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. 

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