A wad of damp, sickly looking coloured notes clung to the inside of my pocket like so much lint and gum wrappers. I pulled out said wad before a store clerk and considered the rainbow of wet paper, the cornucopia of meaningless money before me. I tried to peel a few sickly, soggy slips from the clump, as some simple offering, a meagre supplication before this strange new altar. There were numbers on each, and I could read, and I could add, and yet none of those things particularly helped me. Yuan meant nothing to me, much as won had once meant so little, as rupees and baht and euros.
I had no viable concept for local money. The relative values and exchange rates gyrated across my synapses in a disturbing conga beyond my comprehension, visions from only the darkest obelisks sent from the spookiest, least sensible parts of space. I know that six yuan is one Canadian dollar is one thousand won is fifty rupees is something like 98 American cents. I know this fact and can repeat it by heart, can confirm via apps and research, can mentally convert great sums of multiple currencies given enough time, encouragement, and chocolate milk. But when confronted with a shopkeep who would really like for me to stop staring dumbly at him, drooling all over his counter with my bottle of off-brand local cola, I am a little adrift.
Exchange rates are theory, rather than practice. They are factoids kept and shared, interesting anecdotes to tell people back home, numbers to spit out when you want to sound knowledgeable about your environment. But in an actual place that requires your attention, your involvement, and your money, numbers mean nothing without a sense of value. Six yuan to a dollar is all well and good, but what does it mean if a packet of strawberries is forty two yuan?
Is that cheap or expensive? I can convert it, pain-stakingly in my brain, and consider whether I once thought that dollar value assigned to that item is actually worthwhile. I can stand and ponder, produce held limply in my drooping fist, eyes cast aloft in thought for scores of minutes. But by this time, several angry Chinese shoppers have amassed behind me and are hoping that dumb-dumb will stop navel-gazing over the cucumbers. And conversion only provides raw data, rather than a feeling.
At home, I know the value of a dollar. I know the raw, unfiltered emotion of a dollar. I know when I’m being ripped off, or when I’m getting a good deal, or when I’m comfortable separating myself from my precious lucre. I know what I should pay for an apple or a television or a taxi, how many dollars I should leave behind for a meal, the relative market value of a haircut. These nebulous weights have been programmed into my brain through years of re-use, and I can produce them and understand them at will, because they are just simply What Things Cost.
Far away and confronted by new currencies, by strange coins with holes and new colours on bills, I’m practically a rube. Barring absurd gougings, my margin of error for accepting prices balloons, and I am willing to simply accept prices at much higher frequencies. This bunch of bananas is 50 yuan, you say? Well, that certainly is a number value, and you really would like me to buy, and also this market is loud and confusing, so I’m just going to hand you money and run away and hope that I don’t break down in tears when I finally get time to do the math.
Greater difficulties abound when the different values for services appear in different countries. I know how many dollars it costs to get my hair cut in Canada, but if someone in Korea tried to charge me the equivalent price in won, or yuan in China, I would spit in their face and burn the barber shop to the ground for the insult. Should a Korean taxi ever try to charge me anything approaching the regular rates of a Canadian one, I would expect in-car champagne service, several escorts, and a trip from Seoul to Busan. The other direction applies, too: if fruit or cereal or wine cost as much back home as they did here, I would be so deeply aggrieved that I would consider pressing charges.
But this raft of relative numbers, of shifting weights and balances and how muches, can take a long time to develop. In China I still operate on Korea Expensive and Korea Cheap, or if I’m feeling particularly dull and inattentive I’ll use my Canadian defaults. I don’t know what the local opinion on hotels and electronics and onions and massages are yet, and thus I have to turn to my only available rubrics to assess price, and those are the ones used by people in far away places.
And thus at times I become a priggish spendthrift, a penny-penching Scrooge who clutches at my wallet and sneers and clenches his mouth into a tight butthole of sourness when I hear a price I don’t think is right. And other times I’m lackadaisical, money falling out of my pockets, bounding away from my person in a great shower of loosely held change. I can never tell when I’m being appropriate, and I won’t until things begin to click, until local prices become my Brain Prices, until I have the conversion rate epiphany. Until then, I just have no idea what anything costs.