Try a Little Legal Tender-ness

Jane M Ferguson reflects on the ritual of USD note scrutiny in Myanmar.

This financial speculation essay acknowledges the inspiration of the Dick Jensen version of the song, “Try a Little Tenderness,” in its principal guiding pun; it is a suggested pairing to savour while reading.

Oh, they may be weary. You’ve reached the end of your stay at a small hotel in Myanmar. Your bags are packed; you’re ready to go. The manager at the desk, Ma Thuzar presents you a carefully handwritten invoice in English, with the total amount written at the bottom in US dollars. Fishing into your billfold, you retrieve your US cash and present the friendly woman with a $100 note. Ma Thuzar receives it in her right hand (her right forearm supported her left hand) and within the moment her polite expression transforms to a gaze of scrutiny. She holds the note three inches from her eagle eyes, verifying the year of issue and series. Her brow furrows as she visually traces the edges of the paper, studying its material integrity. Flipping the note over, her scanning eyes stop at a soybean-size ink stain in the lower right-hand corner. She flips the note again and sees that the stain has permeated both sides of it. Ma Thuzar places the banknote on the counter, “I cannot take this one. Do you have another one?”

Young notes, they do get weary. The ink stain might be just a mosquito bite, but its infection has rendered its host entirely worthless. But, only in Myanmar. The note could be in healthy circulation anywhere and everywhere else in the world. But in a country with so much poverty, why would these currency instruments, otherwise free-flowing, coagulate in the Golden Land? Ma Thuzar is one of many thousands of lab technicians operating the centrifuge which separates Type A currency from the rest. But the cultural economy of banknote blemishes flows much deeper.

First of all, Ma Thuzar did not invent her criteria for evaluating the legal tenderness of banknotes. She has learned her techniques from experience, and her valuation is informed by her perception of which notes are likely to be accepted by her bosses and their money changers. Should she accept a note with a stain, writing, or tear, and then submit it further up, it could get rejected. Then, poor Ma Thuzar might be tasked with acquiring a new note from the previous giver, or even worse: passing the faulty note on to another unsuspecting recipient. Therefore, part of the enthusiasm for scrutiny has to do with one’s relative status within the financial hierarchy, or rather the banknote-processing hierarchy. The lower one’s status, the more cautious he or she has to be in accepting blemished (and potentially useless) dollars; the relative risk is higher too, the poorer one is. Thus, at the front lines, there is a tendency to overcompensate and draw a super-crisp standard at which legally tender USD-A grade meets the market.

It’s not just sentimental, no. The crisp clean USD note is not an ungrounded fetish. People in Myanmar have all too much experience with government demonetisation of the national currency, the kyat. Various regimes cancelled banknotes without warning in 1964, 1985 and 1987, ostensibly to combat the rampant black-market economy, but in a sinister strategy to make themselves more money. Government fiat rendered those who depended on the cash economy – the poor – penniless. In the early 2000s there was much anxiety that there might be another demonetization. Furthermore, with a traditionally high rate of inflation, the kyat is incrementally worth less and less in exchange. In sum: the kyat is simply not a safe vehicle for storing wealth, although it certainly operates as both a means of exchange and a unit of account in the country.

Sharing that same old shabby note. Myanmar kyat notes are frequently in a state that is less paper than pulp. This fiction of crisp value clearly does not apply to the local currency. A Yangon roadside snack vendor once gave me a tattered 100 kyat note in two pieces as change for my recent purchase. The disintegrated note was wilting through my fingers. “You can use it on the bus,” the woman preempted my inquiry. Try a little legal tender-ness. You know, that’s all you’ve got to do. With USD (and the less-liquid Gold Standard: gold) representing financial security, there emerged in Myanmar a culture of ensuring that the signifiers of that financial security – the individual notes – would also be in the best condition that they could be.

They may be waiting, just anticipating. A commodity’s exchange value is specified at the point of exchange: the transaction for cash, credit. But does something happen to exchange value when more work goes into that moment of exchange? Countless hours are spent scrutinizing paper dollars for tears, stains, creases and blemishes. At the outset, these anti-tenderizers slow every transaction involving US dollars in Myanmar. To the buyer, the inspection process is the equivalent of looking at a credit card terminal, and waiting for the electronic display, “transaction approved;” you don’t know if your money is any good until it goes through this scrutiny at the point of sale. It is a necessary ritual to establish the authenticity of the transaction as part of the social expectation of the exchange. Why do people kick tires when they shop for cars? Open cupboards when they look at homes? These ritualistic aspects of shopping eschew the use value of the commodity that is being sold. This quirk of dollar circulation reminds us that finance and money are intrinsically cultural and cannot be divorced from the social context in which they operate. I don’t think people in Myanmar will stop inspecting US dollar notes in this way, at least not for a while. Young notes, they don’t forget it. Try a little legal tender-ness.

Jane M Ferguson is Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and Southeast Asian History at the School for Culture, History and Languages at the Australian National University. Her research afflictions include ethnic conflicts and histories, unpopular music, and airlines. Special thanks to Sean Turnell for entertaining and constructive discussion on an earlier version of this piece.