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One day we went hiking from the Lingyin Temple to a place called Meijiawu. The path through the forest that we took ended up on the outskirts of the village, in a place that looked like this:

As we passed the scabby dog, who didn’t seem like he liked us very much, we got to the beginning of a lane lined with houses, garages and sheds:

One of the sheds was obviously used as someone’s kitchen, with rice bags hanging on the wall, soy sauce and stoves around, chickens walking to and fro:

And right next to it we saw this:

A spotless, shiny car. Did it belong to the people who created the garbage dump in the forest and cooked their meals in that tiny, open-air kitchen? Or was it the property of someone else living nearby in one of the big new houses? It could have been either and none of the answers would be surprising in a country where kids sell their kidneys for iPhones, where people buy flats they can’t pay off and cars they don’t have anywhere to park. All these things give you “face” in dealing with strangers or business partners. Pretending to be above it is useless: people will judge one another by appearances and no one will buy that “I’m not into luxury” stuff.

Unless you’re a foreigner; then you might get away with some things, just because “they do things differently yonder in them foreign countries”. The popular assumption being that all foreigners are rich (oh, if only ’twas true), so if you choose to have a dilapidating old phone, it’s because you want to. But it can sometimes backfire, as evidenced by something I heard once while waiting for a train. I was tampering with my old and unimpressive camera, when a man in a business suit and with a huge watch on his wrist sat next to me, gave it a passing look and snorted self-importantly (presumably to himself, because I had headphones in my ears and in any case I’m white, so obviously I don’t understand): Pah, you call that a camera!

Ouch.

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