hear.
    I realize there are alot of Chinese in Australia, and I know most of the relationship oriented posts I write are relevant across all boundaries. Of course, it's infinitely much easier for the laowai when he has a relationship with a Chinese girl in his own country. Prob for the lady, should she fall in love with a laowai, is how to "present him" to the Family. Much harder for her/him than it is for us.

    One would think since she lives overseas anyway, it would be easier for her Family to except, but not always. The Family usu sends their children overseas "to study", or "to have a better life, ie get a passport", but they always seem surprised when she also brings a laowai home....good luck!


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