Cash a clue to culture

By Graham Reid

Graham Reid takes time to look at what's in his pocket

The face on a dollar bill - of a humble hero or politician - says a lot about a nation's values.
The face on a dollar bill - of a humble hero or politician - says a lot about a nation's values.

In Mumbai, a guy from Amsterdam (who is also from New Zealand) tells me about an American television show. Despite the cultural collisions of that, he's got a good story. Apparently the host - Jimmy Kimmel or maybe Conan O'Brien, he couldn't remember - went into the street and asked passersby whose face was on the dollar bill. Rather than admit they didn't know (it's George Washington) people would just throw out any name.

We laughed, and I said there'd be no such problem in my country. It would be an unusual person or a recent migrant who didn't know Sir Edmund Hillary is on our lowest piece of folding, the $5 note.

Indian rupee notes have Mahatma Gandhi on them, the unifying figure in what poet Rabindranath Tagore called "the idea of India", a nation where pluralism comes in multiples.

How plural is India? Their notes have denominations written in 17 languages, "each encoding a distinct, sophisticated, ancient and proud literary culture", says historian Ramachandra Guha. "Since rupee notes are an artefact of everyday life, we do not see or sense their significance."

And it's true: when travelling I glance quickly at the paper money and register the amount rather than the artwork or symbolism embodied in it.

Our $5 note and the Indian rupees have parallels: both illustrate humble heroes, and neither were politicians. Would you like to live where the Great Leader, some medal-bedecked general, was on the currency? When I went to China in the late 1980s, a companion warned me of "the five brave tractor drivers" - his code for a note with an enormously high number on it but of little worth. I returned with lots of Chinese folding.

The Cook Islands boast a rare denomination, a $3 note which tourists invariably take home as a souvenir. It's a good earner, I guess, to print money that tourists buy but don't spend. They should also have $7 and $21 notes, the logical and amusingly collectable multiples.

Vietnam's currency is the dong, which means it's hard to take seriously - especially when you throw 1.7 million of them across a bedspread and know they still wouldn't buy dinner for two in a mid-range restaurant back home.

I like big currency like that: the wonderful old Italian lira which was worth its weight in dong; Argentinian pesos (divide by four and you're close to their New Zealand value); the Moroccan dirham (divide by seven); the Mexican peso (divide by 10); Indonesian rupiah (an impressive 800,000 to our $100)...

This is real money, you feel like Tony Soprano carrying so much of it.

The next time you get a $100 Kiwi bill, look carefully - it has someone on it who's not a politician. That's comforting, and says as much about who we are as those 17 languages on Indian rupees.

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