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?