I arrived at Beijing Capital International Airport (BCIA) grabbed my bags and was ready to make the easy Airport Express Train into Beijing. I had exactly the 25 yuan needed for the ticket. But wait… I still needed TWO yuan for the subway to make the final stretch to Days Inn Forbidden City, my go-to hotel in Beijing. Bad planning on my part. So I’d have to change money just to have the 30 cents needed for that last bit. I went back upstairs from the B2 level train station and took out a 20-dollar bill. I handed it to the lady under the glass and she warned me: “Sir, we charge commission 60 yuan.” Sixty? I looked at the $20 in her hand. That’s half of that 20 dollars! Fuming, I took it back and in stubbornness went with a questionable Plan B.
Just take the train into the city and figure it out when you get there.
Well, to be honest, I could figure it out before I ever got on the train. The Airport Express connects into the subway and there are no currency exchanges there. And it’s Sunday so the banks aren’t open above ground. So all I had was lint in my pockets and a USD $100 bill in my wallet.
When I arrived in the city, I came out of the express train station and stood staring at the gates to the subway. TWO yuan. Two lousy little coins (or bills). The payphones take phone cards so I couldn’t even get lucky there. I scanned the floor noting that the cleaning woman nearby with the broom would have nabbed anything there. I asked the attendant in the booth the price (two yuan!) and asked if there was a currency exchange (no!) hoping she might have mercy and just let me through the gate. What’s 30 cents, right? No chance.
Looks like a little social experiment. Swallow the pride. Ask kindly. Brother, can you spare a yuan? Should I ask for two straight away or panhandle them one at a time? Surely no one would care much about one yuan, but would two start to feel a bit over the top?
I saw a couple of foreigners. Should I push the bonding idea – hey, look at us, a couple of fellow strangers in a strange land. Hey, funny thing, but I haven’t got 30 cents, yet I am standing here with a nice-ish coat and a suitcase, having arrived from the airport, and I need 30 cents. Would you mind?
I just didn’t have the nerve.
I eyed up a couple of others. One guy came in with the big bundle that I associate with folks from the countryside. A yuan might be an issue there, surely shouldn’t trouble him. Another guy looked grumpy. Another in a hurry. And another. And another. I just didn’t have the nerve to ask for a favor. A young couple came down the stairs — twenty-somethings, hand in hand, in love and the universe is beautiful. Bingo!
“Excuse me, but um, could you help me? I need two yuan for the subway.”
I had to repeat it as they either didn’t quite hear me or couldn’t believe their ears.
“Er, actually TWO yuan.” (“TWO yuan,” his girlfriend repeated to him, also in English.)
“Where are you going?”
Agh… This really makes it worse, no? “Um, to my hotel.”
His girlfriend still hung on his arm as he took out his wallet and found two dirty bills tucked up against the rest of his money. He withdrew them and handed them to me uncertainly. I thanked him with a gush of gratitude, a bit of bowing, and lots of xie xie. Later on the platform I ran into them again. They made sure I was going the right way. Despite the insignificance of it all, I felt pretty damn foolish.
Later that night, having a few beers with friends at a brewpub in a hutong, I ordered some food delivered from a place down the road and a young boy ran it in from the street. It was 13 yuan and I gave him 15. He tried to give me change but I smiled and said he should keep it. He seemed completely baffled and looked at the faces all around for an explanation. Where should he place those two coins? The bartender said they are unaccustomed to tips. I insisted and the bartender explained to the boy. He hesitated then slowly backed toward the door, the slight frown of “OK, but I still don’t understand” on his face.
I hoped I was even now.