Monday, April 10, 2006

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 14 -- Dialing for Dollars

"If you don't want anyone to know, then don't do it."
--Chinese proverb

I was in a bind. My vacation was getting closer, and I still hadn't found a way to convert my Chinese yuan into U.S. dollars. Every bank I hit said they couldn't do it. China is the roach motel of foreign exchange policy: dollars go in, but they don't come out.

I was wary of street currency traders, for reasons I detailed in an earlier story. But they seemed to be my only option.

Luckily, Xiao came to my rescue. She's one of my students, a Chinese businesswoman preparing to relocate to the United States. Part of that preparation included converting her money into dollars before the big move. Xiao offered to set me up with her money man.

So that was how I found myself in the lobby of a crumbling office building on a side street, wondering if I'd been set up to be robbed. Xiao was with me, answering her cell phone every few minutes to give the money man directions to the building. Her eyes flitted to everyone who walked in. Was she watching for cops?

Finally, a disheveled-looking man in tattered clothes walked in. Everything about him screamed "homeless bum!" except for the big, gleaming leather satchel he held under one arm. Totally shady. I felt like I was doing a drug deal.

Xiao introduced him as Yang Li. He grunted and got straight to business, opening up the satchel. Packs of cash nearly burst out of the bag. Yuan, euros, dollars, he had it all.

Through Xiao, I told him I wanted to exchange 1600 RMB. Yang Li muttered something.

"He says you pay 5 RMB for each 800 RMB you exchange," Xiao translated. "So for 1610 RMB, you get 200 dollars."

That meant his fee was like 50 cents for every 100 dollars! That was way too cheap. Now I was worried he'd pass me counterfeits.

Yang Li presented two crisp, new hundred-dollar bills to me.

Being prepared, I took out a hundred-dollar bill I'd brought from America. I held his bills and mine to the sunlight. Mine had a slightly smaller picture of Ben Franklin on the right side of the bill that appeared in the light. His also had them. I rubbed the paper between my fingers. Felt the same, too. Hard to believe such clean money could come from such a dirty man.

I nodded and gave him 1610 RMB.

Yang Li counted money the way all Chinese people do. He curled the bills around his middle finger and flipped down each bill with his other hand.

Business done, he closed up the case and left without saying goodbye. Xiao left soon after.

I was still feeling disoriented. My first foray into the dark side went entirely too fast. It was really easy too, which was frightening. I didn't want this to be the start of a trend.

Now that I had real money, I concentrated on happier things. My next destination offered 32 to the dollar, so I felt rich already!

For more on this subject, check out Lost in Transaction, an article by travel writer Rolf Potts.