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 it...an 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?