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Saturday, Dec. 28, 2002

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Waiting for the ultimate exchange gift


Perhaps the first disappointment most kids experience while growing up is discovering the truth regarding Santa Claus. For me, it was the same.

Why . . . the generous blubberball was a fraud! A dirty adult con game that I had bought with a Charlie Brown smile and shimmering, idiot eyes for year after year after year!

"It's not fair!" I remember shouting.

"Well, you're a big boy now. It's time you knew."

And then my college roomie passed me the rum. We drank to forget dashed love affairs, his with a sexy cheerleader, mine with a jolly fat man in bells.

I never told my own kids that St. Nick was a holiday trick, but neither did I say he was legit. Instead I let life take its cruel course. Yet, with no parental input, my two boys failed to swallow the whole damned fishing rod -- as had their dad -- and thus overcame the Santa sham at a normal age.

But for them the facts of life broke even harder. For as international kids, they were smacked by reality right where it hurts the most . . . in the pocketbook.

Yep, I am referring to the yen-dollar exchange rate.

"It's not fair!" my first son shouted.

He had just bought dollars with money earned from a part-time job in Japan. When he first took the job, the rate was 100 yen to the dollar. When he traded some years later, it was near 130 yen.

"They stole a fourth of my money! It's a fraud! A con game!"

"Now, now," I said back. "You've just been hit by the free market economy, sort of the way the dinosaurs got hit by the Yucatan meteor. There's nothing you can do about it."

Yet, he proved a lot more clever than an oversize lizard. For he next insisted that I -- as his parent -- make up the difference. But I refused.

"Listen, you're not the only one with a brain larger than that of a sauropod. Why should I eat your loss?"

Because, he wheedled, I also had a heart bigger than a sauropod's. Not to mention a kindly face, a sympathetic soul, a charitable disposition, etc.

When my eyes began to shimmer like an idiot's, he knew he had me. And soon he had escaped his brush with reality and was spending not only his hard-earned money . . . but also mine.

The Bank of Dad always has the same rate, 100 yen to the dollar. The Bank of Dad also always has the same hope -- that my kids will reach financial independence before I arrive at bankruptcy.

But I am not worried -- so much. For the Bank of Dad also knows that what goes around comes around.

Like that old joke about San Francisco weather, if you don't care for the current exchange rate, just wait a bit. It's bound to change.

It wasn't always that way. Longtime residents can recall the days when the yen traded at over 300 to the dollar.

If you were thus being paid in greenbacks, you were arguably rich. If you were paid in yen, you were instead like most Japanese back then -- unarguably poor.

Plus you had the nasty Japanese cost of living to endure. Meanwhile many people paid from abroad received a benefit called COLA.

"You mean, like, all you can drink?" I asked.

No, it was more like having Cash Of a Limitless Amount. For if the yen grew muscles, you received additional dollars meant to iron out the exchange difference. Supposedly this allowed recipients to live like they did back home.

Which for me would have meant feasting off Fritos and Milk Duds.

But COLA could never equal a WOLA, a Way Of Living Adjustment. Even if paid from overseas, I still had to survive in a Japanese lifestyle. More money did not mean more choices.

As the yen began its long claw ever upward, I eventually developed bank accounts both here and at home. By moving money when the rate was advantageous and then making withdrawals only in the country where I happened to be, I found I could avoid yen-dollar body blows.

But this plan had a bugaboo -- children. Now that one is attending college in the States, I find both bank accounts struggle for air. It seems they are always exhaling.

So I keep my eyes glued to the exchange rate. My son in the States does the same. For he knows the Bank of Dad will not move until conditions are ripe.

"The dollar is falling," he will say. "It's a good time to send money."

Yet with kids, anytime is a good time to send money. We senders, meanwhile, love to wait for a better rate.

Now paid domestically, I dream of a sunny day when the Japanese economy will zip into ultra gear and 1 yen will buy buckets and buckets of dollars.

While this might put a meteor to the world economy, I am yet lost in sweet visions of my portly U.S. banker presenting me with a bulging passbook, all wrapped with ribbons and bows.

"Dad, when are you going to learn? There is no Santa Claus. The ultimate exchange gift isn't coming. So send money now."

Yet the Bank of Dad prefers to play it safe. Besides, I tell the boy, the better part of receiving is always anticipation.

A maxim we Santa vets love.

Especially when it saves us money.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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