Friday, March 1, 2013

Rooster Decapitations & Con Artists

7 police officers rang my doorbell this morning. They spoke in rapid Chinese but when I began to sweat-stutter-and-twitch they switched to English and asked why I had not yet registered with the local police office. Register? After an efficient encounter that bordered-on-the-absurd while still-allowing-for-an-element-of-terror, they were confident that I was not an illegal in their country and left. A few minutes later I left the apartment for a job interview but admittedly, looked over my shoulder constantly to see whether I was being followed.

The interview was with a hedge fund headquartered in Chicago. I had responded to an advertisement posted in the American Chamber of Commerce newsletter for a part-time business advisor based in Shanghai. The opportunity seemed incredible since it would facilitate my entry into the Chinese market on the wings of a renowned investment group. The seemingly perfect opportunity was tinged with a subtle layer of blah-blah-blah since the salary was low. Assuming a workday of 12 hours a day, it calculated to about 6USD/ hour.

As I waited for our driver on our congested-yet-charming road Fuxing Lu in the French Concession, a few things began to puzzle me. First, how could I avoid the trickle of blood-clogged-with-rooster-feathers that was accumulating near our doorstep, the result of early morning decapitations performed by a roadside butcher who suffered from high levels of repressed anger? Second, since drivers never stopped for pedestrians at the crosswalk (read: not even for mothers pushing baby strollers or for great-grandparents hobbling along with a cane) how did people manage to successfully cross the roads? Last, how could I stop gaggles of giggling women form approaching me and asking me to be their friend so “pLactice English?”  Yes, the L is meant to be there.    

I traversed the road without getting hit by oncoming traffic and in addition, arrive to my interview sans feathers stuck on my shoes. I met with William, the director of the China branch, and our chat was quick. In retrospect, I should have realized that the meeting was actually silly since he spoke minimal English, did not ask any business related questions, and spent a large part of the meeting smiling and nodding into space. Nevertheless, I was given the job and asked if I could travel to Inner Mongolia later that week for a business trip. Naive to China, I agreed while giggling with joy when accepting their offer.

Although I was eager to share the news with my husband, he was traveling in northern China with his phone turned off. He finally called me at midnight, slurring his words as he tried to explain that he had been given dozens of shots of baijiu (a distilled liquor that is about 50% alcohol by volume) and that the world seemed a bit fuzzy to him. It was impossible for us to have a coherent conversation and I even suspect that he feel asleep during one point of my interrogation. I vacillated between I finally extracted the following points: he was sitting on a street corner, he was lost, the world was spinning, and he loved me. Most importantly, he was proud of himself since he had refused to eat the golden coin (slices of donkey penis) offered by his host, despite the fact that refusal to share in this delicacy was considered rude.

Horrified by the image of him falling asleep on a street corner, I was relieved to hear sudden voices in the background and a colleague suggesting they return to the hotel together. It seems the time-honored tradition of gambei in which a person is required to take a shot of alcohol, had left a grown man battered and lost – quite literally – in a small village in Northern China. 

The following morning at 6.45 I received a call from William asking whether I would be able to travel to Inner Mongolia that afternoon rather than later in the week. Well, I was warned that things in China are very impromptu and a few hours later I found myself at the airport running up and down the passageways trying to find William. Since his English was quite poor he put a colleague on the phone, Larry. In a thick drawl that originated from either Alabama or Louisiana, Larry told me that I was in the wrong terminal and directed me a terminal on the other side of the airport. Running in heels while dragging a suitcase is not opportune and I arrived at security sopped in sweat and agitated. Lovely first impression, eh. We rushed forwards but William then realized he had misplaced his boarding card.

