At the Hamburg airport, where I had arrived from China and where I would depart for Denmark, I tracked down a copy of the August 12, 2010, London Times. There aren’t a lot of English papers floating around Jinan, at least not English papers that don’t have China’s Communist Party as editor-in-chief. I was accordingly giddy to see such a storied publication when I dropped back into the West, so I beelined to the currency exchange and then hit the newsstand.
That Times, however, didn’t go down so well. It read like a terminal diagnosis for the world economy.
The day before, the Bank of England declared that it could take several years for England’s economy to return to full health. The dollar fell to a fifteen-year low against the Japanese yen, while the U.S. trade deficit “appears to be leading to a global slowdown,” prompting a chief economist in England to say, “This is spectacularly terrible.” Oh, and stock markets in China, Europe and the United States tumbled amid “transatlantic gloom.”
At that moment, I yearned for the rosy propaganda of The China Daily, and for China in general, where I had been shielded from such economic realities.
Just look at how I used to get around Jinan. There were of course the taxis, which were a telltale sign of disposable dough. Everyone wanted to be in a taxi, for the cheaper alternative, buses, were wretched – from the jarring cold (or suffocating heat) to the Chinese’s uncanny willingness to cohabit the same point in the space-time continuum. Most foreign teachers didn’t mess with the bus because, well, we didn’t have to. We took taxis, which usually cost about ten times as much.
When not in a taxi, I was on my little red scooter, which I bought after a half-year in Jinan. I would have bought it sooner except that it’s illegal for non-licensed drivers to have gas-powered vehicles in China, and God only knows how a Kansan goes about getting properly licensed in China.
Eventually, though, in early 2010, the specter of carrying out Grand Theft Auto reenactments on the streets of Jinan was simply too enticing, law be damned. Thus did some co-workers and I go to a bike market – China has a “market” for just about every noun you could think of, from silk to knives to animals – to look for motorbikes. Naturally, we took taxis to get there.
The bike market was just that – row after row of every conceivable genus of bike. Big motorcycles, mopeds, three-wheeled flatbeds. If it had an engine and less than four wheels, it was there.
There was a cluster of bikes that caught our attention. They were red with black seats, tiny wheels and rickety metal baskets pinned to the front. We told the proprietor of this particular family of bikes that we were interested. He unlocked the chain that bound them together and grabbed a water bottle full of gasoline. The one that would eventually become mine didn’t have a key, but instead a pair of wires dangling out the front; the wires, when connected, acted as the ignition. This feature would give the illusion of hot-wiring the vehicle every time I started it, which for some reason I took to be a perk.
Riding this puppy to work in the mornings, I used the desolate streets as my own personal racetrack. I was none too worried about speeding or breaking laws because, as we came to realize, the police in Jinan would simply chuckle upon seeing foreigners on motorbikes. I employed the same lawless attitude after work, when the streets were cluttered with a volume of cars that could only be achieved in the world’s most populous country. I darted in and out of traffic, eschewed red lights and hopped up on the sidewalk when need be. The Chinese drove like this, too, and who was I to impose on their culture.
For a twenty-four-year-old male, the bike was orgasmic. And it cost me 250 yuan, which as conversion rates would have it was $37.76.
But when I dropped down in Aarhus in August 2010, I realized that getting from here to there would be a little less fun.
Chinese money, when exposed to Western economies, withers and dies. That goes for most any Western economy, but Denmark is particularly toxic. The bus ride from the Aarhus airport to the city center was ninety-five kroner. For comparison’s sake, this was more than what it had cost to take a taxi home from the Jinan airport. It was nearly half what it cost me to buy that motorbike.
Once downtown, I hopped on a different bus, one that would ship me to my neighborhood a few miles away. It was cheaper, but only in a relative sense: It cost nineteen kroner, or about four dollars. The same ride in China would have cost one yuan, or about seventeen cents.
The rude awakening to Danish finances continued the next day at the supermarket. The supermarket, tellingly, was next door to a Rolex watch store, which should have been a tip-off. A six-pack of Carlsberg (Carlsberg is like Denmark’s Budweiser) would set me back about ten U.S. dollars. A little bottle of grapefruit juice would cost about six dollars, and a pair of bottom-end frozen pizzas even more. Without being able to eat out at least once a day, as I had in China, I was counting on beer, vitamin C and frozen pizza much the way a panda would count on bamboo. Unfortunately my bamboo was a bit pricy.
I began to think that my inventive plan for skirting debt might lead straight to bankruptcy. Thankfully I was wrong.
I was absolved from paying tuition fees in Demark because Aarhus University had, in all its benevolence, bestowed upon me a full tuition waiver. The money was coming straight from the pockets of Danish taxpayers and given to me because, I can only assume, I had a good application and good grades as an undergrad. This charity played a big role in me landing in Denmark, for while the degree might not be worth anything in the long run, it would cost nothing in the short run. The tuition waiver was worth a total of 8,000 euros, or roughly $11,000, which was almost exactly the size of Northwestern’s scholarship. The difference being, of course, that Northwestern’s offer was good for one-quarter of the tuition, and this one was good for 100 percent of tuition.
Within days, Denmark smiled upon me again. In my mailbox sat a letter from Aarhus University. It read:
Aarhus University is pleased to inform you that you have been awarded a tuition-free enrollment.
This I already knew. The next part, however, was a palpitation-inducing shock:
In addition, you will receive a monthly scholarship of DKK 5,200 in the following period: 1 September 2010 – 31 July 2011.
“DKK 5,200” means 5,200 Danish kroner. At the time, 5,200 Danish kroner equaled about $900. The university and the State of Denmark – in apparent collaboration with Santa Claus – had deemed me worthy not only of a free education, but of a slightly lucrative education. Going to school in Denmark, it turned out, would be the highest-paying job I’d ever had.
I don’t know exactly why I was granted this scholarship. But my theory is that it had everything to do with begging. After turning down the American schools, I shot frantic notes to every email address at Aarhus University that I could track down – heads of departments, professors, even the people who designed the university’s Web page. As my theory goes, each and every one of those emails was forwarded on to the student liaison in the journalism department, one Bettina Andersen, whose name, blonde hair and relentless friendliness were all perfectly Danish. She must have sensed how hopeless I was, and therefore submitted my name into the pool of applicants eligible to receive money from the university (again, via the Danish taxpayer).
Things got better yet. Immediately after arriving, I went to the university newspaper to pander for a job. The paper was mostly in Danish, but they did have an International section, as well as some English content on their website. I had written them a few times the preceding summer to ask about work opportunities. They told me that they would have an opening in the coming January, but I pretended not to know the months and went over there within days of arrival. I took them a bunch of clips and assured them that I was eager to write, record podcasts and do anything else that needed doing. To seal the deal, I even proposed a clause in the contract that forbade me from ogling at all of the bombshell Danes – Ida, Heidi, Astrid and the rest – who worked in the office.
They called me about twenty minutes after I left to tell me that I was the new International Reporter, and that my compensation would be about DKK 110 per hour – which, depending the exchange rate, was somewhere between $19 and $21. Coupled with Denmark’s mysteriously generous stipends and scholarships, I would be able to afford all the pizza, grapefruit juice and beer I ever wanted. I wouldn’t be eating out or buying motorbikes – even comfortable salaries are gobbled up by Danish prices – but I would nonetheless be fed, be educated, and be writing.