To be honest, there’s not too many times I’ve gone off the beaten path as a backpacker. There was almost always a travelers’ hostel, with other Americans or Europeans wandering around. But one of the few times that there wasn’t was at Tai Shan, Mount Tai, in eastern China.
The amazing thing about Mount Tai is that it’s a very popular tourist destination among mainland Chinese. It’s said that every emperor had to climb the mountain to assert his legitimacy; it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But I spotted only two other people of European descent during my time there.
I was staying in a hotel in town (this being China, the “town” has a population of 5.5 million people) that I had booked through the wonderfully useful English-language site Ctrip. Anywhere I went, I attracted some attention; a few cars honked and waved hello at me; and climbing up the mountain, a few groups of students asked for pictures with me — you can see them in my gallery. For many of them, this was already a special trip: meeting me was part of that.
All of that was a pleasant surprise. But I wasn’t expecting what happened next. Right down the street from my hotel was a night street market, one that sold everything from toilet paper to squid on a stick. I knew, of course, that I had to go there. One of the family-run stands had a younger member who wanted to try out his English, and soon they had called up a few other people who wanted to practice as well. We talked a little bit, but I was surprised to find out what they really wanted: a look at some American money.
I ran back to the hotel and picked up examples of everything I had: $50, $20, $10, $5, and a few $1 bills, then some quarters. Spread them out on a table, where a few folks just seemed really happy to be able to hold and flip through them. I wasn’t afraid, of course, that the few hundred dollars on the table would disappear; China is very safe, and these are ordinary businesspeople. And they were interested in the portraits: Washington and Lincoln, they had heard of; Jackson, not so much.
But then came the most remarkable request: two people wanted to buy dollar bills off of me to keep. And, so, I sold two of my dollar bills to street vendors in a market in a Chinese city: a fine reversal of the usual order.
There’s probably a lesson to be drawn out from this story, something about the importance of perception to the value of money and the dollar’s place as a supposedly stable currency; or perhaps how this shows that fiat currency can have as much value as silver or gold, but I don’t feel like going into it. All I know is that sometimes it’s amazing to see the power of an idea.