Monday, February 19, 2007

1000 Cents, etc

1000 cents (a few more notes on High Value Currency Units)

The highest monetary denomination in the world is probably the Kuwaiti dinar ( worth some $3.4 )which is broken not into 100 cents but 1000 “cents”, called “fils”. It takes time to get used to those as well as other 1000 cent denominations in the Arabian Gulf. The other high value one is the Bahraini Dinar, (some $2.6), again subdivided into “fils”, and the Omani Riyal ( worth $2.6), whose lower denomination is called baisa; one gets 1000 baisa in one Riyal.

I tend to respect such high value currency units. When you have a few dinars in your pocket, you feel like you are carrying money. 20 dinars will buy you a phone, a few hundred will buy you a motorcycle. Half a dinar is also money with which you can pay for a taxi ride around town.

So, basically these are “1000-cent dollars” or “1000-pence pounds” as it were. When one is introduced to such money, one feels confused. Some people tend to begin hoarding them as they pay attention to the fact that it has so many pennies, others feel that as one “dollar” or “pound” tend to spend them more profligately. “An airplane ticket to London for 200 dinars? I will buy I”t. They still think these are dollars. They would think twice about buying it if they saw that 200 riyals is actually almost $700

But then, again, if you are in the savings mode, you will only need 600 dinars to put $2000 in your bank accounts in your home country. So, depending on which end of the use of the currency you look at, the spending end or the savings end, it will be either easy or hard to save.

I found it helpful to think of one such dinar or “1000-cent” riyal as $10 or GBP10. Actually, it will roughly buy in the Middle East what $10 will buy you back home. So, a 200 dinar ticket to London is basically a $2000 purchase. I guess, if you look at it this way, it will help you save and keep you from spending too much.

I kind of learned to like all these 1000 cent monetary units. However, I still saved much less in Oman then I did in Saudi Arabia where they have normal 100 cent (called halalah) money.

A Good Deed That May Go Unpunished

I have noticed an interesting “phenomenon” in some poorer countries- in supermarkets people put all kinds of items in the shopping cart and, at the cash register, they run out of money and have to leave items in a special place to be returned later. It is very embarrassing for them and embarrassing for the store. Both the shopper and the cashier smile sheepishly and try and deflect the situation by looking non-chalant as if nothing has happened. Inside, both feel lousy.

Several times, when seeing people like that in front of me, eating crow and smiling shyly, I would pull out the money and pay for those goods. Usually, it would be some $5-10 in local currency. Some people would be very glad to accept the money and look upon me as if I were a saint, others would refuse to take it (initially that is) and then accede to my “demands” to take the money later. Cashiers would beam a grateful smile at me regardless.

I did it in one Muslim country (that was not rich) and the person whose goods I paid for was staring at me and mumbling- “You are Muslim, you are a Muslim!” with a smile of shock upon his face. I guess that is how they expected a true Muslim to act.

It is a small thing, an extra favor that you can do to people and it will cost you very little. It may run against your values of self-reliance, independence and self help and things like that but in many poorer places, those values are either not taught or are hard to practice. So, if you want to do a good thing for a fellow human being, sometimes an opportunity to do that can wait for you at your local supermarket.

The Inscrutable East Asian

People often accuse the Japanese, the Koreans and the Chinese of being inscrutable or having stone-like expressions on their faces that do not reveal any emotions or feelings. What are they thinking? One can never guess.

A Westerner would contrast his own people with tem saying that we, Americans, for example, are open and we let people know exactly how we feel. That is what he thinks, anyway.

The truth of the matter is that most civilized nations would rarely talk straight and have some kind of diplomatic code to avoid direct insults and confrontations. A lot of unpleasant messages are presented through indirect verbal expressions and body language. In English, “don’t call us, we’ll call you” usually means that they will not call. By knowing that that is what it probably means, you do not sit waiting by the phone for hours, do you? Also, even in the US, people can smile at you and still not like you but you have seen those fake smiles before and you know how to recognize them.

It is the same with the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans within their own societies. They have their own body language and their own fake smiles and their own non-confrontational ways of saying ‘no’ which they can see but which you still cannot. If you stay there for a long time, though, you will be able to learn their own diplomacy and even become as “fake” as they are and be as indirect as they are. Although, now, it will seem quite direct to you.

It is ironic that while the Japanese have the reputation for being vague, some say the same about the Thais. I remember seeing my Japanese friend yelling at his Thai wife-“ talk straight, don’t beat around the bush. The Japanese always talk straight, why you, Thais, cannot?”

It was funny, though, how after two years in Japan, the Japanese began to seem to be very frank since I did learn to recognize even the most subtle indicators of “yes’s” and “no’s”, of “I don’t like it”,” it’s not possible”, and other expressions; they appeared as very clear answers to me and the communication was now very effective as I learned all the unspoken body signs and began reading them fluently. The Japanese people were no longer inscrutable at all.
And after a long time in Thailand I could read the eyes behind the smiles and know exactly what the Thai people were thinking while at first I could not. It takes time to learn those things.

I, on the other hand, began to seem very indirect and sneaky to Westerners when I came in contact with them again.

So, do not think of East Asians inscrutable. Stick around and you will learn to read them like an open book.

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