7. The Chinese Army

Wing, Joe and I stood on the street corner for a while trying to hail a cab to our next meeting until we realized that the mayhem that separated us from the cars was actually a bicycle lane.  We would have to cross the street if there was to be any hope of getting a taxi, but the crush of bicycles was so constant and dense that I couldn’t imagine it was possible.  It was morning rush hour and this was not Amsterdam or Copenhagen where you could absent-mindedly step into the bike path and be reprimanded by a slightly perturbed cyclist ding-dinging his bell and warning you with a smile, “Please don’t walk in the bike path.”  No, this was a stampede on wheels.  The torrent of bikes was stacked four or five deep and was crammed as tightly as any pedestrian crowd I’d seen in China.  Millimeters separated bike pedals and wheels overlapped.  Down the road to my left the stream went on as far as I could see.

As I stood wondering what our next move would be, Wing and Joe headed straight into the onslaught.  I thought they were done for, but the sea of bikes parted, flowing around them as they effortlessly ambled through. How this worked I wasn’t able to ascertain – it was like walking between raindrops. Wing and Joe were now waving at me.  I was hoping they were waving goodbye, but no, they were waving for me to follow. I was low on options so I decided that though it had been a short life, it had also been a good life, and that drowning in a sea of bicycles wouldn’t be such a bad way to go. I clutched my bulging moneybag to my chest, knowing that if it slipped from my grip I would never see it again. I plunged in and hoped for the best.

Clutching my money bag, I felt like Moses as the sea of cyclists parted for me to get to the other side.

As my foot hit the ground, the cyclists adjusted their course, affording me just the amount of space I needed. I took a few more steps and the bikes swarmed around me, as if by magnetic force.  I felt like Moses parting the Red Sea, but with one big difference: I was doing this on my own, with no help from the higher-ups in my organization.

I emerged on the other side unscathed and proud of my newfound powers.  Surprisingly, Joe and Wing seemed unimpressed.  We got in a cab, and Joe barked another set of orders.  Our ride brought us to the gate of what Wing told me was a campus of the People’s Liberation Army.  I was asked to show my passport, and we were directed to a man waiting for us on the side of the road. Joe paid the driver, and we followed our greeter on foot past several non-descript concrete buildings, the same kind I had been seeing all over Changsha. There weren’t any discernible markings on any of these gray boxes, yet our expert guide singled out one of them and led us inside.

Up a flight of unfinished concrete stairs without safety railings we went and ended up in another dank and unadorned room, similar to the one we had been in earlier that morning. There again was a man waiting to transact with me.  I was quickly introduced to this unkempt little man whose name I caught from Wing’s translation as “Mr. Dish-a-veh mumble heh heh.”  Mr. Disheveled would do.  It was hard to escape the feeling that I was about to enter into the raw end of a shady deal designed to separate a naïve American businessman from his money.  On the bright side, there was no bed in this office; Mr. Disheveled did business supported by a proper chair.

 “Wing, please ask the man who exactly will be in the audience,” I said.

Wing got out half a sentence, paused with a few “umms” – I presumed he was searching for the word in Chinese – and finished with the word “audience,” in English.

“Wah?”  Mr. Disheleved replied.

There was quite a bit more back and forth before Wing had an answer for me.

“He says the audience will be very good…two hundred people…very good audience.”

“What exactly is the expertise and background of the audience?” I asked and settled down for another lengthy exchange:

“Ummm…(a few Chinese words)”


“Ahhh…(a few more Chinese words and one or two English words)”


I couldn’t figure out why they were having a rough time communicating, but it was obvious something wasn’t right. Eventually the translation came through: “They are all experts in teleconferencing technology and systems.”

It was unlikely that a roomful of PLA members (should I think of them as soldiers?) would be teleconferencing experts.  In any case, my company didn’t sell teleconferencing gear. I asked Wing to remind him that I was here to talk about voice mail.

“Oh yes, voice mail systems.  Yes, yes, experts in voice mail,” was the message transmitted to me after another round of miscommunications.

This didn’t inspire a lot of confidence, so I inquired further. The questions continued to be a challenge for Wing, and the answers sounded as if they were designed to be exactly what I wanted to hear.  Eventually I ran out of patience, so I just handed over the money. I didn’t believe much of what I was hearing, but what was I to do, cancel the presentation and tell my bosses that it just didn’t feel right?  I had come all this way and what else was I going to do with a bagful of RMB anyway?

We were led out of Mr. Disheveled’s office and down the hall to an auditorium.  It was rather elaborate, with terraced seating facing a large stage – much more impressive than the exteriors of the buildings in the complex. Another foreigner and his translator were giving a slide presentation on a giant screen and we were asked to wait outside until our turn.  There were at least 200 people in the audience, maybe even 250.  Their casual attire didn’t exactly read business executive, but they didn’t look like soldiers either. More importantly, they all looked conscious – perhaps even interested in the presentation. Things were looking up just a little bit.

Maybe this foreign guy was one of my competitors. He spoke English with a German accent but I wasn’t quite close enough to make out what he was saying.  At least if he was a competitor, there might actually be some business to be done here.

We were due to go on in less than five minutes but I had some urgent business of my own to tend to first.

“We are up very soon,” Wing said anxiously before translating my request.

“I’ll be fast,” I replied. “I’ve done this before.”

A man led me down the hall motioning to a door on the right. I opened the door but it led outside. Had I taken the wrong door?  I couldn’t have.  It was the only door.  And the odor was exceptional. It had to be the right place.  A few yards away, I saw it: a large, rusted metal basin. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder behind it were a row of men with faraway looks in their eyes.  I had found the facilities.

More accurately, I had found an open-air piss trough that looked onto the road below. There wasn’t a free position for me so I waited.  As I checked my watch, the door opened and in rushed a man who walked right past me and elbowed his way into position.  I was out of time, so I followed his example and jostled my way in.  The guy on my left looked at me and smiled, apparently unperturbed by my jostling. I smiled back. A few people stopped in the road to point up at me. I smiled at them too, taking care not to cross streams.  They were saying something.  Perhaps it was, “Hey look, a foreigner relieving himself in plain view!  And those stories we’ve heard about foreigners must not be true!”  More likely, it was just the usual, “Hey, look, a foreigner!”

I didn’t find this situation all that strange. China had begun to numb my senses. I was on a Chinese army base after all, and army bases have latrines. I was just happy that I only had my bladder to contend with and that I wasn’t a woman.

I arrived back just in time to see the German and his translator being led out a door at the other end of the auditorium. I had hoped to catch up with him to compare notes and see if he had been fleeced in a similar manner. I considered going after him, but there was no break between speakers.  It was our turn immediately.  Wing and I made our way to the stage and I took the podium. And that’s when the real trouble began.




6. Miss Manners

Fortunately, I was tired enough that I managed to get some rest.

Early the next morning Wing and I were joined for breakfast by Mr. Zhou, a Chinese gentleman from our host city.  Since “Zhou” sounds a lot like “Joe,” I quickly took to calling him that.  It was never quite clear to me who exactly this Joe was. All I knew was that he was going to help us convert that slim wad of Ben Franklins into local currency.  But first, we had to eat.

We went to the hotel’s breakfast buffet, filled our plates and sat down.  Among other things that I mostly didn’t recognize, Joe was eating an egg.  Rather, I should say that he was engaging in some sort of activity that involved a fried egg and his mouth.  He would lower his head to his plate, and then using his chopsticks push the egg towards his mouth while he sucked it in, sort of the way a vacuum cleaner might.  The egg would then stay in his mouth for a moment, and then it would suddenly be back out on his plate.

He repeated this process several times:

  • sucking sounds
  • chopsticks push egg into mouth
  • most of egg returns to plate

I had heard that birds feed their young by regurgitating, and had always thought less of them for it, but this was far worse.  While this was happening, the most horrific slurping noises were being created by the interaction between the egg and his mouth. And all the while, he was trying to explain to us the plan for the day.

“Burble, burble…slurp, something in Chinese, something in Chinese… slurp slurp, gurgle, snort…something in Chinese, slurp,” is what Joe seemed to be saying.

Wing did his best to translate for me, but most of it didn’t register as I struggled to divert my attention from Joe’s captivating performance across the table.

“Mumble, mumble…dollars…something, something…FEC…mumble, mumble…thousand yuan…help to exchange…RMB…slurp, snort, nervous laugh…special exchange place…something, something, slurp…heh heh mumble,” is what I recall hearing from Wing.