The cue moved forward slowly since security agents were busy removing an infinite supply of knives, clippers, lighters and large-bottles-and-Tupperware-containers-overflowing-with-different-types-of-liquids from travelers’ suitcases. Was the memo about plane security not distributed in China? Our flight was scheduled to leave in 15 minutes so I assumed that we would need to reschedule our trip. As we neared the boarding gate we saw mobs of passengers milling about and were told that the departure had been postponed. I was also informed that delayed flights in China were the norm. About twenty minutes later the hostess announced boarding and I was, quite suddenly, windswept and plastered to the wall by a barrage of travelers rushing towards the plane. As I watched the elbows fly I wondered the concept of cueing in an orderly fashion would be introduced to the mainstream. Anxious and completely disheveled with veritable footprints on my forehead, I was the last to board, ashamed that I had forgotten to use my well-trained New York elbows to push my way forward.

Mental note made for the next flight.
Our breakfast options were fish or vegetarian congee. I suppose Congee is like pig knuckles in that, unless you were introduced to this dish as a child, you find it a fairly unappealing since food preferences are usually dictated by our cultural framework. So when the French gasp at the horror of Century eggs or fried chicken claws, I imagine their Chinese counterparts are equally horrified by snails boiled in butter or steak tartar. Despite my pseudo intellectual-culturally-sensitive-meanderings, the smell of my neighbor’s fish congee left me hovering into the aisle gasping. When his voracious and noisy slurping resulted in glops of fish congee finding their way onto my seat I decided to take a walk in the airplane.

After checking into our rooms at the Shangri La, I was asked to join William for dinner at 6pm with Larry, as well as Gemma, a Chinese translator traveling with the group. Dinner was a bit odd since there a group of men joined us but, after greeting William, they spent most of the evening huddled in a corner of the table talking animatedly and smoking nonstop (read: lighting up a cigarette before finishing the one already dangling from their mouth). In terms of our own group, Larry informed me that he was an actor trying to break into the Chinese market. I could not understand his relation to the hedge fund but imagined – again, note how naive I was – that he had recently changed industry. I also struggled to understand how he hoped to position himself into the cinematographic world, intrigued by his poorly fitted and heinously dyed toupee. He wore a fake (I assume, arrogantly) Armani turquois tracksuit coupled with cowboy boots. While I tried to divert my attention, I could not help notice that his jacket was not fully zipped and that three lonely hairs wriggled towards me, trying to escape their pale and pasty domain. He, however, was very self-confident and insisted on flirting with every woman who passed, despite the fact that he did not speak a word of Chinese.

Gemma was a delight; a woman of powerful energy, intentions and intelligence that had been smooshed into the physical confines of a petite and cherubic Asian doll. Having had lived abroad for many years, she could easily hither and thither between Western and Eastern cultures. One simple illustration was watching her eat breakfast at the hotel and toss chunks of granola on her rice congee. 

After dinner I luxuriated in my room, wrapped in a plush-fluffy-and-delicious bathrobe while enjoying my complimentary basket of fruit. Room service had not left chocolate on my pillow but rather a few salty fish candies. William was considering the purchase of a company and I was meant to act as a junior advisor on the deal. As such, I pored over the company’s business plan and financials until late in the night.
The following morning we drove out to the site where the factory would be built. I was in a car with Gemma whereas William and Larry were in another car. During this short car ride Gemma asked whether I understood how things worked. Still bleary eyed from my late evening, I simply nodded and then paused, shaking my head. I extracted the following points from her brief, yet concise summary:
-       William did not work for hedge fund headquartered in Chicago.
-       If I looked closely at the local website I would see that it was composed of images rather than real text. Copied images.
-       The principal website for the hedge fund headquartered in Chicago, did not mention operations in China.
-       Larry was an actor with no financial or business background, let alone acumen.
-       Chinese companies often borrowed the name of a reputable foreign brand.  This had happened with several luxury retail brands as well as banks.

It was a scam.

At precisely the moment we emerged from the car, a bulldozer drove up and proceeded to dig. The sudden overture was so clearly pre-meditated that I almost expected dancing-girls-clipping-to-emerge-pouring-champagne to take place. After a cursory walk about the factory we walked towards the offices for a meeting with the management. Before entering William took me to the side and suggested that I tell the representative of the potential acquisition that I had been sent from Chicago to make an assessment regarding the attractiveness of the deal.

He told me to lie.

