Dirty Money

There is a belief that many people in the U.S. have lost that I frequently encountered in China about money.  Money is seen as very dirty, both in the sense of dirt and germs.  On one hand, it makes perfect sense that people would want to wash their hands before eating, especially if they’ve just handled money which has been circulating and picking up all kinds of nasties from who knows where.  Especially as my initial time in China was just after SARS, everyone was exceedingly careful about washing up after handling money at all.  However, I’ve always been supremely confident in my own resistance to microscopic invaders.  I generally ignored the handwashing rules and proceeded to inoculate myself against local bacteria as quickly as possible through exposure.

However, money in excess makes me ill in a way that bacteria can’t.  When I first moved to Boston, i spent a period of time temping at the lock box of a bank.  While that particular job was both exceedingly stressful and exceedingly boring and I quickly left it, it did give me some particular insights as to the way money flows.  I can remember delicately handling checks and double-checking amounts when I was dealing with numbers that were more than I would see in a few year’s salary.  I remember angry or pathetic letters enclosed with payments, since money is one of those things that can stir anyone’s emotions.  I can remember day after day of deadlines in a miserable little fluorescent-lighted box.  It was not a pleasant period for me, but I survived, and I would guess that passing sickness made me stronger.

My current job is also somewhat boring, and occasionally stressful.  However, the compensation is much better and the overall work environment is the best I’ve ever experienced.  People work hard, work well together, and are generally happy with their jobs.  I love my boss, with his friendly personality and yet serious demands.  He’s a genuinely good guy, and so is almost everyone else I come into contact with here.  But it’s a big-money office that often deals with the financial movers and shakers of the world, which means that I’ve also come into contact with very serious professionals who are, at best, cold.  In my hubris, I feel I deserve more than that, even as a lowly admin.  Yet at times there are events which bring me up short, times when I see the uneccessary wealth around me and it makes me slightly sick again.  We are all working, after all, to make as much money as possible, which cannot help but shape the outlook we have on the people we work with.

Ten years ago, those in positions equivalent to that of my boss were receiving bonuses greater than my annual salary.  Last year, those same positions won more from bonuses alone than I expect to ever see my salary increase to.  I know nothing of these people, what they might be like, if they are decent human beings and a blessing to their neighbors or are totally reprehensible slugs.  I don’t know how they might spend their money, what their goals in life are, or how they’ve worked to reach the position they are currently in.  But the numbers alone freeze my mind, like the thought of counting a cupful of sand grains, then a bucketful, then a whole beach.  There is no meaning there anymore – I am half-afraid to even think about those large numbers, half-afraid of what they mean.

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