To be fair, none of the slurping or snorting was coming from Wing. He was only responsible for the mumbling and the nervous laugh. As we proceeded through this unforgettable meal, Joe raised his bowl to his mouth and made all kinds of clucking noises as the food was messily transferred from the bowl to his mouth.  All of this was interspersed with a variety of hearty belches, none of which seemed to cause him any embarrassment or concern.

Having spent a fair bit of time in Europe, I knew that Europeans often displayed and appreciated table manners more than we casual Americans did.  Being from Long Island, I figured I came from the less refined end of the American spectrum of manners in general, and so I was always sensitive as to whether any aspects of my behavior might inadvertently cause offense.  Needless to say, I had never personally been on the receiving end of such a transgression, mainly because I just didn’t care too much what anyone did.  My breakfast with Joe changed all this.  I was actually taken aback by Joe’s apparent lapse of manners and even felt offended by it.  In fact, it was the first time in my life that I had ever been offended, by anything at all.  I looked over at Wing, hoping for a sympathetic “yeah I know this is unbelievable” kind of glance, but he didn’t seem to be the least bit perturbed.

Manners never mattered much to me, that is, not until I had breakfast with Mr. Zhou.

After breakfast, Joe, Wing and I got into a taxi.  Joe barked the address to the driver.  The driver sped through town; swerving, zigzagging and cutting off every vehicle that didn’t otherwise cut him off. We stopped in front of one of those non-descript slabs of concrete like those I had passed the day before.  It seemed to be some sort of office building but I couldn’t quite tell. All of these buildings seemed similar to me. It could have been a factory of some sort, or a prison, or maybe even another hotel.  Joe led us up a few flights of unfinished concrete steps, down an unlit hall and into a dark and shabby room.

Inside was a man sitting on a bed who seemed to be expecting us.  He motioned for us to sit down, but there were only two chairs remaining for the three of us.  Joe and I sat. There was enough room for Wing to sit next to the man on the bed, but he remained standing. This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I thought of a currency exchange office.  I knew that I needed to exchange American dollars for local Chinese currency, and I knew that this wasn’t a service that was officially provided for in China, so I knew not to expect a brightly lit place with a big board on the wall with all the exchange rates so you could see just how much you were being ripped off.  But this isn’t quite what I expected either.  It didn’t feel right to be doing business in this cross between bedroom and office, but I had no choice but to go through with it. I felt just as I had when marching toward that Tupolev the day before: resigned due to a lack of alternatives.

I presented my slim wad of twenty one-hundred-dollar bills and was given roughly eleven thousand and some odd Chinese RMB.  The largest bill in China then was the 100 RMB note, but it was newly introduced and in short supply, so I was mostly paid in 50s and 20s. The result was hundreds and hundreds of bills, so many in fact that there was no way they could be stuffed into my pockets.  Fortunately I had a really large computer bag with me, the kind that had space for overnight clothes on one side and my computer and documents on the other.  Since I was on a long trip, I wasn’t using the clothing side.  I counted and loaded the money into the bag, which was now overstuffed, and we made our way back down the steps and out onto the street.

5. Mainland China

After arriving at the Guangzhou train station we made our way though passport control, where we were subjected to a generous amount of pushing and shoving before we were able to get our passports stamped. But this was nothing compared to the pandemonium among the unruly crowd on the street trying to find a cab to take us to the airport. Sure, we were in China’s third biggest city, but even so, it was obvious that Chinese people had different expectations of personal space than I was used to.  It must be a function of the general overpopulation – at a certain point there’s just no reason to be polite.  Whereas in America you are generally expected to give two to three feet of space to a stranger, in China it is more like 0. It’s sort of like a game of marbles, with everyone going at the same time.

Somehow we got a taxi and were soon on our way to the airport amid a sea of drivers who seemed intent on starting a game of bumper cars. We managed to arrive unscathed at the Guangzhou airport, and after passing through another checkpoint where I had to show my passport yet again – which to me seemed odd as I was headed for a domestic flight – we eventually found ourselves standing on the tarmac walking to our plane.

Having been somewhat of an aircraft buff, I prided myself on being able to call out the make and model of any commercial jetliner after just a quick glance.  The one we were heading for seemed easy.  It was a three-engine plane with the horizontal stabilizer mounted high in the tail fin.  That makes it a Boeing 727, one of the easiest to identify.  But there was something wrong.  It seemed bigger than a 727 should be.  I scratched my head, knowing that there weren’t too many other planes with a similar configuration, and wondered what it might be.

