Montreal is a few more time zones away from China than Canada’s most famous “Chinatown” in Vancouver, but there’s plenty of Chinese cultural impact here. Just down St. Laurent (the street, not the waterway) from my room, “Chinatown” starts with the obligatory huge gate, but my most direct Chinese cultural experience yesterday happened just this side of the gate at a Bank of Montreal branch.
Long story, but I brought a rather large sum of U.S. Dollars to exchange here as payment in cash at my hotel room. I needed cash, as the hotel made this interesting “deal” with me, one in which paying cash got me out of being charged the rather massive Canadian taxes for my room, a sum of just over C$300. I haven’t bothered to look them up online, but can report that when paying for something in Montreal one needs to wildly overestimate the price post “GST” (tax), otherwise you’re looking frantically through unfamiliar coins to make up the difference. I’d say the GST rate here is somewhere around, numbers-wise, a boatload.
So, to save the expenditure in hotel tax, I’d brought U.S. Dollars. I could have simply gone to an ATM when I got here, but I needed more money than the possible max withdrawal, and, besides, doing so would have meant missing out on the story of going to the Bank of Montreal branch near the Chinatown gate.
Exchanging money is one of the increasingly rare situations in modern life that does not involve price scanning equipment and the NSA. Exchange rates are market-driven via very formal, supposedly regulated international finance, but the actual, on the street, rate is a bit more nebulous and arbitrary. Case in point:
I walk into the very bank-looking branch of Bank of Montreal. I ask about exchange and am told there is no problem with non-account holders exchanging money. I go stand in the teller’s line. In front of me are a few very old people of Chinese descent who speak Chinese with the tri-lingual (at least) tellers. All is well. Directly in front of me is a gentlemen who is neither Chinese in ethnic origin or in regular contact with bathing and traditional hygiene practices. He is called to the teller, hands a debit card of some sort to the teller and immediately begins a harangue when informed that there is a problem with his getting his monthly disability funds. At least I think that was the gist of the conversation/harangue.
The tellers were so very nice to this unpleasant gentleman, who repeatedly called them stupid, the banking system idiotic and the overall situation stupid. I stood watching with some fear that the foul-smelling gentleman might reach across and attack the very nice teller, and wondered how much damage I might do in punching the guy in the kidneys. Not a heck of a lot, I figured, and continued to uselessly stare while pretending not to stare.
My useless staring ended when the very nice Info Desk employee told me she could help me. I took my rather large sum of U.S. Dollars to her workstation and noticed that the appropriately small old Chinese lady behind me in line did the same. We formed a new line away from the brouhaha and all was well.
I was told the exchange rate (even/especially at a bank the rate was a bit off the rate quoted in the paper) and that there was C$2.50 fee. Fine. Then things got weird.
The old Chinese lady behind me in line starting talking in Chinese to the Info Desk clerk. She seemed to be in a bit of a hurry, the old Chinese lady, but I thought it a bit rude to start her bank transaction while mine was being transacted. The clerk smiled and spoke in Chinese back. A conversation continued, with the clerk breaking it to speak with me, put some sort of tracing pen on my U.S. money to check for counterfeiting, etc. Still, the conversation in Chinese continued.
Eventually, in exasperation, she told me that the old Chinese lady wanted to offer me a better rate for my money. At first, I laughed and said I’d prefer the bank rate. This surprised the very nice clerk, and I got the definite impression this was a bad idea. So I laughingly asked, “Okay, what’s her rate?” More words in Chinese were exchanged. A rate, better than the bank’s, was offered.
I stood at the very formal, official Bank of Montreal branch and soaked in this antiquated system of international exchange. How great is it that we can still, in 2014, run into situations far away from the centralized, hyper-controlled life of price scanners, electronic calculation and the International Monetary Fund? These are rare moments to treasure. “Sure,” I said, as long as we used the bank’s money.
So, the old Chinese lady withdrew the money, the clerk handed the Canadian money to the old lady, the old lady, casino croupier-style, left the money 0n the Info Desk table, I left my U.S. money on the table and, in that genetically-encoded method learned through thousands and thousands of years of human finance, the old Chinese lady and I simultaneously swooped up our new money. The croupier-Info Desk clerk smiled, I smiled back at her and to the old Chinese lady. The Chinese lady pursed her lips while putting my money in her purse.
As the reader doubtlessly has guessed, sure enough I walked through the rest of Chinatown and saw at least one place offering a better rate of exchange for U.S. Dollars than I got at the snazzy, shiny Bank of Montreal Info Desk. I could have haggled with the old Chinese lady right there at the Bank of Montreal Info Desk, moving even further back in the long history of human finance. By the way, while all this happening, I’d lost staring contact with the smelly insulting man. High finance will do that. He’d left during my transaction and the tellers were grouped together, speaking in French, to tell the war story of that interaction. I’d guess most jobs in banking aren’t quite like the one at the Bank of Montreal branch at Saint Urbain and Rene Levesque.