09 January 2012


Last year I had a short story published in the anthology Bangkok Noir. I received my first royalty check for it today - 2,383.83 Thai Baht (US$74.97 as of this morning.) Not a big amount of money, but only the first check and certainly better than nothing.

When I lived in Asia from 1986 to 1997 checks in foreign currencies weren't a problem. I could even deposit them to my accounts with Citibank in Hong Kong or Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank through their ATMs and the money, in my choice of Hong Kong or U.S. dollars, would show up in my account within about 24 hours if they were for a freely traded currency like Thai Baht. Less freely traded currencies like Chinese Yuan might take an extra day. Sure, they'd make some money by giving me a lousier exchange rate than I might otherwise get, but it still wasn't a bad rate.

Coming to the U.S. could present problems, however. We may well be the world's largest and most globally influential economy, but just as fewer Americans speak languages other than English than people in other countries speak languages other than their native tongue, fewer American banks seem to know much about the rest of the world.

Once I was in New York city and I needed cash. I had a Hong Kong dollar one thousand dollar bill in my wallet. (US$128.20 - it's a fixed rate and has been for many years.) In Hong Kong there are three different types of banknotes, issued by three different banks: Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, Standard Chartered Bank and Bank of China. I was in New York's Chinatown where there is a large branch of Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, so I went in there to change my Hong Kong money into U.S. dollars. (The HK thousand dollar bill had a big picture of Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank's headquarters on it. The same picture was on all the brochures in the bank and hanging on the walls of the bank branch in frames.)

The teller had no idea what I was talking about. She said, "But how will I know how much this is worth?" I suggested that it was probably in her computer system and pretty easy to access. She seemed quite flummoxed by that.

Finally, I asked to see a manager. A manager came over, looked at the bill and said, "How do I know this is really a Hong Kong dollar banknote?" I suggested that might be true of any banknote from anywhere, and that perhaps she ought to compare the picture on the banknote with identical pictures in their very own brochures.

In any event, after about a half hour of toing and froing I was turned away.

So, this morning when I received my royalty check I had a nagging suspicion that it wasn't going to be a simple matter to simply deposit it into my U.S. bank account. So I called. My bank branch sent me to some central bank phone line in North Carolina who sent me to BofA's foreign currency phone line. At least they knew what I was talking about and what Thai baht are.

If the check was worth US$200 or more, Bank of America could send it back to the bank in Thailand "for collection." That would cost US$40, plus whatever fees, commissions, postage, etc. were incurred along the way by either BofA or United Overseas Bank of Thailand. It would take four to eight weeks and maybe I'd then get what remained of the money in my U.S. account.

I suppose I can frame the check and hang it over my desk along with my Enron stock certificate. I did email the publisher and ask if there was some way they could reissue the check in U.S. dollars. If not, I think I will assign my royalties to Colin Cotterill, a good pal, a great writer, who lives in Thailand and runs charitable education programs in Laos. US$74.97 can probably do a lot more good in Laos than it can in my bank account.