“Wing, is that what I think it is?” I said.


“That plane, the one we’re headed to.”

“Yes, it is China Eastern plane,” Wing said with his nervous laugh.

“I mean the kind of plane.  It doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen before.”

“Heh heh,” his nervous laugh being his only reply.

Wing had no idea what I was getting at.  I realized with not a little trepidation that I would be flying for the first time in my life on a Russian plane.  It was a Tupolev, and as we got closer, I saw the numbers 154.  This was a Tupolev 154.   Yikes!  I had just read an article about Tupolevs.  The 154 was among the most common, and like most Russian aircraft, had a terrible safety record. They had been falling out of the sky left and right for years. The fact that the Russians would often blame the accidents on pilot error didn’t calm me any.

“Wing, this is a Russian made plane we’re about to fly on.”

“Oh?  Russian plane?” he said as his nervous laugh trailed off.

I wanted to tell him that a guy with a name like Wing ought to know more about planes, but I kept my mouth shut.  He wouldn’t have gotten it anyway.

There was no turning back. My luggage was already checked and I needed to get to Changsha, so I marched forward with the rest of the crowd.  I tried to keep in mind that even though Tupolevs crashed with much greater frequency than any planes I had ever flown on, the chance of this particular flight crashing was probably still very low. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that I would have a better chance of getting hit by lightning. Of course getting hit by lightning would be quick: I wouldn’t see it coming and it would be over in a second. On the other hand, if this shitbox went down I was probably going to know about it for a while beforehand and would be able to ponder the horror of my demise as the plane collided with the earth in a fury of screaming and explosions. Anyway, I put that out of my mind for the time being and concentrated on getting my bag into the overhead.  The fact that the overhead bin was more like an undersized shelf didn’t help much.  Nor did the seat belt, which reminded me of the impossible to adjust and all but useless lap belts in the 1965 Dodge Coronet that I rode around in as a kid.  None of this seemed to ruffle Wing or any of the couple hundred other all Chinese passengers, so I did the best I could to settle in as I began to observe the strangeness that was domestic Chinese air travel.

There was something surreal about the whole experience.  As we prepared for takeoff, not only did the crew not bother with the usual formalities about buckling your seat belt, folding your tray table and putting your seat back upright, but they didn’t seem to care or even notice if people were seated.  As we were barreling down the runway, more than a few people were still standing in the aisles fidgeting with their bags.

To my surprise, and possibly also to the surprise of the pilots, the flight went smoothly and in a few hours we were nearing our destination. As we turned onto final approach, the pilot said something over the PA system, which, judging by the reaction of the other passengers could probably have been translated as “We are now on final approach, please unbuckle your seat belts, stand up, disregard your own safety, and get your bags down before we land.” It was as if we were on a train about to pull into the station. I was half surprised no one tried to open the door to get a head start on the others as we were touching down.

So here I was, finally, with Wing, in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, in the heart of the Chinese mainland.  Prior to that hullabaloo a few days ago over which city Wing and I were meant to go to, I had never heard of Changsha.  I had heard of Hunan though. There was a restaurant in my home town serving spicy Chinese food called Hunan Palace.  Of course there was nothing palatial about it at all.  It was your typical over-lit, semi-dingy restaurant with dirty welcome mats, no decor and plastic seats in a non-descript suburban shopping center.  The Chinese, it seemed to me, even then, had this penchant for overstatement.

As I looked around in Changsha, I started to think that overstatement could be a relative thing.  For the guy from Hunan who had made his way to America and opened a restaurant in a reasonably well-to-do suburb, his place probably was some kind of palace.  My first impression of Changsha was that it was similar to Guangzhou, with teeming and chaotic crowds.  Bicycles were everywhere, and seemed to account for about 90% of the traffic.  Most disappointing, though, was that apart from an abundance of loud and inelegant Chinese signage, not much about Changsha looked Chinese.  I was certain that since China had such a rich cultural heritage, with over 5000 years of history, I would be treated in China’s heartland to beguiling scenes of Chinese pagodas amid a landscape of elaborate oriental gardens, but all I could see were row after row of box-like and often run down cement buildings as far as the eye could see.  And as it turned out, the eye couldn’t see all that far as Changsha was enveloped in a thick haze.  This, of course, was smog, and it was worse than any I had encountered, even in places known for smog.  LA is known for smog, but in LA, the sky is still blue much of the time.  This was much worse than LA.  It was even worse than the North American capital of smog, Mexico City.

