She was tallying up my purchases. I saw that she had written 42. I pulled out a hundred RMB bill and two 1-RMB coins. I placed them on the counter.

“Do you have 6 jiao?” she said. “It’s 42.6.”

“Oh, 42.6!” I repeated. I had missed the amount after the decimal. I found that I didn’t have 6 jiao. So I gave her an extra 1-RMB coin and a 1-jiao coin.

She gave me a confused look. “What’s this for?” she asked, pushing back the one-jiao coin.

“Trust me,” I replied, pushing it back to her. “This way you can give me 60.5 in change.” (I don’t like carrying around the 1-jiao coins. I much prefer to have 5-jiao coins if I can.)

She didn’t think I knew what I was talking about. She started tapping away on her calculator. The figure 60.5 appeared.

“Wow!” she said. “You’re smart.”

“You haven’t been doing this job long, have you?” I asked. “Do it a while longer, and you’ll be thinking like this too.”

“But I always just use the calculator,” she told me.

“Well, maybe you could use your head more,” I replied.

She nodded and handed me my change: six 10-RMB bills and five 1-jiao coins.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. more jiao for the jiao sock…

  2. fun reminder of my old days as a cashier too – minus the jiao and rmb that is

  3. I bet that lady pees in the shower all the time

  4. Nah, I bet she’s uptight and doesn’t. Us freethinkers don’t rely on some stinkin’ calculator to find change.

  5. got nothing to say…
    this article’s the very best i see in Sinosplice, indeed.

  6. This story is a metaphor for life here in China. Thats why there should be a Seinfeld like sitcom about a Laowai living in Shanghai or something. It would be huge!

  7. Perhaps she was so captivated by John’s handsomeness that her mind just went blank.

  8. Considering how Chinese kids are supposed to be so good at math (or at least doing advanced stuff at a younger age than western countries) it amazes me how often people use calculators for the simplest arithmetics. Sometimes I think people just use it to show me the numbers because they assume I wouldn’t understand what they say, but very often I think they really don’t trust themselves to calculate 100-16, or something like that, in their head. I guess the desire to appeal to authority extends all the way down to handing out change…

  9. I don’t know about you guys but the same thing happens to me overseas as well as within china. My conclusion is that the cashiers all over the world just don’t like small changes. It’s better for them to pass the smallest denominations out to docile customers than have to count the coins at end of the day.

  10. I wonder if it’s a North American thing. I had many experiences like John’s in Korea and China. It seems cashiers and shoppers don’t have the concept of giving small, inexact change in order to get less change back.

  11. It is a worldwide thing I believe and reading this I am reminded that it is actually a generational thing. When I first came to the States, I saw it all the time with the supermarket etc. cashiers. In our dorms we used to laugh that Americans were so poor in math than us Chinese that they could not do any calculation without a calculator (some old ladies refuse “change manipulation” out of pure hysteria or relpulsion but that’s a different story). That was until I sat in a graduate school class and witnessed kids (science major!) who, honest to God, were unable to do multiply or squareroot on paper and had never ever seen a slide rule (计算尺, ji4suan4chi3) or a logarithm table (对数表, dui4shu4biao3). It downed on me that they had never needed those. To them multiply, or log/antilog, or squareroot were not methods, no, they were certain bottons on a calculator! Why, calculators are allowed in SAT and ACT. Now, apparently, the same phenomina have spread to China along with calculators and other electronic gadgetry.

  12. Sonagi, isn’t it more like, cashiers around here are insistent on you giving them the last bit of small change so they can give you back only bills, and they hate to break big bills (at least that was true up north), but that, like John said, their obsession for small change doesn’t allow them to understand those little math tricks that net you less coins in return? At least that’s the way I see it.

  13. Really funny! This is your most interesting post in months.

  14. Da Xiangchang Says: December 10, 2005 at 5:58 am

    I don’t remember experiencing such mathematical ineptitude in China, but then, I haven’t been there in awhile. My recent Asian travels have been in SE Asia and Singapore, but they seemed quite good at deciphering what kind of bills I want back. Actually, the ONE instance where a guy had no clue was today at a burger joint here in California. A combo meal cost $5.38, and I gave the cashier $11, and the guy gives me back coins and 5 ONE-DOLLAR BILLS. I’m like, “Can I have a five back please?”

