Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Food taxes? Huh?

One thing I loved about China was the lack of sales tax. Let me be more specific. Although there are taxes on consumer products, these are added into the overall price set by the supermarket or shop. Thus, when you want to buy, say, a notebook for ¥2.5, shampoo for ¥15, cooking oil for ¥27.3, and bread ¥7.2, you will pay exactly ¥52 at the register. It was a great system.

That's one of the reasons I love shopping for food. Ohio, Nebraska, Iowa, Texas: I've lived in all of these places at one time or another. Food = no sales tax. I assumed that's how the US system worked. Articles like this from NPR also seem to take it for granted that food, in general, is a non-taxed item. It makes sense. The most vital resource needed by anyone, rich or poor, is food. There's no reason to stick  it to those in poverty by adding a tax onto the only thing they really need.

Then I moved to Arkansas.

I went about life as usual, assumptions and all. It was near the end of our first week that I noticed an interesting tax record on a receipt:
A recent receipt containing both food and non-food items.
Tax 1 and tax 2? What is that?

After crunching the numbers, it became clear that the 9.750% was the regular state and local sales tax and the 4.750% was the state and local sales tax for food. The state calls this a "reduced state food tax". Meanwhile, Washington county and Fayetteville, just tack on their local sales taxes with no reduction whatsoever. This seems somewhat reprehensible for a state that ranked 45th in per capita income in 2012 and had the 4th highest poverty rate in the US in 2012.

It makes me miss China. I'm sure there were taxes involved in the pricing, but at least we didn't have to think about them. At least we could live life as if those taxes didn't exist.

Do you pay sales tax on food? Do you think states or local governments should charge food taxes?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Putting your hand to the plow

Image from http://iowahomestead.wordpress.com/
There is a short dialogue in the Gospel of Luke that goes like this:
Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 
Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
It's a short dialogue, one in a series of three in Luke 9. A few weekends ago I heard a pastor link it to the call of Elisha in 1 Kings 19:
So [Elijah] departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and cast his cloak upon him. And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” And he returned from following him and took the yoke of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the yokes of the oxen and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him.
The pastor later likened this to a business owner burning down his business (as opposed to selling it) to be overseas missionaries. (If you want to listen for yourself, go to 29:50 here.)

It got me thinking. One of the reasons that coming back to the US has been so difficult for me was that I took my hand off the plow and didn't turn back. I was in China; I didn't need to maintain all my professional ties (e.g. organizations, departments) in the US. I was in China; I didn't need to save or invest money in the US. I was in China; I didn't really need to keep up on all the ins and outs of US living.

It's not that I couldn't have done those things. It's not that it wouldn't have been useful in some ways. It just seemed superfluous. "I'm not there (US); I'm here (China)." I missed a decade of raises, promotions, and professional development; relationships, family history, and community investment.

Paths diverged. I took my hands off the plow. I burned it. I didn't look back. Then I had to return, without plow and without vision.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Trying to make ends meet

Northwest Arkansas is a good place to be, though not without its struggles.
The disparity is obvious.

There are obvious advantages to living in the US generally, and Fayetteville, Arkansas, specifically. I've written some about these before. Clean air is a wonderful thing, as is safer food. Crossing the street in considerably less dangerous. The internet is open (i.e. no Great Firewall of China). Green space is abundant. Fayetteville bike trails are amazing; I can commute by bike without traffic concerns in 35 minutes. Considerably less time is spent driving in Fayetteville than in Texas, so my gas bills are way lower.

But in the US my family will barely scratch by. With government-backed medical coverage for the kids, we'll scratch by.

I've been running numbers through our budget. If we stop spending money from one account, Liao Sha and the kids may be able to go back to China for a month or so toward the end of the summer, but I'm not sure when another opportunity would arise. I think we can save $100 a month toward our next used car. I think we can afford to save $50 for each child each month. After that? Retirement funds? They don't exist.  Toys for the kids? Maybe I could take it out of their savings...

I never thought about problems like these in China. We lived in a developing country, but my job supported a modest, frugal living standard. I had health insurance through my employer, and medical care was (comparatively) cheap even without it; I don't recall ever using it. But in the US, even with employer-sponsored health insurance, we'll pay a not insignificant amount each month, not to mention the high deductible. Thankfully we're in good shape.

