Comparing and contrasting currencies to learn more about cultures.

Patrick surprised Max with a Saudi riyal. Max turned it over in his hand and said:

“I can’t read it. How much is this worth? Where can I use it? Do you think I can use it at the gas station down the street where the guy from Saudi Arabia works?”

And so the investigation began. What can the currency tell us about Saudi Arabia- its culture and government? How can our observations inform our understanding of our own currency?

The two sides of the American dollar bill.

Max observed:

“Both bills have old men on one side and buildings on the other side, but the American guy is not smiling. The Saudi Arabian guy is smiling and his hair is covered with a turban. That’s just what they wear there- like blue jeans for us.”

We used the Google currency converter to find how much it was worth. It seems the Saudi riyal is worth about a quarter in US currency. Max figured this means it would take four of his riyals to equal one dollar.

Max also noted that both bills have “some sort of seal-like thing on them”. He felt the seal made it look real official and formal.

“Wait a minute Mom! The Eygyptians used seals and lots of ancient people used seals as signatures for various kingdoms. I guess our kingdoms use them too.”

I was perplexed:

“But how can that be true, Maxer? The US is not a kingdom.”

Max laughed at me:

“No really, but in some ways, it still acts like one. The President is like a king- he gets treated royally. And we have seals. And the White House is like an American palace. I mean, it’s like a kingdom here too…”

I insisted that the US was a democracy in which people got to vote, so it wasn’t like a kingdom. Max agreed that people voted, but the President “still gets to decide everything”:

“It’s like we get to vote for our king, but he’s still like a king.”

One side of the riyal is written in English. We talked about why this might be. Max said he thought lots of people who spoke English must be in their country and have enough power to make them write in English on the currency. I tried not to smile.

Listening to Max’s observations is refreshing- the perspective of a child tends to pick out the obvious and ignore the conventional. I wonder if our government would be better if little people could vote. Sometimes I think they know more than we do. And they are certainly less partisan (unless, of course, we drill them into party preferences at an early age).

To extend this activity, you can print copies of different currencies from different countries and compare them. It’s a wonderful way to explore cultural similiarities and differences, as well as the history of modern economics.