I’ve never cursed out an ATM before, but you travel abroad to try new things, right? For the past week, the ATM by my hostel has been marred with a hand-drawn “No Cash” sign. Back home this wouldn’t be an issue; I can’t even remember the last time I paid for something in cash in the States. But when you are living in a cash-based society like India, bills are very important.
You might think:
“Wait, isn’t it extremely frustrating to have inconsistent access to cash in a cash society?”
Yes. Yes, it is. Everybody, not just visitors like myself, struggles to get their hands on cash (especially small, usable bills). I once went to three different ATMs and was unable to find cash in any of them. And when there actually is cash, very long lines begin to form around the machines. It’s counter-intuitive—if your buying market depends on cash, cash should be readily available.
Now I know you’re supposed to “keep an open mind” and “not judge things too quickly” when you experience cultural differences. I tried to do that. I really did. But everything about the situation just seemed off to me. The paradox that is India’s relationship to cash was too confusing to be normal. So, I did a little digging, and it turns out that paradox isn’t a cultural thing at all—it’s a relatively new problem called demonetization.
In a very small nutshell, demonetization is basically when a government strips a currency unit of it’s legal tender (ie: money stops being money). Last year, India’s Prime Minister attempted this with some of their largest bills and there has been significant issues as a result (some info at the following links: 1 , 2 ); my personal struggles with the ATM being the absolute least of those problems.
Obviously, the whole situation is WAY more complex than I can explain. I’ve been in India for barely a month, I am not an economist, and my understanding of the local politics is relatively lacking. And yet, here I am, operating as a part of a delicate political situation that I don’t fully understand. I do my best to educate myself but, in the meantime, I have to accept the fact that there will be times when I am painfully ignorant of my surroundings here.
I think it’s important to remember that not everything you experience abroad is normal for your host country. When so much of day-to-day life is different from home, it’s easy to play things off as “just the way things are in [insert country here]”. But doing that reduces your host country to one thing and one thing only: different. Personally, I look forward to learning more about the nuances of Indian life; it is already reshaping the way I see both American and global politics.