In my white world, there are exactly two times when it is acceptable to ask how much something costs.
1) SALES. When a white person tells a friend about the great deal they got on apparel or automobiles, it is acceptable – no, mandatory – that the friend ask for both the original price and the sale price.
2) COLLEGE TUITION. This occurs between competitive WASP parents. If a parent brag-moans about how their brilliant child has ruined them financially by getting into an Ivy League School, it is acceptable to ask the price of tuition. (One must then assure the brag-moaning parent that little Carden’s brilliance can only be fully realized at Harvard and declaring bankruptcy no longer carries much of a stigma.)
But to ask how much an item costs unless someone is clearly dying to tell you? Très gauche. Crass. An invasion of privacy. It is NOT DONE.
We don’t even know how to respond to such a question. Witness:
I was in the car with my Chinese-American boyfriend Andy, heading to the Honolulu Airport. We’d just spent several long days with his China-born parents. Jay and Sunny didn’t exactly welcome me with open arms. But they didn’t kick me out of their house, either. I got the impression that they were ambivalent. Maybe, as the first girl Andy ever brought home, they saw me as a hopeful sign that their nearly thirty-year-old, number one son wasn’t gay. I suspected they wanted Andy to ditch me for a sweet Asian girl who didn’t talk back. Or talk much. Or maybe talk at all.
Andy drove in his usual insane style. I next to him, day-dreaming about hiking to a waterfall on Kauai, alone with Andy for the first time in days. Jay and Sunny insisted on sitting in the backseat.
Apropos of nothing, Sunny barked a question at me: “Do you have an apartment?”
“Yes. A little one bedroom.”
“Where is it? By the beach?”
“Oh, no. I live in Burbank, right by the–”
“How much you pay in rent?”
I sucked in my breath. Good God. Sunny had asked The Question You Must Never Ask Uptight White People. I channeled my Southern Debutante Grandmother, and replied in freezing tones: “I. Beg. Your. Pardon.”
“Oh. Is hard to hear, the air conditioning so loud in the front!” Sunny proceeded to speak slowly, over-enunciating every word she shouted. “HOW. MUCH. YOU. PAY. IN–”
My nerve broke. “Eleven hundred! Eleven hundred dollars!” My grandmother rolled in her grave. (Actually, since she was a total racist, Grammy had probably been rolling in her grave since I began dating. I started with a Sri Lankan guy.)
Cantonese chatter passed between Sunny and Jay. I glanced at Andy. He pressed his lips together, trying hard not to laugh.
The Cantonese subsided. Then Sunny barked again: “When are you going to move in with Andy?”
Gah. My white life had IN NO WAY prepared me for this onslaught of prying questions. I tried to punt to Andy. “How about you answer?’
Andy: “I’m…busy…driving.” He was not. He was busy laughing.
“Um,” I answered brightly. Followed by several more “ums” and a few “uhs.” I finally choked out, “I guess after we get married. IF we get married.”
The backseat was silent the rest of the way to airport.
I didn’t know how to interpret this interaction. Maybe they thought I was throwing away money. Maybe they wanted Andy to collect rent from me.
Or maybe, just maybe, they approved of me after all.
18 thoughts on “The Big Money Question (#10)”
I think it was only a gambit to see how serious you were, you know, to make sure you weren’t just using me for my body.
I love you for your mind, babe! You know that. But, um, it’s kinda late. You busy tonight?
Well, if she didn’t ask you how much you earn you can consider yourself lucky! I’ve been asked even by taxi drivers in China 😀
NO! Taxi drivers! I wonder if Jocelyn has a post on that. You know how she says just reply “Soon” when a Chinese family asks when you are going to have a kid? There must be something like that for taxi drivers. Maybe “Enough?”
When I was asked by the taxi driver I was still a student and I told him. His next question was: “how much does your father earn?”.
I used the ‘soon’ reply when a security guard in my compound asked me when I was going to buy an apartment, get married and have a baby. The full package! As I am already 30, every week there will be someone asking when I am going to get married. Even the woman that sells me breakfast asked me once!
So, every time I leave a comment on your blog, Marta, I’m going to add, “P.S. When are you going to get married and have a baby?” 😉
Very invasive of Andy’s mother to ask you how much you pay in rent…but in Chinese culture people are really very money-minded. The more you can afford to pay and live a pretty flash lifestyle, the more attractive of a catch and person you will come across to them, especially the Chinese/Asian generation before us.
When I’m back in Malaysia and have done some shopping, my Chinese Malaysian relatives always perk up. Then they will ask, “How much did you buy that for? Wahhhh….so expensive/good deal/not bad”. This is a normal conversation starter. I don’t usually find it intrusive…but sometimes there are more important things to talk about.