In China, we were able to purchase a home (a loan, at least) and make early payments. Money for a down payment on our own home here in the US? I don't know where it will come from, not without selling our home in China, which would feel akin to saying we don't plan to return, especially since the mortgage is being paid by renters. In China we were able to give and lend money to many people and causes, but we'll be hard-pressed to do much of that here.

Then again, I've heard someone say (paraphrased), "It's not giving unless it interrupts your lifestyle."

A pastor at a church we attended last week gave an example of a household with a $70,000 income, and then rhetorically asked what happens when they get a raise to $80,000? His answer: They think they should no live at their $80,000 level. Hearing this, I thought: "Am I among people who think that $70,000 or $80,000 is a normal salary?

I'll never see that much. Nowhere close to that much. Not without major occupational changes.

I didn't go into teaching for a high salary or high standard of living. I didn't go to China for a high salary or high standard of living. It's never really bothered me, and I don't really care about standard of living now. But I've also never before had to face the reality of being almost poor (lower lower middle class) with a family.

This a learning experience like I've never had before. The learning curve is steep, and the margin for error is small. I'm sure I'll learn a lot along the way. Let the good times roll!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Amos and the metamorphosis of pronunciation

The Famous Amos brand logo in its Thai incarnation

My youngest son's name is Amos.

It's not a common name, but it could be called a "classic". I suppose it could possibly be becoming one of those retro trendy names, but I wouldn't know.

It's Amos, just like the name in the classic radio show: Amos and Andy. I'm not sure if people nowadays consider the radio show offensive or not. It was before my time, anyway.

It's Amos. Amos as in Famous Amos, the cookie named after Wally Amos, the founder of the brand. Famous and Amos: They rhyme. Here's the IPA: /ˈfeɪməs/ and /ˈeɪməs/. (Test it yourself at PhoTransEdit.) Notice they're the same, except for the initial /f/ on famous. If you know how to say famous, then Amos should be easy.

Evidently it's not.

Since returning to the US, I've been astounded and annoyed by the inability of people to pronounce his name. The most common mispronunciation is a clear strong 'o', like in most (IPA: /moʊst/) rather than the schwa (/ə/) found in general American pronunciation. There's also a stress difference. Thus, I usually hear /ɑːˈmoʊs/ not the correct /ˈeɪməs/.

I have five ideas to explain this, all of which may be partially the case:

  1. People in this century simply don't recognize the name any longer, so they don't know how to pronounce it.
  2. The effect of Spanish and Spanish speaking people on US culture and language has become so strong over the decade I was away that people not see Amos, and assume a Spanish pronunciation, such as in the surname Ramos or in the word/phrase vamos (Let's go!)
  3. Most people named Amos in today's world are hispanic, and the commonly used pronunciation follows that trend.
  4. I've only been in Texas and Arkansas (with a few phone calls about Amos from New Jersey). Perhaps the rest of the country does just fine pronouncing Amos.
  5. Tori Amos has such a huge fan base, that people have made her surname's pronunciation is the standard.
Would you have struggled with this name if you saw it on your list? If you know his surname (Showman), would you assume a general American pronunciation or a Spanish influenced pronunciation. If you weren't sure, which side would you err on?

All in all, I never imagined people would have difficulty with the name Amos. It seemed like such a classic name: not common, yet not unfamiliar. I guess I was wrong.

If you see me and you see my son, please learn how to say his name. I won't get angry with you, but I will feel annoyed.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Hopes for my children

Baby dedications were happening at the church we attended last weekend. It was here, if you must know. One particular dedication struck me: that of a family dedicating three children they'd adopted last month. I don't know any particulars. Were they brothers and sister prior to adoption? Were they the children of relatives? I don't know anything, but it moved me.

But digress.

What I really want to write about is the "life verse" practice. Each family had a verse picked out for the each child being dedicated. Not a bad practice. I suppose the verses are the hopes of those parents for those children. It led me to ask what I would cite for my children.

The immediate answer that came to mind was, "Weep with those who weep." As I sat there, I started thinking through that passage from Romans 12, realizing that I don't think I could do a life verse. I love context too much. It would have to be a life passage.

Here's the passage within some context:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.
Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.
But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21)
I can't explain why this stands out to me, but as I sat there ruminating the text, I can to the conclusion that, yes, this is what I want for my boys. It's what I want to see in me. I don't think it's an idealistic picture of life. It's a call to really live.

I'm not there. I hope to be. I hope my boys will be.

And just to be provocative: It's difficult to never pay back evil, to feed an enemy, and to overcome evil with good when pointing a gun at that enemy.