GENEVA, SWITZERLAND / EDITOR’S NOTEPAD – Journalists beware: the annual Mercer rankings for expensive cities came out Wednesday, but this year the arrival of Chinese and other Asian cities underlines the serious mistake of giving the figures credence, for readers at large. The numbers are meaningless, unless you have a fat corporation behind you when you move to another country.
In fairness, this is exactly what the figures are designed for: Mercer is a consulting firm that provides assistance to companies moving staff around the world. If you’re British and live in Paris but you’re being relocated to Singapore, and your job doesn’t leave you the time, energy or motivation to explore life in your new home, you’ll want to know how to duplicate your current lifestyle. It, in turn, is a duplicate of the one you left behind when you became a multinational grunt, albeit with the title of manager.
There is another group of expats, and while it is hard to measure the size, I’m guessing based on experience, that this is a far larger group. It includes students, people who leave home to see the world and scramble to settle in a new land, those who found their own way and have been on their feet for several years in another country. The latter are often consultants who provide multilingual and multicultural services because they know how to bridge cultures, or people who have started new businesses, for the same reason.
Rent, food, transport: two worlds, your choice
The Mercer numbers do little but point to the great divide in experience and mentality between the two groups. Local hires will recognize the phenomenon. I remember working as a local hire in Paris, for Time magazine, for seven years, one of five to seven journalists paid local rates at any given time. We worked alongside the “correspondents”, shorthand for trained in the New York office, paid a salary that startled by comparison, and never allowed to stray too far from the company.
They arrived for two year stints, had their luxury apartments paid for and they had comfortable living allowances in addition to those saliva-making salaries. We discovered the great little restaurants of Paris while they dined only in safely famous multi-star restaurants. We bought food and cleaning supplies at the little local shops, while they bought only American products and foods most of the time. We begged them to have parties – our apartments were too small for that.
What happened to Asian costs
Back to Mercer. It’s no surprise to expats in Switzerland that Geneva, Bern and Zurich are in the top 10, with Zurich leading in slot number 3. The strong franc, the housing shortages, don’t do the cost of living here any favours. But Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul are all up there – Shanghai and Beijing? Really? True, the RMB has been allowed to strengthen, but last week I paid CHF10 for an excellent lunch for two in Beijing. Try finding that in Bern or for that matter, London, which is number 12, or New York, number 16.
The obvious question is, what do they put in the basket of goods and services that are measured? Mercer starts with this explanation:
“Mercer’s Host City Accommodation Tables help you determine the housing allowance for your employees when transferred abroad. Monthly rental housing costs are provided for each host location.
• Accommodation type: Monthly rental costs for different-sized apartments and houses, furnished
and unfurnished, in different areas.
• Number of bedrooms: Expatriates’ monthly rental costs for an apartment with one to four
bedrooms or for a house with three or four bedrooms.”
Apples and oranges and going native
We’re talking apples and oranges here. I lived in a 29 m2 apartment in Paris and my Time correspondent colleague lived in one that was well over 100 m2. But even if they had been the same size, I lived in a French neighbourhood and my co-worker lived off the Champs Elysée, where a handful of fading French aristocrats rubbed elbows with multinational employees who dreamed they were living the French life. Oh lala ! I had basic walls and doors; he had reinforced and older more elegant wood. I took the Metro; he looked shocked at the idea.
The case living with the Chinese
Plus ça change – I wish I could say that in Mandarin because the divide between the two groups of expats is growing in China. Last week I stayed in an apartment I’m guessing is 35-40m2 and the young couple, foreigners, who have a startup high tech business, pay RMB5700 a month rent, about CHF850/month. That’s a jump from five years ago, and in this sense Mercer is right to say China is getting more expensive. But five years ago the plumbing didn’t work and today’ rising Chinese middle class is pushing for improvements today and getting at least some of them.
In December I stayed in a slightly larger (55 m2?) apartment with a bigger and notionally more sophisticated bathroom and kitchen, in a neighbourhood filled with expats. The rent is over RMB15,000, so more like CHF2,240-2,400 (I don’t know the exact rent). The local supermarket and shops charge about 10% more for everything, on average. I did my shopping last week at the local Carrefour, where I saw only Chinese shoppers, and I found all prices to be on average about half of what I pay in Switzerland. The exception (I was playing visiting Mom and doing some cleaning): limescale remover and toilet bowl cleaner, Western brands, that were a shocking RMB 60+, over CHF10 each. Not surprisingly, they were chained to the shelf.
I took a metered taxi across town from my Chinese neighbourhood to a silk shop in a district awash in foreigners (no convenient subway and I had a bad knee). It cost me RMB26.When I came out, I was accosted by non-metered taxi drivers who offered to take me back to the same address for RMB200. Okay, some of this is knowing how to not play the naive foreigner (other foreigners were grabbing those taxis for the going price, as it began to rain). Some of it is dealing with locals who love to charge foreigners more, in any country. And some of it is refusing to live that way.
The Mercer life or the richer life
The issue is not really what we pay when we live abroad, wherever it may be, but how willing or interested we are in living like our hosts. Every expat makes a choice at some point about stretching – learning the language, eating the food, living in similar quarters. Some do it better than others, some feel that going native in any way is a bit tawdry, and we all have bouts of homesickness for familiar ways and goods, but most people I know who are expats, at some point find a comfortable compromise.
It’s hard to live as a foreigner in a country, spending twice as much as the people from there, and feel that you have their respect. Either you join them, at least on some level, or you live apart. That’s not really living the Parisian or Beijing life, that’s living the Mercer life.
The i-word, the i-world
And that brings us to another question, a bit touchier for many expats. At what point do you become an immigrant?
Does it happen before you recognize yourself with that label? Or are immigrants only people who are trying to climb the economic ladder, seeking a better life in a new land, in which case it certainly isn’t the Mercer expats.
Or are immigrants only people perceived as such by their hosts, while these same foreigners continue to call themselves expats, seeing themselves as apart, special, holding onto an exclusive world?
There is a price that goes with the label, and Mercer’s basket of expensive goods and services lays out some of it.
The rest of the price is less tangible. Most of us, foreigners in a foreign land, grapple with it the rest of our lives, and make an emotional space for it, as well as for the enrichment we get from honestly bridging cultures.
Ignore those Mercer numbers.