In 1960, the year I was born on the island of Taiwan, my father, the dean of a private school and my mother, a teacher of Chinese literature at the same, jointly made the equivalent of 60 US dollars each month.
My baby formula consumed a third of their income, another third went to cafeteria fees and household goods, and the last third was exchanged for a single 20 USD bill, obtainable on the Taipei black market.
(From "Hannah Is My Name," written and illustrated by Belle Yang)
In those days, Taiwan was still a developing nation, an island shaped like a sweet potato, upon which the defeated Nationalist had sought refuge in 1949 from the Mainland Communists. The country had little foreign exchange. Only when a student on his way out of country to study abroad was he legally allowed to take out a mere 500 USD.
My parents had to have connections to the right people, and the right connection turned out to be a jeweler in the capitol of Taipei, recommend by a mutual friend. Jewelers dealt in gold and they could travel to places like Hong Kong and exchange the gold for US dollars at the official rate, thus making 5 Yuan off of every dollar exchanged under the table. (Government rate was 40 Yuan for 1 USD; on the black market it was 45 Yuan to the dollar). If the government caught the jeweler or my parents in the act of exchanging US dollars, they would have been promptly thrown in jail.
(Laning and Joseph Yang)
So each month, after my parents were paid their meager salary, they went into Taipei and came home with a 20 USD bill, which they quietly hid in the back of a picture frame that hung on the wall of the Japanese-built house. (Taiwan was under Japanese occupation from 1895 to 1945.)
I heard this story last night after our ritual of nightly snacks, followed by family chatter while I did my calisthenics. I imagined my tender parents, much younger than I am now, reverently placing those 20-dollar bills in back of a landscape print, cut out of a calendar. Were they scared, smiling and giggling over their shared secret?
By 1963, the island's population had increased, and the Nationalist government wanted to get rid of some of the oldies, like my father, just hitting forty, to create vacancies for the generation of youths looking for work.
Dad left in 1965 for graduate school at Meiji University in Tokyo with roughly $700 USD in $20 bills and a year later, mom and I joined him, bringing another $800 USD.
Tonight, I asked my dad, "What associations he had for the US dollar that's different from mine?" He replied: "I think of it as real money. No country's money looks like real money to me. I've lived in Japan and the Yen looks phony, as does the Mainland Chinese Yuan. The US dollar is as good as gold."
PS--I always try to write something from the immigrant Asian perspective when I can. For the past 3 weeks, I've been single-mindedly following the economic news like one obssessed, and what I learned did not make good fodder for Redroom.com, especially when I am in a self-righteous mood. I also had to make a run on Washinton Mutual bank when I realized that my deposits were quite a bit over the FDIC insurance. I was in the middle of feverish bout of flu when I discovered that WaMu was tanking, and on receiving the news, I broke out in a hidious sweat that thoroughly drenched my PJs. But the good news is that rills of cold sweat will promptly cure a person of the flu. One of my other banks is being swallowed up by Citibank.
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