Their business offices were neither impressive nor clean. Inside a pseudo-secretary-in-a-wildly-short-mini-skirt-offering-special-endings offered us slices of oranges and melon. The gorgeous and colorful fruit contrasted with the dank room in which a lone light bulb hung from the ceiling, casting shadows throughout. I made the grave error of going to the restroom but immediately exited, unable to tolerate the filthy Turkish hole swarming with flies. My coffee filled bladder would have to wait.

During the meeting I shared my takeaways from their documentation but received no more than blank stares. William began to speak in Chinese and Gemma later told me that he rambled off a series of lies about who I was and what I had said. Was someone going to break my fingers during the night?

After the meeting we were invited to a local restaurant where the back room had been reserved. I sat at a round table with ten strangers, none of which who spoke a word of English. Plates heaped with food were offered and, as a guest, the dishes were first offered to me. I was desperate for a bit of rice but there was none. I later learned that rice is considered a filler food and is only offered after the main dishes have been tasted. I was also desperate for a napkin so that I could hide the bits and pieces I could not fathom swallowing but there were none. There was a man who had been taking photos of me since the early morning. He would snap and then quickly cradle the camera behind his back, at though each move was surreptitious. It as 11.15am and bottles of Bai Jiu (moonshine, essentially) were ceremoniously placed on the table besides me. I suppose the reputation for drinking Northerners have acquired is justified. I declined the moonshine and sliced pig lung but graciously accepted a beer.

The beer was warm.

Before departing for the airport, the ‘potential clients’ presented me with a gift bag overflowing with packages of teas and sweets, both exquisitely packaged. I felt confused and ashamed by my deception. At the airport I tossed my business cards into the waste bin and decided that if my career was going to hiccup in China then the alternative was to have a baby or even many babies. Why not? For weeks my husband been jumping about like a frisky-puppy-who-knows-I-have-treats-in-my-pocket and asking if I felt fertile. How might I know what feeling fertile feels like? Is it like feeling happy-sad-intoxicated-enamored-or-constipated? While I did not know how fertile felt, I spent 30 minutes walking about - in my high heels nonetheless - with a small watermelon tucked under my blouse to feel pregnant. Strange? Perhaps. After thirty minutes I understood why pregnant woman tend to wear flats. 

Monday, February 18, 2013


Although we live in Shanghai’s French Concession, the lovely downtown area in one of the worlds most vibrant and sassy cities, I sometimes feel as though I am lost in a stereotypical Jersey mall where long nails, over processed hair and gum snapping teenagers abound. Many expatriate women struggle to live in Shanghai since they feel a bit out of place. In order to create their pseudo bubble of safety, cleanliness and consistency, they organize events throughout the week. In fact, if one was inclined, one could attend events from morning to night every day; every single day. Despite the best of intentions, many of these events take disastrous turns, and a few of my favorite examples follow:  

Charity Luncheon:
My first charity gathering in Shanghai was, by all intensive purposes, a liquid luncheon. Held at M1NT, an exclusive (as least according to their marketing materials) venue on the Bund, a few dozen expatriate and Chinese women passed a shark tank that graces the restaurant’s main door to enter a private room. Here they mingled with strangers, laughing and chatting politely yet awkwardly.

Found on the 24th floor, the venue is understated and elegant in décor and the views from the floor length windows are nothing short of spectacular. At the same time, it is the embodiment   of the worst of Shanghai’s artificiality. As said by a friend “vulgar insincerity, commercial dubiousness, and stylized excess.”

Renown for Asian Western fusion dishes, the event had advertised that they would serve a five-course meal. However, we were served tapas that were miniscule in both size and quantity. Quite frankly, they could have minimized their carbon footprint and served all 5 tapas on one plate rather than serving one after the other on separate plates. While I had neither anticipated nor hoped for an American style buffet with piles of mayonnaise filled salads or deep fried chicken,   I was hungry nevertheless after devouring my 5 appetizers. As a result, the disproportionately (and surprisingly) generous goblets of wine were dangerous - especially for those who, ahem, had not eaten breakfast in anticipation of a gorgeously decadent lunch. To illustrate my point, an hour into the event a woman draped in jewels (the kind that are insured and not the kind that are bought online at Gilt) came out of the toilet with her Chanel skirt tucked into her silk Agent Provocateur black lace knickers. Unaware of this faux pas and more focused on smoothing out her blond extensions as she made an entrance, she walked towards us as though on the catwalk, hips jutting from side to side and as she click-click-clacked her Manolo’s.

