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Foreign Money

Wandered into the bank the other day to deposit a foreign cheque. This was the first time I've had to do something like this in Australia, and it's fascinatingly ritualized stuff. They still use people tellers here in Oz. When I first started getting paid for writing back in 1998, I had to go through people tellers in Malaysia. I'd fill up my deposit slip, line up, sometimes for 5 minutes, most times for fifteen, hand over my cheque and slip to the teller, and the teller would stamp and peel off my customer's copy. I'd go home, wait three months, and find the money cleared and converted into ringgit in my account. About four years into this, Malaysian banks started installing automated deposit boxes en masse. Now, instead of waiting in queue, I just had to fill up the deposit envelope, pop in my foreign cheque, and wait three months. The only condition was that I could only automatically deposit foreign cheques into my account at the branch of the bank I started my account in, which was fine, since I lived across the street from my bank.

In Oz, things were the same till I actually stepped up to the teller. The lady on the other side of the plastic wall took one look at my foreign cheque and began explaining that in order to deposit this cheque, I would first have to have enough money in my bank account to be able to pay the bank should my cheque bounce. She looked up my account, told me that I did have enough money for this, and proceeded to tell me that sometimes, foreign cheques could take up to 45 days to clear-- I think the idea was that I had to have enough money up till that point to cover costs if the cheque bounced. Then she had to look up the current foreign exchange rate for the funds I was converting from, and show it to me so that I'd confirm what I saw was correct. The teller prepared an additional form explaining this repeated everything she just said about bounced cheques and approval of conversion rates, which I needed to sign. She had to call over another teller to explain that my transaction had x conversion rate, with y funds, witness the form and sign it before signing it herself. And get to the stamping and the part where I get my customer's slip.

Back in Malaysia, my bank charged a standard RM5 (US$1.25) clearance fee for foreign cheques. When I was 16 and received a cheque for my writing for the first time, it was for the huge sum of US$5. After conversion into ringgit and minusing the bank's fee, I got about RM15 in pocket money back for every poem I got published. RM15 was a lot of money for school between 1998 and 2004. Going by economies of scale, RM15 was the equivalent of:

1. A week's worth of groceries.
2. A week's worth of bus fares between my house and college, plus my occasional iced malts during tea break.
3. Half the price of my cheapest textbooks.
4. The price of renting one average-length novel at the local rental bookstore. Secondhand bookstores didn't really make a presence in Kuala Lumpur till the year I moved out.

For those into economies of scale, my average fee for a piece of poetry is still US$5. Selling poetry was my first means of selling my writing, and also my first means of having pocket money for myself. It was exciting. Most of the pocket money I'd had till I was 16 was scrounged together from yearly red or green packets given out during Chinese New Year or Eidl Fitr. My family really wasn't into allowances. I'd get anywhere from fifty cents to ten bucks for lunch and phone money as needed for school days. I hardly ever ate, so I hardly ever asked for money. It costs about ten cents for a two minute phonecall to my parents -- enough time to tell them school was out. When I was nine, I began collecting Enid Blyton hardcovers, because at the time, they used to issue these beautiful jewel-coloured hardcovers with lovely old fashioned illustrations. Each book cost RM6, so I'd save up my fifty cents of lunch money each day to buy myself a book. I never finished collecting them all. I used to get gastric problems so often from not eating, my mother used to scold me every day for it. I had to put my foot down when Mom wanted to give away my collection of Enid Blyton hardcovers a bunch of years ago. I worked hard for it.

In Oz, my bank charges a standard AUS$10 (US$7.50) clearance fee for foreign cheques. Under a certain amount, if I am unable to request that my publishers send me money via PayPal, I would either be forced to request for payments in stamps (Electric Wine used to pay me in stamps, bless their hearts), or desist from receiving my payments altogether. It is a humbling thought.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 21st, 2006 05:50 pm (UTC)
when did you move out of Malaysia? *just curious*
Jul. 21st, 2006 05:57 pm (UTC)
2004. :)
Jul. 22nd, 2006 02:34 am (UTC)
It's nice to hear stories about how it was like for you back then. :) I never had any trouble banking in cheques, but it could be because my bank back home has a branch here.
Jul. 22nd, 2006 06:32 pm (UTC)
Thanks. :)
Foreign cheques are always a bit iffy, but it is the main mode of payment for my published works. And I miss being able to stretch the conversion rate a bit more like I used to -- RM15 is still a lot of money to me. Cheap I may be, but I never snub the small stuff. :)
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )