Why the United States Owes China Money (sort of)

Reese's Kit Kat 2 for $1 Counter Mat 10x7[1]

2 for 1.  What does this mean to you?  If you’re American, it means that you get 2 of something, and only pay 1.  If you’re Chinese, it means you pay 2, and get 1.

In the English speaking world, our signs tell what we get first, and what we give second.  As a result, we’ve already decided we want it before we see the price.  So we buy, even if we can’t actually afford it.  There’s only one way to keep this going indefinitely, and that’s to borrow indefinitely.  It’s worked well so far, and presumably will continue to work as long we have the strongest military in the world.  (It’s rude to refuse a friend, or frienemy, in need.  Being rude to a friend, or particularly a frienemy, is a bad idea when that friend can achieve air superiority anywhere on earth within hours.)  So far, the US has yet to get that angry letter from the credit card company, threatening to garnish wages.

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$10 for 9 eggs: the fact that they’re from “Holland” rather than Holland, is a little disconcerting though.

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In the Chinese speaking world, the signs first tell customers what they give, then what they will get in return.  To me, this is obviously bad marketing.  And it’s one of many outward signs of a lack of instinctive empathy, a disinclination to get into stranger’s minds, that is more common in Chinese culture than my own.  But it does make people more likely to make responsible decisions with their money, and therefore less likely to rely on extortion to finance their spending habits.

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In HK, the signs translate not only the language, but the way of thinking as well.  The sign above offers me (in English) 15% off, and asks Chinese people to pay 85%.  Mathematically, this is the same of course, but psychologically it is not.  I look at it and think, “wow, I get 15% off, and I get a bottle of wine!” and I trot up to the register, only then reminded that I have to also give them some of my money.  Incidentally, this type of thing may also explain why my Chinese students are quicker than my American students in doing mental calculations like the one required by this sign.  Americans do two calculations (take 15% of the total, then subtract it from the total), whereas Chinese do one (take 85% of the total).  If I have to do two calculations to figure out how much I have to pay, I might not bother, and just pull out the credit card.  I’ll find out how much it cost when I get the bill.