Knowing I could not giggle, point or surreptitiously extract her skirt from her knickers, I turned my attention to another woman in the group. She was the veritable opposite. Her Southern drawl was deceivingly sexy until one engaged in conversation. Did we really need to talk about the sex-lives-of-the-rich-and-famous-with-a-dapple-of-what-she-misses-buying-from-Walmart? The wife of an executive, her blinding and hefty engagement ring had clearly been bought with taste and a black American Express. However, her fashion stylist must have been on holiday since she wore a tacky-sequined-strawberry-shortcake-sweater tucked it into high-waist khaki pants that tapered at the ankle to create a ballooning effect, showcasing her love of chocolate. Her makeup artistry, with its heavy hand and offensive colors, mimicked the age of Madonna and boldly contrasted her middle-ages-mid-Western choices for clothing: glittering yellowish eye shadow, powerful streaks of orange blush, eyelashes heavy with mascara, and this was all complimented by pink lipstick on her teeth.

There are hordes of frustrated expatriates in Shanghai who struggle to enter the local workforce, despite their extensive professional credentials. As such, many of these professionals (male and female) take a professional hiatus to enjoy-life-while-flittering-from-massage-to-lunch-to-pedicure-to-vacation, while others redefine their professional trajectory. I know a female doctor who became a food-blogger, a finance guru who became an online entrepreneur, and an advertising executive who became a baker! As of yet I do not know any talking girls. **

Some people (read: A-type-MBA-touting-New-Yorkers) dedicate themselves to networking, convinced that professional options abound. In fact, I initially fell into this later category and naively engaged in project work for an illegitimate-Mafia-linked group-that-used-the-name-of-a-well-known-American-investment-group! (Refer to my entry Rooster Decapitations and Con Artists With all fingers and toes intact, I terminated our relationship fairly quickly.

After my unfortunate glimpse of the underworld, I attended networking events ad nauseam organized by legitimate sources such as the Chambers of Commerce, multiple Embassies (inclusive of countries I could not even locate on a map), my university Alma-Matter, and friends of friends. My takeaway - both comprehensive and based on multitudes of qualitative and quantitative research - is that networking events were organized under a false pretense. They simply served as a way for and dozens of other matchmaking businesses to serve their own agenda.

How else could one explain why a professional networking event boasted tiny Asian cocktail waitresses balancing enormous trays of whiskey shots? Should my name card read: Take—Advantage-of-Me and provide my physical measurements? Ahem, 34-24-36. Copious amounts of alcohol were served to nervous networkers and whiskey shots left me giggling, stuttering and swaying rather than eloquent, articulate and compelling to potential contacts or employers.

Going forward I became cautious in accepting invitations. But then a few months later - Click: you’ve got mail - I received a seemingly innocuous invitation for a networking luncheon organized by a woman I knew. I accepted, encouraged by the possibility of spending a few hours with like-minded professionals. I had a series of misfortunes the day of the event and arrived only for dessert. I stood at the door and, as I saw many fingers lingering on ever so so so many knees, I realized there was more on offer than just chocolate cake.

Play dates:
Why do we assume that we will become friends just because our children are the same age? Almost all first time mothers fall into the inevitable trap of attending and organizing play dates for strangers-in-their-home-with-babies-who-are-not-yet-capable-of-social-interaction. Awkward and often painfully boring, we fall into the trap of assuming that play dates are our maternal obligation. Much like learning how to bake glutton-free gourmet muffins, knit baby booties with organic materials, purchase a plethora of learning-educational-stimulatory toys, never raise our voice, and enroll them in Chinese-French-and-Ancient-Greek classes.

