“How much do you earn?”

This is part 2 of 4 of a conversation with a 17-year old girl working at the hairdresser’s doing massages. Click here if you’ve missed part 1 (“Do you have brothers and sisters?”). Stay tuned for part 3 (“I have the heart of a boy”) and part 4 (“Is your hair dyed or is this your real color?”).

After talking about our families, she asks:
“How tall are you? One meter seventy-something?”
I: “I’m exactly 170.”
She: “You could be a model.”
I: “Working as a model is really exhausting, I’m pretty happy with the job I have.”
She: “What’s your job?”
I: “I work as a graphic designer.”
She: “That’s a great job. How many hours do you have to work a day?”
I: “8. How about you?”
She: “We have to work more than 12 hours a day.”
I: “Wow, that must be really exhausting.”
She: “It is. How much do you earn? Your salary must be really high I guess.”
After I tell her, I ask: “How much do you earn?”
She: “A little bit more than 2000 RMB (around 250 EUR or 325 USD). Do you live closeby?”
I: “I do. How about you?”
She: “We live in a dormitory closeby. Our employer pays for it.”
I: “How many people share a room?”
She: “Four.”
I: “Ten*?”
She: “No, four.”
I: “I see. Four is still okay I guess. At least it’s better than 10, isn’t it?”

*Four (四, sì) and ten (十, shí) sound similar in some Chinese dialects, where both are pronounced as “shi” and only the tones are different.

Have you ever had a similar conversation? I’d love to read your stories.

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10 thoughts on ““How much do you earn?”

  1. maybe not like that but my husband’s grandmother doesn’t really mind asking random people she meets about their salary or family – but it’s not only Chinese curiosity, before in my country one of my neighbours, an old lady, kept asking about me, my family, my family earnings, my husband, even she came to ask me to make her a dinner haha 🙂 but as far as I know Chinese people in general like to gossip, I could see it perfectly during meeting my in-law’s and husband’s family in HK and China – even at the market they kept asking about me, my family, how we met, ‘your family must be rich’ – because of course being in relationship with Asian means it’s all about the money 🙂


  2. I never say how much I earn cause is something very private (family knows if they ask). if someone asks me I just say that salary is a very uncomfortable topic and I don’t like to talk about it, people generally turn and ask my husband how much I earn, then he repeats the same I said, and he explains that for me that is a very personal / private question that I never answer, but that I am happy with my salary cause it allows me to pay my bills, go home every year…etc. We always add..of course…if our salaries were better we would appreciate it also.
    They understand it, after asking few times and seeing that I just don’t like it. It might be a common question here but since is something very personal…I don’t consider I need to answer.
    Conversations similar to this one..money-related…are usually something like..:
    How much did you pay for this apartment?
    How much your clothes?
    I have been asked “how much” when I brought some gift/food to another house, the thing is…if its expensive the other person complains cause we dont know how much we should pay, if its cheap then he will put a strange face cause we didnt spend enough…haha that person is Tony’s dad. So I just bring something and when he asks I say…sure, more expensive than here, but still, a good deal for my family!


    • I also felt uncomfortable when someone asked me this question in the beginning, I just wasn’t used to it. I mean, if friends were curious I didn’t mind telling them, but strangers? But now I don’t mind as much about it anymore, sometimes I tell them and just ask them back. Sometimes I just say “it’s enough for living”, in which case they won’t inquire any further. This is a tip from my Chinese husband who himself likes to say this as an answer (because not every Chinese person likes to talk about how much money they make with strangers either).


  3. That’s a very interesting post. My feeling for this is if people feel they are really under paid, they probably don’t mind telling their salary, which kind of showing how unsatisfied they feel about the current situation.

    It also reminds me of some conversation with taxi drivers. I like talking to them when I was in taxi because they were always very direct. When they were talking about the salary, it’s usually around 5K-6K RMB per month, but they almost could not take day off.

    I always have pretty good experiences talking to them.



  4. This topic used to make me uncomfortable, but I’m starting to realize it’s perhaps good to talk about salaries sometimes. In my home country, everyone is so embarrassed by this topic, but I think in certain situations it’s good to know what other people make or what their rent is. It can help us gauge what we should be earning and paying. I try to be more polite about it, “What do people generally earn starting out in your field?” or “What’s rent like in your neighborhood?” I only ask this to people who I know and who seem open to discussing it.

    Sometimes I do wonder the motivation for Chinese people who ask. Are they just curious? Want to Make comparison? Something to gossip about with their buddies?


    • It also used to make me really uncomfortable, we just don’t talk about this in Austria unless with good friends or family. But I don’t mind telling people in China as much as in the beginning anymore, in the beginning I always felt that they might find it unfair that I earn more than most Chinese people here, but I have the feeling that they don’t ask so they can judge me, but rather to put things into perspective. And I agree, it’s good to know how much people earn here or pay for rent and the like, that way you will know if you are paying way too much for something (compared to locals) or if the price is okay. It puts things into perspective.


  5. Pingback: “I have the heart of a boy” | China elevator stories

  6. Interesting post! My Hong Kong friends who are living in China, told me that this is very common among the local/mainland Chinese. They don’t feel shy at all about asking how much people earn. And one HK friend working in China said that she had a tough time hiring new staff and maintaining morale in the office, because the existing staff (all local Chinese) are openly disclosing their salaries…. I personally think this is a sensitive and private topic. Uncomfortable indeed…Cheers, Mom of Dragon Boy


    • It does seem to be quite common, but actually it was quite common to ask in the company I’ve worked at in Austria too, so I wouldn’t say this problem only extends to Mainland China. It’s definitely still more commonly accepted to disclose how much you earn here. But like I said, my Chinese husband doesn’t like to talk about this with strangers either, so it’s not like everyone is comfortable with speaking about this topic on the mainland either.


  7. Pingback: “Is your hair dyed or is this your real color?” | China elevator stories

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