All That Effort and It’s Barely Worth a Penny


My roommate Jillian and I have developed a routine for our lazy off-days. We walk outside of the Expo Village to our cheap noodle place, order a bowl of 10 kuai noodles, and then walk next door to a hole-in-the-wall convenience store and rummage through their ice cream freezer for yummy goodies. Excluding the red bean, corn, and pea flavored popsicles, the freezer’s contents are delicious, despite being very different from American popsicles- one pop is made up only of frozen whipped cream, another is yogurt with fruit bits.

As I rummaged through my purse to find enough coins to purchase the day’s popsicle, I heard something fall out and clink to the ground. After checking out, I searched the floor to ensure I hadn’t lost anything of value. One of the ladies working at the store rushed over, broom in hand, and told me not to worry as she swept under the ice cream freezer, where she had seen my mystery item fall. After sweeping out fuzz, dust, and other dirty things that accumulate under freezers, out came a small silver coin. Proudly, the woman bent down, picked up the coin, and held it out for me to take. It was a 1 jiao coin. That is the dime of Chinese currency, which means it’s worth about a penny in USD. Here is today’s official exchange for  1 jiao:

0.10 RMB = 0.0147610 USD

So all that work went into picking up a coin worth one penny! No one ever picks up a penny in the US! And the jiao isn’t even the smallest value coin…

Ok, Chinese currency 101: Chinese currency is called Ren Min Bi (RMB) which means “people’s currency” in Mandarin.

The unit for the Chinese dollar is yuan (元) but in everyday usage it is referred to as kuai (快) .

The top coin is worth 1 yuan or 1 kuai, so it is actually a dollar coin. The middle and bottom coins are called “jiao” (角) but are colloquially referred to as “mao” (毛). Ten “jiao” make up one “yuan,” so “jiao” is the Chinese equivalent of the US dime. 5 jiao is 0.5 yuan and 1 jiao is 0.1 yuan.

These smaller coins are called “fen” (分). 10 “fen” make up 1 “jiao,” so the Chinese fen is like the American penny in that sense. These coins are tiny, flimsy, and rarely used. 1 fen is 0.01 yuan.

What makes it even more confusing is the fact that “jiao” also come in bill form. Foreigners easily confused these “jiao” bills with the “yuan” bills and will try to use them instead. I speak from experience when I say that Chinese merchants will laugh at you until you give them the correct bill rather than help you and explain that you are trying to give them 0.5 kuai and not 5 kuai.

So now you see why I was surprised when this lady helped me find the coin I dropped- it’s barely worth anything! But then again, when you can buy noodles for 10 kuai and a whipped cream popsicle for 1 kuai, maybe that 1 mao I dropped can come in handy.

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