Last Friday I received my final stipend before I head back to the states. I won’t disclose how much I received — to protect myself from any potential apartment robberies — but leaving work with a stack of bills made me resist the urge to make it rain.
Carrying around cash has been a huge adjustment, amid all the other differences in China. America is a plastic society — it’s so easy to whip out a debit or credit card to pay anything from the Diet Coke you nabbed at the gas station to a nice pair of shoes at the mall. Why bother with cash when everyone takes cards? And it saves me from ATM fees that can add up over time.
However, China still largely clings to its cash. Some of that is apparent through the heavy bargaining and street vendors that are abundant in Beijing. An old woman selling kabobs from a cart is likely unable to manage credit card fees.
Comfort with cash also comes from older generations who remain uncomfortable with any amount of debt and are used to paying everything in cash. It’s not absurd for people to pay rent, buy a house or a car all in cash.
I’ve always relied on cards. Back in Iowa City, I rarely had more than $ 0.80 on me at any given time. If I was carrying cash it was likely because I was going somewhere that only took cash, maybe grabbing a few drinks with friends, or my mom had given me some gas money.
In China, Mao Zedong has taken up a consistent residence in my wallet the past two months. I’d often carry several hundred RMB with me if I was going to be out all day with friends. Although with the exchange rate, several hundred is only about $30-50. But still more than I’d carry normally in the United States.
Although cash is still king, there are signs it’s slowly fading. Larger restaurants will accept my Chase “zero foreign fees” card and I can use debit and credit at the mall or 7-11.
Reports from media organizations like the Financial Times and Marketplace show cards are making a swift ascent, as Chinese residents adapt to the cashless transactions more swiftly than any other country and older generations clutching cash take their worries to the grave.
According to a February 2014 Financial Time’s article:
Urban, affluent, internet-savvy Chinese consumers are even more wild about plastic. A recent Nielsen survey found that 71 per cent of shoppers in China’s top tier cities said they preferred bank cards over cash, compared with an average of half for other countries surveyed.
It’s no secret I’m living in the midst of China’s own industrial revolution, which they’re barreling through at warp speed. I’m no financial expert but my guess is the country will speed past cards and be the first to adopt virtual payments. WeChat, one of the most popular social media texting platforms in China, has an option where users can pay for airplane tickets, movie tickets and access credit card information.