Small notes are essential in China

If you are traveling to China and are looking for some advice, I’ve got one for you. Leave your credit card at home. Instead, bring small change – lots of it.

The reason for this advice is not because China is dirt cheap – forget about the days when lunch is 2 kuai (USD0.30) and a nice top is 20 (USD3). The underlying reason to this advice is much simpler than that – it’s just because salespeople in China are obsessed with small change.

Whether paying for a 0.4RMB bus ride (6 cents), or buying a 300RMB face wash (USD44), a lot of transactions in China are still done in cold cash. As a result, the locals carry all sorts of bills and coins to match each transaction. An easy way to gain some love from your salesperson here is to pay for a pricey purchase with small bills. A way to make him/her hate you? Just do exactly the opposite. Try use a RMB100 (USD14.66) bill to pay for something minuscule. You will most likely get yourself into the following scenario:

Step 1 – Gasp

Salesperson: Aiya! Why 100kuai bill?

You: Uh, I’m sorry(?).

Step 2 – Negotiate

Salesperson: No smaller change? Look again.

You: I don’t think so but I can try.

Step 3 – In denial

Salesperson: But what am I going to do? I have no smaller bills either.

You: Dude, that’s totally not my fault.

At this very strategic moment you have to stay strong. Remain affirmative. Then something miraculous will happen…

The shopkeeper will open his/her hidden drawer, and BAM!, there you see many small bills and coins resting quietly. It’s not because your local salesperson doesn’t have the small bills, most of the time they have quite a handful of them. They just don’t want to touch their holy shrine of small bills and coins.

In all honesty, I have gotten myself into semi fights so many times with this small change dilemma. I can confirm that it’s not worth it to fight. You rarely win and end up traumatizing yourself. (You’d be surprised how many people would rather walk than hail a cab when they don’t have small change…) So before you leave home, do yourself a favor – check your wallet and stack up the 1 kuai and 5 kuai bills. They are so much handier than your fancy Visa Platinum in China – at least for the time being.

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About the author

Napatra Charassuvichakanich is a Bangkok-born, Melbourne & Virginia-bred young professional now working in Beijing. She is a development fellowship recipient, working in fundraising and microfinance project management at a local grassroots NGO in cultural heritage preservation.