Buddy, Can You Spare a Mao?


On the sidewalks, parked and ready, are blue, yellow, orange, and red dockless bikes.

This week James has come to our apartment twice to help us regulate the heat. One morning I wake up feeling like a steamed dumpling; in the afternoon on the same day I layer up in the living room, trying to keep warm. When we call the desk downstairs, in five minutes James appears at the door. He is thin, dressed in black pants and the property company blazer. He looks like he’s in his late 20s, medium height, with a shock of black hair and black glasses. He kicks off his shoes and goes to the thermostat.  His English is pretty good, though he’s a more fluent speaker than listener.  When I see him around the building, he’s always in a hurry. We say hello to each other now.

One day I get on the elevator, and there he is, going down.

Nihao, James.  I smile, then turn away.

James is holding a huge pile of pink banknotes, a stack four inches high. I was taught there are a few things you don’t talk about in public, sex and money, for example. James has his hand clamped around a lot of money.  I don’t say anything; it would not be polite to look. Maybe the Chinese are okay with displays of cash, the way some cultures are cool with nudity.

And maybe it’s not that much money.

Before coming to Shanghai, I really should have studied up a little more on money and money etiquette.

Here is a defining image of the feckless tourist: poking at strange coins cupped in his hand, thumbing through assorted bills on a street corner or, worse, in front of a cash register.  How much is this? I’m holding a 50. But 50 what? Is that a lot or a little?

cappuccino receipt

Money matters are never easy at first.

For tourists, China is pretty much a cash economy. Learning the money is an urgent matter. You expect to pay cash for chicken feet on the street, but at the Nike store?  Your Visa card is useless. Don’t bother leaving home with your American Express.  And unlike Europe, where ATM’s are all over the place, here they are rare, and most of them will not accept your Bank of America ATM card.

Second day we’re here, my son-in-law takes me to the Bank of China a few blocks from the apartment. There are four ATM machines, only one equipped with English.

“Get the max,” he says.

“That’s 3000.” It seems a lot. Or is it?

Chinese money is called RMB, short for Renminbi, which means “people’s currency.” It’s also called CNY, which is short for Chinese Yuan. One Chinese Yuan equals about .15 dollar. The Yuan is broken down into 10 jiao, sometimes called “mao,” and the jiao is broken down into 10 fen. Buddy, can you spare a mao?

Gradually I get a handle on things, though in passing I keep referring to RMB as RBI’s (I always wanted a lot of RBI’s).

At Bank of China I enter my pin, press Enter, and the machine chatters for a few seconds.  When it stops, I pull out my 3000 RBI’s in 30 crisp pink C-notes, which I fold and shove deep in my pants pocket. I do the math.  $450 or so. At home I never walk around with that much cash on me.

With that wad in my pocket I think, of course, about being mugged.

On the flight over, I sat next to a woman whose husband works in Shanghai.  They take turns shuttling back and forth between LA and Shanghai. Through most of the flight she wore a mask, wrapped herself in a scarf, and slept. Upon landing, she turned to me and asked what brought me to Shanghai.  We chatted a minute.

I asked her how safe Shanghai is.

“Very safe,” she said. “You can be on the street late at night, without fear.  Even the single woman.”


“No,” she said. “Crime is not a problem.  The real danger is traffic.”

So true.

I could easily get run over with those C-notes in my pocket.

2018-01-12 05.07.29

Our building is on a one-way street.  There are a lot of one-way streets in Shanghai, most of them with bike lanes that go in both directions, on either side of the road.  Perhaps the one-way street is part of the city’s traffic management program. On these streets you find cars, trucks, motorcycles, electric motor scooters, electric bicycles, electric bicycle trucks, conventional bicycle trucks, and conventional bicycles. Look both ways when you step off the sidewalk.  Look very, very carefully.  Whatever is coming at you is likely to be electric or foot-powered and whisper quiet.

