Every time we travel from the United States to Asia, my family faces a dilemma—what is worthy of the weight and space in our suitcases. It seems simple enough, but when you live in a host country where some things are hard to find (or incredibly expensive), and you are limited in the number or suitcases and weight you can take with you on the plane, leaving the US entails a momentous job of packing, weighing, and re-packing. On every trip we usually end up leaving something behind that we had just bought but don’t have the space for.
You might be surprised at what makes the packing list, what gets cut, and how that list has changed since we’ve had kids. On one pre-kids return from the States, my husband filled almost one whole suitcase with canned cat food. Yes, you read that right—a suitcase full of cat food (we fought about that one and I still give him a hard time about it). My own vices are food items (people-food, that is)—baking or cooking ingredients that are hard to find or too expensive to buy here. I’ll sometimes fill entire suitcases with things like coconut flour and wheat bran and date crumbles.
Our move to China was much more complicated than our holiday trips from Korea. Having never lived in China, we didn’t know what would be available to us or how much it would cost, so most often we guessed and hoped for the best.
Which brings me to our first shopping surprise here in China—our inability to track down a toaster.
Toast. My family loves the stuff. It’s our breakfast every morning. So when we arranged for our movers to pack up our things in Korea and set the date to be a week before we actually got on our plane, we decided to keep the toaster out of the shipment, give it away when we left Korea, and buy a new one when we got to China. After all, it was just a toaster, and everything is made in China (including the toaster we were using at the time). Surely we could pay $20 to buy a new one. That would be so much better than going without toast during our last week in Korea.
Seems like a nice plan, doesn’t it?
Well, when our mentors took us on our initial shopping trip after arriving here in China, we had our list of household appliances to buy. There really wasn’t much on the list. Only one item, really—a toaster.
We walked through the kitchen appliances section in the stores, shaking our heads. Where were all the toasters? We found only one that was priced at $100. That’s 100 USD for a toaster in China. Mind you, this was not a fancy toaster—two skinny slots for bread. No timer. No beeper. No bells and whistles.
Unwilling to pay $100 for what should have been a $20 purchase, we left empty-handed. We toasted our bread in the oven for a while, until our stubbornness finally waned, and my faithful husband came to the rescue. He searched online shopping sites and found a similar toaster for 50 USD. In the end, all was well. I got a toaster for my family’s morning breakfast.
Our first shopping experience had to be a fluke, right? Everything in China was supposed to be so much cheaper than in the US, wasn’t it? I was a newbie in China and just didn’t know which haystacks to sift through to find what I wanted.
Then we decided to buy a treadmill for our home. We did our research and got an idea of what we wanted. Then we went looking and, again, found the cost to be double what the same brands and models would have been in the US. Wasn’t all this stuff made in China?
A couple weeks later, we went to lunch with some friends after church and asked if we were doing something wrong. Were we looking in the wrong places? Were we missing some sort of information on how to shop here?
“Oh, yeah,” they said. “We call it the China Tax. Electronics and appliances are expensive here. It’s just part of living in China.”
The China Tax.
Makes perfect sense.