Monday, December 04, 2006

When Is Cheap Too Cheap?

Okay, I'm embarrassed to be posting this, because it brings up an aspect of Asianness that could be labeled stereotypical. Let's call appreciation of value. A love of thrift. An instinct for budgetry. Or, if we want to be honest, let's call it "cheapness" and be done with it.

Some of this can be ascribed to good old fashioned immigrant values. But some of it seems kind of culturally embedded, and I'm not sure why. We just dig bargains, even when they come at the expense of other members of our community.

I bring this up because tonight, my wife brought back dinner from Chinatown—authentic, stick-to-your ribs homestyle cuisine, not the brown-sauce saturated gobbets of meat-and-veg that passes for Chinese at your local takeout. This is not the issue: Chinatown's two stops away by train and it's on my wife's driving commute back home, so we eat Chinese, and eat it well, at least once a week.

What blew my mind (and almost the bite of food I was chewing) was when my wife told me the price of the meal. Each dish, comprising an entree, a vegetable item, rice, and a soup, cost. Three. Frickin'. Dollars.

I've had five dollar lunch specials before, and even managed to find $3.95 noodle soup meals before, but I have never eaten a full, filling meal anywhere that cost that little.

This was the culinary equivalent of the Fung Wah Bus. For those of you not on the Eastern Seaboard, these are buslines that run the Atlantic Coast route, taking you from Boston Chinatown to New York Chinatown or New York to DC Chinatown for $20 each way.

Fung Wah is the cheapest way to get up and down the East Coast if you don't mind sitting next to, and occasionally being sat on by, crazy people on drugs. Not to mention terrified college students and not-at-all-intimidated Chinese grannies.

Fung Wah owes its ridiculously low prices to drivers with limited knowledge of interstate traffic law and no respect for life and limb. The Chinese newspapers regularly print stories about these buses flipping, somersaulting, or catapulting into low-earth orbit, causing, as Sir Topham Hatt might say, "Confusion and delay." (And death. And dismemberment.)

I rode, or should I say, flew one of these buses a few years ago and am not willing to again now that I have a son. Here's my bottom line: I appreciate cheap. But Fung Wah is too cheap. It is dangerous, and it is exploitative—the Evel Knievel drivers are probably getting paid in tabs of meth, or something, but certainly not anything resembling a living wage, not to mention the combat pay they ought to be receiving.

And a three dollar dinner also seems to me to be too cheap. I mean, some corners have got to be cut to make that happen, right? Either that, or the owner of the restaurant is ripping himself and his family off, in a way that probably shouldn't be encouraged (though the argument could be made that he's only trying to make a living, and not supporting him isn't going to do his family any good either).

What do you guys think? Do you have any examples of products, services, or experiences that have creeped you out because they fell beneath the "too cheap" baseline? Or maybe you feel there ain't such a thing?


Marcie said...

Wow, I never knew cheapness was an Asian thing but it answers a lot of questions about my husband. If we ever had another great depression he would do just fine.
The man will eat month old eggs rather than let me throw them out. Cheap!
(did I also mention he also has a cast iron stomach?)

Lumpyheadsmom said...

Cheapness is an Asian trait? I was raised by Dutch people, so I assumed I got it from them. Nature and nurture? Man, no wonder I'm cheap.

Lumpyheadsmom said...

Oh, and totally no such thing as too cheap.

Although I see the merit in my friend's motto "Free shit is still shit."

So true.

Robyn said...

haha, i think this is why, as a grad student, no matter how few asians there are, i'm always living next door to them! you know, in Hawai'i, we always say Chinese are cheap. Although i guess we also say everyone eats random meats, which i suppose is a way of saying people are cheap.

anyway, when i was in thailand, i hd trouble haggling because their first asking price was still a good deal for me. (also cuz i suck at haggling)

Soccer Dad said...

My neighbor is the prototype of the old cheap Chinese guy (in Hawaii, as Robyn will attest, called "pake"). He cruises the neighborhood by bike looking for flotsam, then goes back and picks it up with his car. The flotsam--mostly couches, bikes, washers and dryers, file cabinets and household goods--end up in his driveway for months on end. He used to hold a weekly garage sale to profit from it. I played good cop, told him that he was in violation of city code that forbids having a garage sale more than twice a year and storing household goods on his driveway. Gave him options like dumping stuff on craigslist. He claimed ignorance, "I'm new to this country," which is total b.s. He's retired from some high tech firm and his daughter became an Olympic athlete.

So he cleaned up and everything was hunky dory, but after a few months, he went back to his foraging ways-- storing ill-gotten gains on his driveway including three couches and a washer. This time, I played bad cop; I narc'd on him. Code enforcement issued a warning notice to clean it up, or in ten days, get slapped with a $250 fine. The fine doubles every ten days. Should be interesting.


Henri said...

Three Dollars?! I would have bargained that greedy-ass shop owner down to at least two fiddy.
Next time ask for the no chopsticks no napkin no plastic spork no soy sauce packet discount. He'll take at least one penny off.

"How much for one rib?"

Ami said...

Is there a large population of cats, dogs or squirrels that seem to be dwindling in the neighborhood? Yeah, I'd for sure be worried about $3.00 for a full meal. As for cheapness - not all asians are husband is the only Korean I know who won't haggle..even at gunpoint.

Anonymous said...

You think that's crazy? Fung Wah used to be $20 ROUND TRIP Philly to NY until it was "discovered." Prices doubled around 2003.