Traffic is dense and, by law, very very quiet, thanks to an official crackdown on horns and parking and bad manners. In an interview with Sixth Tone, Fresh Voices From Today’s China, Wei Kairen, a former deputy head of traffic police, comments on Shanghai’s “big traffic overhaul.”  It’s all about helping implement policies to “keep the city’s traffic situation civilized.”  She adds, “We have established and enforced ‘no-blaring zones’ and clamped down on illegal horn use. Even though it might seem like a small act, this kind of behavior is uncivilized and encourages road rage.” It’s against the law here, evidently, to be inconsiderate.


In this city of bicycles, an experiment is underway to make the city even more bicycle friendly. On the sidewalks, parked and ready, are blue, yellow, orange, and red dockless bikes; according to a recent count as many as 500,000 of them. There are so many dockless bikes, along with the privately owned bikes and scooters parked on the sidewalk, that pedestrians are often forced into the street, where you can be very quietly run over. (Then again, you can be quietly run over on the sidewalk, too, as electric scooter drivers are not disinclined to use the sidewalk when it’s convenient.)

bikes on the sidewalk

I contemplate taking a dockless bike for a spin, when traffic is at low tide, like on a Sunday morning at 6:00 a.m. They cost 0.5 to 1 Yuan for a 30-minute ride.  I just might do that, but I can’t. There is no way to pay for one. Mobike, Ofo, Bluegogo, Xiaoming, and Coolqi do not take credit cards. Forget cash. Bluegogo and all the others are a no-go unless you have WeChat or Alipay, apps that are connected to your Chinese bank account.

Which brings us back to money.

If I rode a Bluegogo bike for a couple hours, what would that really cost?  How many Yuan it that? And what’s that in dollars?

Every day here you are faced with story problems like that.

And like this:

Rick is up early and would like a cappuccino.  He walks to Bread Etc., takes a seat, and orders coffee.  If one Yuan equals .15 US dollars, and a cappuccino costs 30 RMB, how much does Rick pay for his cappuccino?

And this:

Rick is hungry for fresh fruit.  He goes to a Shanghai vegetable market to buy fruit.  He buys six bananas for 16 RMB, 4 apples, and a kilo of brown rice for 28 RMB.  When he gets to the cash register, the cashier rings up his apples twice, 2 for 38 RMB. What is the total cost of these groceries in RMB? In US dollars, how much does Rick pay for his groceries?  (Extra credit: calculate the cost per apple in US dollars. State your opinion: Did Rick get screwed? Support your answer by referring to your calculations.)

Every day is fraught with moments like these.

One solution is to cast your cares to the wind and just pass one of your C-notes over the counter, even if you’re buying one item, like a pack of AA batteries. Outside the store, you stand contemplating your receipt, doing the math after the fact.  What, only 17 RMB for ten batteries? That’s $2.55 for batteries.  What a great deal.

On the other hand, if you’re keen on monitoring your expenses and not appearing like a dunce to the cashier, you try to do the math before you get to the register. A baguette is 15 RMB, which, let’s see, is $2.25. Not bad.  Doing this saves you the grief of standing at the cash register and being told, in Chinese, repeatedly, how many RBI’s you need to hand over.

A couple days ago I went to the F-Mart next door for a liter of milk. I made the mistake of not looking at the price and doing the math beforehand.  The cashier took the bottle, rang it up, told me what I owed.

I handed her a 10 RMB note.

She shook her head.

I reached in my pocket and handed her a bunch of coins, nodding the nod that says, in English, anyway, take the money you need so I can get out of here.

She looked at the coins, shook her head, and handed them back. She repeated herself, telling me what I owed, quite a bit louder, and gave me the look: Blockhead. Behind me there was a long line.  At the next two registers were equally long lines.

I pulled out a few more bills from my pocket. Let’s see, I have 10’s and 20’s. How much could milk possibly cost? Forgetting that 10 is not 10, really, in China. It’s actually $1.50.  Once more she asked for more money. I handed her another 10 RBI note, and she gave me back a few coins (Yuan or jiao or mao or fen), and I was out of there.

It was peak rush hour on the street. The sidewalk was crowded. I walked carefully back to the apartment, thinking I couldn’t possibly be more feckless.

pain chaud


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