One of my fondest childhood memories is digging with my friends in a medical waste heap in rural China. As we sorted through the piles of latex gloves, soiled gowns, and used syringes, a tiny voice in the back of my five-year-old head suggested that maybe this wasn't such a great idea. But that was overridden by a much louder, more hopeful voice saying, "What treasures will I find today?"
Now, don't get me wrong. I didn't live inside the medical waste heap—I'm not a troll. But I did enjoy it because unlike in a real store, if I saw something I wanted, I could actually get it. Otherwise, a typical experience went like this:
"Mom," I would say, my face pressed up against a glass case, “I know we're poor and we don't have any money. But one day, when I grow up, and I make my own money, then can I have that doll?"
And somehow the answer was still no.
So that's why my friends and I were behind the hospital that day. If I couldn't buy a toy, I reasoned, maybe I could make one.
I did find something, believe it or not, in a seemingly infinite supply of discarded rubber bands. We tied the loops together to form a chain and then made the chain into a Chinese jump rope. The best part was that every time our rope broke I could repair it by just swapping out the wonky rubber band.
These days, this would be considered grounds for child services to get involved, but back then, this was just what life was like. We were dirt-poor. And when you're dirt-poor, your choice isn't between Barbie and My Little Pony. Your choice is between food, heat, and medicine, in that order. Toys never even entered the picture.
According to the US Census Bureau, in 1987, the national average wage in the United States was $18,426.51 per year per person. In China, it was 1,459 CNY, or $327, per year per person. To put that in perspective, earning enough to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System (Deluxe Set) at its then-retail price of $179 would have taken the average American worker less than a week. But for the average Chinese worker? The better part of a year.
Also, $327 per year was the earnings of the average individual, which included everyone in major urban centers. We lived in Taiping, a rural village with a population of just three thousand, so salaries were even lower — around two-thirds less. My entire family income, at one point, was 600 CNY, or $161, per year, or 44 American cents per day. My dad, my mom, and I had to live on less than 1 percent of an average American's daily salary.
I'm not telling you all this to crap on my childhood or make you feel bad for me. In fact, I'm pretty grateful that I grew up in this way, because I ended up developing something called the Scarcity Mind-set, which played a big part in making me who I am today.