Before setting foot on this grand first world country, I had to exchange money into 2000 USD in cash, because for one, I heard US shopping outlets are ridiculously cheap, for another, although there was a 30 million dong limit credit card ready in my my wallet at the time, I had no desire to touch it (spending on a credit line means getting charged interest means getting in avoidable debt, so – No, thanks!)
As inexperienced as we were, we exchanged money into a pile of $100 notes from some currency counter on Phung Hung street. This was easier to keep in wallets, more convenient to count than thicker pile of smaller notes, so we didn’t see any problem with it. But that was exactly where the problems started. First trouble begun at the airport. Check in, check, customs, check, trolleys, on our way to get them. Dragging, heaving along with us heaps of camcorders, tripods, lights, luggages, we were desperate for some trolleys only to find none. When we finally find a tidy row of trolleys, they all required to put in some coins to “rent” one. Oh dear, where can we get coins when our pockets all screams $100? We had no choice but to “Excuse me” to anybody passing by, asking to exchange our big notes into small change, but nobody got enough for $100, mostly $20, $30, or $50 at most. This is our first impression of United States: Too poor to give $100 change.
Series of unfortunate events were not yet over. On our second day, Ms Trang, our precious editor wanted to buy the newest edition of iPad. Well, let’s get to it! We attacked an enormous Best Buy in Champaign Urbana, Chicago. 30 minutes later, Ms Trang gleefully holding the brand new iPad worth $600, following our beaming VTR technician, Mr Ky, also holding a big pair of $200 PC speakers. The cashier girl dropped her jaw at our 8 notes of $100. What was wrong with the notes? Are they counterfeits? We were scared out of our wits while questioning the girl like crazy. She bashfully answered: “There’s nothing wrong with your notes. It’s just that I have never received that much cash.” She then turned to pull out some change from the drawer. I took a quick peek. There was really no $100 note, mostly only $10, $20 and some change, adding up to to $200 at best. Wow, this big of a Best Buy shop only earned this much cash today? All the other customers have to get in debt to shop here? Imagine the poor state of that.
Later that day, we met up with researchers to interview them for the documentary. I again noticed they usually use cards instead of cash for everything – beverage card, gasoline card, subway card, parking card, and God knows what else. I had to ask: “Are people here really get into debt to buy utilities?”. The young researcher answered: “Yeah, absolutely. We always spend first, pay later. For everything. Yeah.” and gave me a diplomatic smile (I later found out this “diplomatic” smile was exerted to hide a laugh. L)
The height of my awareness of this poverty was when I watched a skillful street performer at the heart of Mahattan Avenue. This is nothing new. Them street performers are the same as martial arts players in ancient times, wandering the streets from villages to villages, show off their skills, collect coins from curious passer-bys to make ends meet. After the performer finished her act, everybody clapped and cheered like thunder but almost no one collected enough small change to tip. The performer then had to use a tiny card swiping machine to collect money from her eager audience. This was a big disapointment. So I left the scene to wander along the street, stopped by a cosmetic shop to buy my wife some kind of eye scream that cost $52. My S100 note again sent the shop girl running around several mall floors to collect enough change.
Too much incoveniences in this trip! Mr Ky and I went out for dinner, voiced our confusion in between conversations: “In our country, cash is king. Whereas people here are too reluctant to ever use cash. Whenever we use big notes, they look at us like we’re a bunch of weirdos. Why get into all the troubles of borrowing to spend? Cash is really king, otherwise, you are just a oxymoron, a succesful debtor!” We went on to comment on the US being so cash-poor it was weird and couldn’t help feeling a wee bit superior. We are richer than many people “here”.
And now, 4 years after the first time I ever visited the US, I am sweating my brows to write these words. There are a few 50,000 or 20,000 dong notes and 3 credit cards with credit limits combined of 200 millions, all of which are almost maxed out. I told myself after a sigh: “There are still plenty of succesful debtors like me in United States!”