The American Candy Queen
Wherever I am in the world, it’s always been my habit of purchasing candy. Whether for classroom prizes, snacks for visitors or just for my own severe sweet tooth, candy can always be found in my presence.
And there’s no place better to get candy varieties than in China.
For wedding parties, candy is handed out by handfuls to guests or scattered on tables during the marriage dinner.
For student gatherings, it’s likewise tossed onto classroom desks while performances abound in front of audience members.
Chinese New Year brings everyone out in droves for their candy fix, loading up on bags of the stuff to share with family and friends who drop by, bringing good wishes.
And for myself, the American Candy Queen, it’s just a necessity to always have heaping candy baskets in my home for guests or on hand to lavish upon those in the English Center. In-class prizes for answering questions or volunteering to perform dialogues is yet another great use of my candy stash.
Since students rarely enjoy such treats on their own, the cost being a bit high, candy is a much-appreciated treat.
Candy on Longzhou’s Inflation List
So imagine my surprise when I went candy shopping to find our prices per pound had increased . . . yet again!
When I first arrived in Longzhou, the many candy sellers in the market were vying for customers. They had huge varieties of individually wrapped selections piled into bins. The beautiful shiny wrappers (gold, deep purple, vibrant blue, metallic green) were a big draw. Each seller had at least 15 different containers of candy, some even more, which we could choose from by loading into a bag for weighing. The cheap candy sold for 4 yuan (60 cents) a pound. The more expensive (fancier wrappers and usually chocolates) were 8 yuan ($1.20) a pound.
And if you were to go for the extravagant, big name-brands found in the Long Jia Supermarket, you went even higher: $1.70 to $3.00 a pound.
After several years of holding to the same price, last summer had us go up an entire 14 cents per pound, making it 5 yuan. When I asked, the sellers told me it was due to the bad sugarcane crop in the area.
But yet again, another jump has come after only 6 months.
My first week back to school after the holidays, I went to load up on candy supplies from my favorite sellers to find we are now 6 yuan (90 cents) a pound for the cheap stuff and 10 yuan ($1.50) for the other.
Meanwhile, in the grocery store, prices seem to have remained the same although that might be changing soon.
Gas Goes Up as Well
And candy prices weren’t the only things that took a hike while I was gone.
My first shopping day back in Longzhou, I managed to have quite a heavy load on my hands. The bag was overflowing to the point where I decided to take one of our local 3-wheeled mini-cabs back to the campus rather than walk.
Mini-cabs are the best transportation as they’re cheap. For just 3 yuan (45 cents), you can go anywhere in the town. It’s been that way for several years, according to the locals.
When my driver landed me at the back gate, I already had my 3 yuan prepared to hand over. She took my money and as I scrambled out, she said, “It’s 4 yuan.”
“4 yuan? It’s always 3 yuan,” I announced with some suspicion.
I was thinking: Is this driver trying to cheat the foreigner? Well, good luck on that one!
“Why is it 4 yuan?” I continued.
“Higher prices,” she replied. “Gas.”
Being a cautious individual, I had her wait a moment while I asked our gate attendant.
“Is it really 4 yuan now for the 3-wheeled cabs?” I asked him.
He nodded, leaving me to return and hand over yet another 1 yuan for my cab ride.
Other Goods Will Follow, Rice Included
I’m guessing within another year, I’ll be seeing such increases expand to more necessary items than my candy.
Rice, for example, is now heading into that category.
I asked one student what she spent her hong bao (red envelope) gift money on during the holidays.
She replied, “I bought rice for my family, 80 yuan worth (about $12) – 10 pounds.”
For a family of 5, they can eat daily on that for a month if they stretch it.
This reminded me of my former Luzhou student, Jason (Ji Ke), whose parents farm their plot of land and use all the produce for their own consumption. They harvest 7 months’ worth of rice a year rather than buy it in the market. That saves them a yearly 700 yuan ($105 US), money that they certainly don’t have to spend in grocery stores on rice.
Frugal? Sure, but the time and energy taken to harvest that amount of rice by hand is not easy. It’s exhausting labor, stooping outside in the hot sun to tend to the crops, then having to pluck and dry the rice on roadsides over a period of several days.
Fighting the elements is thrown into the mix as well. Damp, wet weather can ruin an entire rice harvest waiting to dry in the sun. If a farmer picks the wrong day, with a heavy wind suddenly kicking up to scatter the grains off the tarps or an unexpected rain shower, the family has lost their staple food for the winter.
Most farmers also beat out the husks by hand rather than hire someone to use their machinery to do it for them. Using such equipment is readily available, and quite a few make a good living renting their machines to locals for use, but the majority of farmers don’t waste their money on such things. They do it all themselves, bringing in willing neighbors and other family members to lend a hand.
Increases Across the Country
According to a March 11th article in the New York Times (“Inflation Prices Grow in China” by David Barboza), the consumer price index in China rose 4.9% in February alone. Also in February, food prices rose by 11%.
That news certainly seems to follow what I and others have been experiencing here in little Longzhou.
And we’re still not finished yet.
Barboza’s article explained further: “Inflation remains at an elevated level and it has not peaked yet,” Wang Qing, a Hong Kong-based economist said. “We think inflation will rebound in April or May and peak midyear.”
For me, such inflation news is not a big deal. I have money. Paying an extra 15 cents for numerous items is not going to cause any dent in my spending sprees.
Students Unable to Continue with Their Studies
But for my students and their families, it’s a different story.
Already I’ve lost 4 freshmen and 1 sophomore who dropped out of school due to money difficulties. It’s sad to see their names crossed off my list, especially knowing that I’ll never see them again.
My sophomore in particular I miss. Her English name was Soul, an appropriate name for her quiet, rather sad demeanor. She was the silent type, rarely spoke in class and kept to herself much of the time. And yet, after one year of my classes, she began to emerge from her thoughtful shell and take part in discussions. There were even days when she managed a smile in my classroom! It truly lit up the room. I was so proud of her last semester for her efforts, and on many occasions, I told her so.
Although 1 week late in returning this term, when she appeared again 3 weeks ago, I was happy to see she wasn’t giving up.
But last week, I was told she left our school and is not coming back. The burden of tuition is just too great for her family, and her will to study while causing her parents such financial hardship finally overcame her.
I will miss our Soul in class. I hope she finds her place in the world where she can be happy and content.
From Longzhou, China, here’s wishing you Ping An (peace) for your day.