Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Real Value of Tang: or, the Sweeper Wears Prada.

This post is about the real cost of life in Nepal, so let me start with something exotic: this turkey. It's the Dom Perignon of turkeys. It's caviar and truffles with wings, and its plastic red popup gizmo is the Lamborghini of all popup gizmos. I know this must be true, because this 12 pounds of imported bird ...

 ... was purchased for 8000 rupees. That's $80.

It really cost a lot more. A whole lot more. I'll explain how in a moment.

For the record, I did not buy it. Although I happily helped to cook and eat it.

Turkeys are gourmet imports here, available from Thanksgiving through Christmas at "departmental stores," big grocery stores that can be seen as "Western style" as long as you perceive Western style as involving aisles of food-like substances in bright chemical-laden packages. These stores are a gold mine for nostalgia lovers. Take the latest craze, Tang, packets of which are given free with purchases and day-glo glasses of which are served as "juice" in homes and elite schools. Florence Henderson loved it in 1970, and she was Mrs. Brady, so Tang is all the Vitamin C you need, right? Also all the sugar, aspertame, sodium carboxmethylcellulose, tartrazine and Sunset Yellow Artificial Color. There's no actual juice, but it was served to astronauts and you can't have everything on the moon. We're in Nepal, close to Mount Everest, which is often said to be much like the moon. So there you go. It makes sense now.

Sometimes there's no juice on the shelves,
just "juice beverage" and Tang.

To go with the Tang, you can try this Modern Convvenience Food,
which in Nepal ...
... is eaten rather than sung

Here are more offerings to fill the kitchens of Nepal with diabetic shock whoops I mean  glee. These are found in our local Big Western Departmental Store, wherein you can find entire aisles dedicated to the use of "Choco" as a prefix.

99.4 percent pure Glucose. And such a happy,
healthy family. Well, happy anyway.  

This store is called Salesway, like Safeway but harder to pronounce. Try saying it fast: Salesway, Salesway, Salesway. Bet you can't. This Tang-packed tongue-twister of a shopping destination serves mainly the upper class, although people like to use the interesting euphemism "middle class," which to me implies "people in the middle" and so ought to have something to do with the average person, but instead seems to have acquired a new definition and now means "People Who Can Be a New Market for Tang." If you lived here, you would go to Salesway and be glad of it, just like me. Wow! Corn syrup-laden peanut butter! Just like in a 1950s bomb shelter! I think I will buy that to enjoy with my Tang and spam. Do they have it in Choco flavor?

Thanks to the wonders of google, I know that at the Salesway's pronounceable alter ego, Safeway, you could get a turkey for 59 cents a pound, so our 12-pound turkey would have cost $7. But we live a more elegant life here on the moon, because our 12-pound turkeys fly in from Australia, apparently in First Class, or possibly comes on a rocket ship with the Tang, so we get to savor it for $80 like the gourmets we are.

But what, actually, does $80 mean in Real Nepali terms? Because, see, if you're a Westerner here you may have more or less multiples of that $80 in your budget, and you might not choose to spend it on turkey, but you've got it. Somewhere. How can we, who might think Ohmigod it's $80, unbelievable, horrible, here's the $80 and ouch that hurt but put it on my credit card and yum yum, conceptualize that amount?

Well, I've got a cheat sheet. So we now interrupt this edition of The Brady Bunch Get a Sugar Rush for a ...

Nepali Home Economics Lesson

What is that 8,000 rupees in percent-of-salary terms? What would it feel like? 

Here's one benchmark. Eight thousand rupees ($80) is the monthly wage, give or take a bit, for drivers, cleaners, clerks, and teachers at small private schools -- people in jobs that elsewhere might earn an annual salary somewhere around $24,000. Yeah, it's described as minimum wage here, but lots of people earn less, so let's be real and call it low-wage or starting jobs.

Here are a few other salaries:

Teacher in a government school: 14,000 to 31,000 a month ($140 to $310).

Police officers: there's a range, but constables earn 14,830 ($148) and a senior superintendent earns about 30,000 ($300)

Doctor: 20,000 starting salary in Kathmandu, or 30,000 for specialists ($200 to $300).

First-Class Government Officer: 30,000 a month ($300). The job level is roughly equivalent, if you speak Washingtonese, to a GS-13 who brings home $90,000 or a pre-tax $7,500 a month. Other government jobs are here, along with a bit of commentary about how they, uh, enhance their incomes.

Engineer: 33,000 a month ($330) according to this site. 

This medical student was buying a kurta salwar for a friend's
wedding. The cost was 4,700 rupees -- $47 for an American,
but a fifth of the monthly salary ($250) she'll be able to earn
as an entry-level doctor in Nepal. Imagine if you had to pay
a fifth of a doctor's typical  starting salary for a party dress.
Prices are high because of the cost of material, labor,
transport costs and customs duties.
Of course it does go higher. People on this helpful site self-report salaries as high as 117,000 for a financial manager, and Nepal does have far better-paid people than that as well. Lots of them. They own cars and big houses and some are so rich they could buy turkeys for the whole neighborhood. But they're not in the "middle class" unless you love euphemisms.

On the whole, the easiest way to grasp what money means is to think of percent-of-salary terms. On that scale (which can be a math project if you're a middle-school student who somehow stumbled onto this blog!), 1000 rupees becomes $250 on the percent-of-salary or "feels-like" scale. Looked at that way, the cost of that turkey is equivalent to about $2,000. It's the whole monthly pay of a low-paid employee, or just over a third for a GS-13. That's a heck of a bird.

Pringles feel like $50 for one cylinder
Of course, Nepalis don't buy turkeys, which is an exotic gourmet import and priced to match. But people need clothing. For a budget middle-class sari or salwar kameez, a woman has to spend at least 1000 but probably closer to 1500 rupees. For a nice occasion, she needs at least 4,000. If she opts for jeans, they start at 800 Rs., and the shirt doesn't come for free.

So it's hard to get away with under $15-20 per outfit. Think $500 on the "feels like" scale. How many teachers or nurses or lawyers in the US, or even Junior League socialites, spend $500 on an outfit to wash the dishes in and $1000 for something to wear to a neighborhood party or a second cousin's wedding? But here, there's no other choice.

If you wanted some of the "luxury" processed imported foods that are increasingly found here, you might get some Tang (feels like $30 for one small packet), a one-person bag of Lay's of the type found in vending machines (feels like $10), a small roll of Oreos (feels like $20) or some instant coffee like Nescafe (feels like $30 for a micro-jar to $100 for a large jar). If you can't afford that -- and most people would consider a bag of Lay's or a roll of Oreo's a "splurge" purchase -- you'd certainly still need vegetables for dinner.

My neighborhood street stalls for veggies, where people can buy ...
this much veggies for a "feel-like" cost of about $50.
It's cheap if you say "$2.50," which is the cost for an American.
It doesn't feel cheap if you're in Nepal's real middle class.

The other day I saw an ad posted for a full-time job in an organization that supposedly provides "economic empowerment." The salary offer? 5,000 to 7,000 for someone with a Bachelor's in Business Administration. That's under the minimum wage and technically illegal, but not uncommon. I'm imagining the letter home of the newly minted college grad who gets this job.

Dear Mom and Dad, How was the harvest? I have a new job doing economic empowerment! Please send money. And rice. And lentils. By the way, have you considered raising turkeys?

This woman's total outfit, including budget-level sari, sandals, blouse 
and now-faded shawl, probably cost 2000 Rs ($20).  
That's roughly equivalent, in "feels like" terms, to wearing $500 worth of clothes.
She does not look like a socialite.

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