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:
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 http://wwwemdsl-nica.blogspot.fr/2013/03/rooster-decapitations-con-artists.html). 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 match.com 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.
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.