Over time I learned to avoid play dates where the demographics were somewhat alien. I often took the initiative to organize them at home, creating finely thought out invitation lists and serving Chardonnay as well as apple juice. I recently received a phone call from my friend Carmen when she was a new mother. I had warned her about the risks associated with play dates and my email-phone-and-carrier-pigeon messages were not subtle. She wanted to see for herself. The host had prepared a veritable luncheon with a display of gorgeous sweets from her hometown. My friend Carmen happily (read: greedily) ate half a bag of Japanese beans. Later that evening when she started to consume the rest of the beans, she discovered part of a worm. 

This begged the question: where was the other half of the worm?
What is the moral of the story? Pay dates are bad for your physical and mental health.

** One frequently sees advertisements in restaurant windows for talking girls, or women hired to accompany single travelers in the restaurant and talk with them. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Hiccup in Hong Kong

Our evenings were spent with friends, weaving from one restaurant to another. We even ventured to an Irish pub after a bit of a scuffle with the inebriated 18 year old whose preference for 16-year-old-buxom-and-sexually-adventurous-girls compelled him to assume the role of doorman. Yes, to let them in and keep out the middle-aged people such as ourselves. I was tempted to pull this child by the ear and whisper ‘Silly boy, don’t you know you can learn more about life and its pleasures from an older woman?’ Our efforts were not justified by the reward: we stepped into a trendy yet tawdry bar with explosive music-from-the-1908s-that-should-have-been –discreetly-swept-into-the-rubbish-bin-along-with-Madonna-like-clothing. After consuming a few drinks prepared with cheap liquor, we exited the bar with newly sprouted hairs on our chest and already pounding skulls.

Our days were spent exploring the wonders of Hong Kong Island. The humidity and scorching temperatures threatened to leave us looking like a rumpled-and-discarded-piece-of-wrapping-paprer-from-a-childs-party. We were torn between sitting in a café and exploring the city. The Central-Mid-levels Escalator, consisting of a mile-long stretch of covered, mostly elevated escalators and walkways that takes less than a half-hour to navigate without making any stops, served as a compromise. Nevertheless, we still depended greatly on our baby wipes to remove the never-ending accumulation of sweat!

When crossing the walkways that crisscross the city, I heard a strange chattering sound as if a thousands trapped birds were flapping their wings. I turned to find hundreds of Filipino women seated on the floor, as far as the eye could see, on makeshift chairs and flaps of cardboard. Immigrant workers with their children reared by grandparents back home, they gathered every Sunday - like flocks of colorful migratory birds - to gather in clustered groups. Their collective, melodic chatter sounded somewhat surreal on a Sunday, the day of the week when the urban heart beats less frantically, when the exhaust-spewing buses thin out, the motorized din dies down and the commuting, shopping masses rarefy.

From dawn until dusk they talk, laugh, paint one another’s nails, sell the occasional odd and end, and play cards. They also picnic, cross-legged on blankets or slabs of cardboard spread out on the concrete or crouched on camping stools, placing dozens of Tupperware containers filled with homemade goods on the ground to share. These tiny yet tangible extracts from their island created a tapestry of scents and colors.

Our day was a sensory discovery of a constantly changing cityscape - from traditional, to modern and elegant, to seedy - that delighted our 6 senses. Avenue of Stars, where commemorative plaques, cartoon characters, and a life-size statue of kung fu action hero Bruce Lee set the glamour of Hong Kong’s film industry against the captivating dazzle of Victoria Harbor. A bit tacky but from a cultural perspective, it was fascinating to witness the locals borderline-slight-obsession with cartoon figures. Hello Kitty anyone?

The subway system was also intricate and well managed, extending even to the boats that traveled between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. And strolling in the city was not stressful as it is in China where one runs across the street  - hoping not to slip on the great globs of split that populate the roads - since cars do not pause to let pedestrians cross. People from Hong Kong do not usually refer to themselves as Chinese and their insults towards the mainlanders can be quite intense ( Were the differences between them inherent character or socialized?