  15. Micah, you are right. Chinese cashiers will ask for small bills and jiaos to avoid giving back any change.

  16. yeah, i was puzzled over the use of calculators, too, especially given the math prowess thing. but with all the mathamagicians in China, there must be a crap-ton of quick change artists plying their trade at the busiest times of the day in stores teeming with people and long lines at the counter. i agree with vodoo. john’s dashing good looks threw the cashier off her game. the “you’re smart ” comment was smoke up the skirt and the five 1-jiao coins were payback for the “you’ll be thinking like this too” comment.

  17. I used to throw jiao off my balcony in China, and sometimes, we turned the bills into paper airplanes. Fen, however…god, how useless can you get? honestly, their very existence both pissed me off and amused me time and time again.

  18. I gave my students a finance test and was amazed when almost none of them brought a calculator to the test. The results were less than stellar.

    I explained that if you are going to spend 20,000rmb on a years tuition, perhaps an extra 15rmb spent on a calculator might be wise. No one listened.

    I have actually had to make it manditory for my students to have a calculator to write tests. No calculator, no entry. Maybe they think calculators are just for cashier school?

  19. This happened to me all the time when I was living in the U.S. In fact, when I was taking an SAT a procter took pity on me when she noticed I was the only person not having a calculator (out of 1,000+ students). But do you REALLY need a calculator for math questions in the SAT?

    Despite the generalization about the Chinese’s math superiority, one needs to keep in mind that the US and other rich countries have mandatory education while China doesn’t.

  20. Hey… have some mercy and lighten up. Somethinging like 78 percent of China is countryside. I have close family members that are great people but have a 12 year old education. Their classroom was in the cane fields.

    Some things in life are easy to take forgranted.

  21. Just to clarify:

    This is a story. It is true. It is not a generalization about either American citizens’ or Chinese citizens’ abilities in arithmetic. If anything, it is a protest against generalizations.

    I’m glad some of you enjoyed it.

  22. I think you got what you deserved wise-ass. If I was her I’d be showering you in fen (of one kind or another).

    I’ve defintely been asked for the 1 jiao extra to allow for a simpler change equation at my local Quik. So in my mind it’s definitely not a national issue.

    My biggest bug bear is the “counting the cash out onto the surface” thing. At the Lawsons round the corner (unlike Quik, their beer is cold) they always do it, and refuse to put the cash in my hand. It’s fine with notes but I hate having to scrabble around picking up coins with my sausage fingers, and the table sweep method is not a good idea (I’m not even sure the coins would slide, that surface is so greasy).

    I definitely cause some headache going back the other way though. I had great fun discussing why I wasn’t being unreasonable paying for a 1.5 lighter with a 100 note the other night…

  23. Phil,

    Ha! Yeah, I actually considered that after the fact… Did she give me five 1-jiao coins because there really weren’t any five-jiao cones, or was she just trying to get me back? I think it was the former, but you never know…

    Yeah, the placing the change on the counter thing can be really annoying, but I find it helps ease my frustration if, when paying, I always place my change on the counter too. 🙂

  24. hello,nice to meet you ! i know your blog from the 21century. i am a college student from central university of nationality, (have you heard of it ?) i enjoyed reading your little story, and from which i know you are really used to living in china . several days ago i started my blog in, you are warmly welcomed !!!

  25. I think the Lawson’s idiosyncracy is because it’s a Japanese chain, they probably train their cashiers to lay it on the counter. In Japan, you’re not supposed to touch hands with money, because it’s dirty or something.

    I long ago gave up trying to get exact change. I just get them, and fill up my change jar. When it’s full, I give it to my ayi as a bonus. I figure, there’s a couple hundred RMB in there, let her count it out, I know she can use the cash.

  26. oh, you bad guys, coins on the counter is really annoying. That’s the major reasaon why I hate lawson.

  27. I’m not sure why it’s such a bad thing to use a calculator in a store. Just because it negates the need to use your own brain to perform the calculation doesn’t make it bad. I thought the advent of the microprocessor meant we could move beyond this grandfatherish view! If we have a problem we can use our brains to their full capacity once to write a computer program to solve such a problem automatically every time, or use our brain every time we need to solve it.

    If I was running a store I’d hate to waste space in my mind storing numbers that mean nothing to me – even for the short period of time it takes to do the addition or subtraction. It’s not like head calculations are always going to be exact – at some point you’re going to get distracted and make an error by one or by order of one.

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