In Australia, I’ve got quite a few (white) friends who rent or share a house with a bunch of others and no one has ever discussed how much rent they pay. It’s a touchy topic, and a lot of us who rent are usually tight on money.
Another humorous piece 🙂
Oh, thank you, Mabel!
Ha, you made me laugh with your description of your Malaysian Aunties. I’ve heard a lot of comments about “good/ bad deals,” and I think I’m over my white embarrassment over discussions of price. Pretty soon I will be so blasé that I’ll ask a white friend about how much their cars/ apartments cost and they’ll turn red and say, “I can’t believe you asked me that!”
Maneuvering between cultures can be a delicate balancing act. I’m in awe of how observant you and Andy had to be, to move effortlessly between the two.
“white embarrassment” – I love how you describe yourself! Nice way to put it too. Today I went out with a (white) friend and she gave me a stuffed monkey as a gift. I immediately thought of this post and asked her how much it was. She didn’t tell me and started laughing! So what you are saying about Westerners not talking much about money is so true 😀 It seems like a rude thing to ask about money.
Thanks you, Autumn. I do think at times I struggle to accept some parts of Asian cultures due to my upbringing in Australia. But at the end of the day, I think it’s important not to be negative about the whole thing, but rather talk about it with others and laugh along 🙂
Ooooh, nice social experiment on your friend! Very funny. Although some Caucasian cultures are more reticent about money than others. Educated Protestants, I think, have the hardest time.
I’m a big fan of humor when looking at human foibles. I have to be careful, though. Andy and I joke about all kinds of stuff, but there are those who might take offense. Which I understand, because I really, really hate stupid stereotypes about women being bad drivers, or bad at math, or being all emotional.
So true. There is a time and place to poke fun at the way certain cultures behave. When we laugh at cultural stereotypes, we’re aware that they exist…whether or not we know their significance is another altogether. Usually I’m inclined to think a lot of us are sensible enough to know that not all of us fit stereotypes.
A few months ago I went to a job interview. It was a group interview of about twenty candidates – Caucasian and Asian. Halfway through the group exercise, a white guy commented, “Chinese restaurants. They burn down all the time”. Everyone laughed, I didn’t.
I suppose it depends on our sense of humour too whether we laugh at stereotypes or not.
My future chinese in laws are opposite. They never ask personal questions. Michael explained to me how his mom doesn’t even know what he does for work only where he works. He received a great promotion and he didn’t tell anyone for at least six months. All she wanted to know is do I have a college degree and pleased I work at a hospital. They are so private with everything. His mother always says to not spend money and save for a ring, now it’s don’t spend money save for wedding lol. But his family immigrated across Asia from China to Thailand to Cambodia and finally Vietnam before America. With other Asian country stops along the way. They worked in sweat shops and lived three uncles two aunts and grandparents in one house until they slowly broke off. They all speak three Chinese dialects, Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese. But you’d never know because they are so private.
Oh, wow, the US by way of Vietnam, just like Jay. Very impressive. I hope you are able to get better family stories than I did!
Well, since my father kind of resembles both of your Chinese in-laws, I guess I find it almost normal. Almost. Though, I’m white, haha. XD I mean, people ask about rent around here too. But it depends– like, there should be some relationship between those people engaged in such a convo. For example, I get such questions sometimes too; some come from my friends, others from people I just met. I guess it happens because we’re students (more or less xD), which kind of entitles us to do it? If this makes any sense… Like, maybe there’s a possibility to find a less expensive place to stay at? Maybe live with some friends? you know, this kind of thing. I can’t say anything about the questions being addressed to other categories of people– so yeah. Wait, you’re right; in general, such questions (regarding salary and so on) aren’t that well-received in here either. I hope this makes sense. My brain is dying. T_T
Yeah, it makes perfect sense. Fellow-students always trade info, especially regarding the affordability of items or rent. Same thing with siblings or family members. And it’s fine to volunteer the information.
But for a new acquaintance to make a baldfaced inquiry?! Never!
Unless you are Chinese, in which case it is totally acceptable. It’s just part of normal interaction.
That kinda happened to me. Like, I only knew the person for a couple of hours or so and she just shot the question at me. At that moment I wasn’t really bothered by it, but then again, I was kinda stupid at that time; so yeah. ._.
Haha, I swear almost everything your write about your inlaws could easily be about mine! The ambivalence, the suspicion that they would rather you were Asian but at the same time the relief that their son is finally settling down/not gay. I am slowly making my way though your posts and it really is like meeting my own inlaws all over again!
I’m so sorry for the flashbacks.