The men sat around the kitchen table with their backs turned toward me while they smoked. In a few short minutes, I had lost their respect.
I had hired these men, who were almost certainly career farmers by their leathery faces and work worn hands, to help me move some large shipping crates onto a truck.
The truck was scheduled to arrive at any moment, to bring all of our earthly possessions over land to a remote Chinese city that I had only seen on a map, and whose name I could not pronounce.
My health had reached a low point. I had intense pain now with each breath, to accompany the rattling sound of my exhale. I could not seem to get enough air even when sitting still.
My lymph system was swollen and sore, my face was a deathly pale, with dark circles under my eyes. A US expat in his 30s had recently died of lung cancer in my city,
a friend of a friend, and I dreaded a health examination myself.
I decided to quit my cushy expat job and leave the city as soon as possible, to focus on restoring my health.
While waiting for the moving truck, I quickly ran out of Chinese conversation topics... my range of vocabulary being limited to food, driving directions, and weather.
Catching the lull, the men turned the conversation to what is often considered safe ground between new acquaintances in China:
I knew what was coming and dreaded it. These men typically earned around $8 US per day max as laborers. Theirs was not a glamorous life.
What must they think of our leather couches and polished wood tables? The dreaded question came: What is your salary?
Inscrutable looks on their faces. They looked down as they made some mental calculations.
Well, how much did you save this year then?
I lied again, giving a number around 20% of my false salary.
Instant disapproval. Disbelief. Disdain. Shaking heads. "Too little, too little!"
It was at this point that they turned away from me as a group, and sat smoking their cigarettes in silence.
I would eventually come to understand that these questions about money are not mere vulgar curiosity, but people's way of quickly evaluating you as a person.
Are you industrious? Are you playing what many Chinese feel is the most interesting and important game of life,
that of earning and husbanding money, with skill and determination?
Frugality is so valued as a personal attribute that I would say it is a moral principle, in the same way as marital fidelity might be viewed in the West.
And I had apparently admitted to being a bad husband.
The truck arrived, and with it my friend who ran the logistics department of a large European company.
She had not informed me that she was bringing help, but she immediately dismissed the farmers, after negotiating half the pay I had promised; they protested over their lost time waiting for the truck.
In a fashion typical of the business women I have come to respect in China, she effortlessly managed the moving of several hundred pounds of belongings onto the flatbed truck, using just two frail looking office boys, and sent the truck on its way.
Our belongings would be on a 2000 mile overland journey to what would become our new home for the indeterminate future.
I will always be grateful for this woman's generous help when we needed it most.