It is fortunate that last week I wrote about Ayi, because if you read that post you have the background to fully appreciate the following story. If you haven’t read the last post, please redirect yourself to the post entitled “On Ayi” before continuing to read this entry. I hope that you will find this story as funny as I did.

Just a quick refresher: Ayi is the woman who comes to our house twice a week to clean and cook. She is a migrant worker from Henan who works every day of the week cleaning and cooking for various families and students. She has received little if any formal education. We love her and respect the work she does for us, and this story is not intended to poke fun at her but rather to laugh and learn from a small yet hilarious misunderstanding.

Yesterday at 5pm Ayi came over as she usually does on Sundays before heading to the market to buy ingredients for dinner. Alec and I accompanied her to the market so that we could practice our Chinese and help her decide what we wanted for dinner (pictures of the shopping here). Soon we were back at home, eating a delicious meal that Ayi had prepared for us, and stuffing ourselves until we could eat no more. Ayi cleaned the table as we slowly got up and tried to find something to distract us so we wouldn’t have to return to our homework for the night. Ayi, always eager to talk to us, began telling us about how she had found some coins on the sidewalk, but she didn’t know where they were from or how much they were worth.

Eager to postpone homework, we talked to her, trying to figure out where the currency could have come from (she didn’t have it on her). Jared went to his room and returned with an American quarter, and sure enough Ayi confirmed that this indeed was the coin she had found. Ayi pointed out that it was very strange that there were no numbers anywhere on the coin, and that only if you could read english would you have any idea how much the coin was worth – a pretty fair point, I can’t think of another country that has currency like that. Realizing that she probably hadn’t seen any American currency before, I grabbed a penny, a nickle, and a dime from my bag and gave them to Ayi to investigate (also no numbers on these).

Seeing how curious Ayi was with these coins, Jared asked if she had ever seen an American dollar bill, and pulled out a $1 bill from his wallet and presented it to Ayi. Again, Ayi had never seen an American dollar before, and she asked how many Chinese RMB it was worth. We explained that it was worth 6.3 RMB, a fact that shocked her, and she exclaimed that now she knew why Americans could spend so much money in China. She had never known before that there was a great disparity between the US dollar and the Chinese RMB, something that I was at first shocked by, but then I realized that she had no reason to have any knowledge of the international exchange rate.

Jared then produced at a $20 bill from his wallet and handed it to Ayi. Ayi looked at it, and then exclaimed that this bill must be over 100 RMB. She looked at it closely, and then compared it to the $1 bill, noticing that there were different presidents on each bill, and still wrapping her head around the ridiculous exchange rate.

Seeing her obvious fascination with this foreign money, Jared suddenly remembered that he had more bills, reached into his pocket once again, and handed her this.

It took probably five full seconds for Ayi to process what Jared had just handed her – a fifty billion dollar Zimbabwe dollar bill. Unable to make any sense of any of the words, and never having seen any currency other than RMB before, she clasped the bill tightly, counting the 0’s following the 5. In her eyes you could see the wheels in her head turning as she quickly calculated that this bill in her hand, presumably another American bill, must be worth 320 billion Chinese RMB.

I can only imagine the insane thoughts that must have been going through her head. Only a few minutes before she had just learned that America’s currency was 7x as valuable as China’s, and now she was holding over 1% of China’s total annual GDP. Who did she think we were? Or what did she think life in America must be like? Maybe she thought about making a dash for it, maybe she thought about killing us, I don’t know, but I will say that the look in her eyes was one that I had never seen and will probably never see again. It was a look of absolute and utter astonishment, confusion, and wonder, all focused on the piece of paper with 10 zero’s in her hand.

After a few seconds she asked quietly in Chinese, “This is your country’s money?” To which Jared, immediately realizing the great misunderstanding, tried as best he could to explain that the money was from a failed economy that underwent massive inflation, and as such was completely worthless.

The humor of course lies in the utter absurdity of the amount of money. If it were a $10,000, or even a $100,000 that still would have equaled a serious quantity of RMB. But this was 50 billion dollars. 50 billion! That was the total cost of the war in Iraq in 2003. Like I said, I just can’t even imagine what she must have been thinking.

Obviously this was just a simple misunderstanding, and one that was quickly cleared up. Clearly nothing in any of her experiences would have prepared her to discern a Zimbabwe dollar from an American dollar. Afterwards she was a good sport and had a good laugh with us about it. Still though, the look in her eyes for those couple seconds – worth a billion dollars.