How much do you make?

What pay day looks like at Marketplace's Shanghai office. The pink bill is 100 RMB, about US$15.

"So how much do you make?"

That's the fastest way to kill a conversation with Americans. But in China, it's the gateway to someone's personal history, says Rob Schmitz, Marketplace's Shanghai bureau chief. The Chinese openly discuss their incomes and spending habits with each other, unlike Americans who see finance in the same realm as sex, religion and politics. Their openness may stem from the fact that at least for some time, nearly all Chinese were making the same amount. But this attitude is shifting, as the poor-rich gap in China widens. Schmitz says more people decline to answer his questions about financial histories.

Schmitz also points out another interesting facet of the Chinese and their finances. Because the highest bill denomination is 100 RMB, or about US$15, people keep huge stockpiles of paper money at their homes. People making large purchases, like a car, will bring in suitcases of cash to the dealership. Schmitz says he looks like a drug dealer on payday at the bureau office -- piles of cash are spread out on the table and then doled out.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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