My first trip to Mainland China in 1993. Where are all the pagodas and Chinese gardens?

We arrived at the hotel.  As I would come to expect, it had a grandiose and overly elaborate name that included a proudly displayed English translation: The Changsha Golden Sunshine International Five Star Elite Grand Hotel, or something like that.  Who wouldn’t be excited to stay in such a place?

As we walked into the lobby, I noticed it had a marble floor.  So far, so good, I thought.  But as I stood there waiting while Wing was handling the check-in formalities, I started to realize that the lobby was kind of shabby.  The marble floor was dirty, and there was a woman pushing a dirty mop across it.  I suppose she was making sure that the dirt got evenly distributed and ingrained permanently into every pore and crevice.  There were large floor to ceiling windows, but they were filthy and the curtains that hung in front of the windows weren’t any better.  A few yards away, three men were seated next to one another in the only chairs in the lobby.  They seemed to be working for the hotel, but they were just chatting with one another as they smoked.

Wing finally finished with the check-in procedure, and we headed to the elevator.  Our rooms were both on the seventh floor, and as we got out of the elevator, there was an official looking woman sitting at a desk.  Wing showed her some paperwork, she looked it over, grunted, and then motioned with her hand that we were cleared to proceed down the hall.  I guess she was some sort of floor guard. This was starting to feel more like a prison than a hotel.

My room — or cell I guess you could say — turned out to be just as dreary and cheerless as the lobby. It had a rock hard mattress and a smattering of ash trays thoughtfully placed at five foot intervals throughout the room.  I suppose these could come in handy for smokers who preferred to pace and smoke all night rather than try to sleep on the slab of concrete they called a mattress.  I went to the bathroom and was thrilled to learn that not only did I have a somewhat normal looking toilet, but that it wasn’t guarded by another lady at a desk.


4. Hong Kong

When I landed in Hong Kong, all of my assumptions about what China would be like were quickly confirmed.  While Hong Kong had a distinctly Chinese flavor, it was more or less like anywhere else I had been.  Sure, some things were different, but these were all the things I had come to expect as being within the realm of differentness.  There were signs in Chinese, Chinese-looking people and Chinese restaurants on every corner.  But there were also lots of tall buildings, plenty of signs in English and – despite being a vibrant and bustling city – it had a certain orderliness to it.  Hong Kong would be just another destination in my travel log.

Hong Kong was teeming with Chinese flavor, but wasn't that different from other places I'd been.

I was briefed about my upcoming China trip by Harry and Wing.  Harry was the manager of our Hong Kong based partner for the region.  Wing worked for Harry and would be accompanying me in China as my translator and guide.

Harry, like many honkies – “honky” being the amusing and entirely innocent term that many Asians use to refer to people from Hong Kong – took to introducing himself with an English name, presumably on the basis that his Chinese one is both unmemorable and unpronounceable to most gwai los – gwai lo being the not entirely innocent term used by honkies to refer to white people like me.  In Cantonese, it literally means “ghost person” but can also be translated as “foreign devil.”  Wing, on the other hand, was one of the few honkies who seemed to go by his Chinese name, possibly because it was easy for we ghost people to remember and pronounce.

“Do you have the Chinese written name for the city you’re going to?” Harry asked me.

“How would I have that, Harry?  All I was told was Changsha in Hunan province and that you would have the details.”

“But is it Zhangsha in Hunan or Zhengzhou in Henan?” Harry pressed.

“I think it’s Changsha, not Zhangsha and not Zhengzhou,” I said.

Harry made some phone calls and I overheard various pronunciations of Changsha, Zhangsha, Zhangzhou, Zhengzhou and Changshou.  I also heard variations of Henan and Hunan.  It had something to do with how these places are pronounced in Mandarin, the predominant version of Chinese on the mainland, and how that Mandarin pronunciation is relayed to a Cantonese-speaking honky via an English-speaking gwai lo.  Harry continued this charade of back and forth phone calls for two days before concluding that the meeting would be in Changsha in Hunan province and not in a city of a similar name in Henan provice, some 900 kilometers (550 miles) to the north. This was not exactly comforting.

The confusion reminded me of that poor guy from Oakland who a few years prior had mistakenly boarded a 15-hour flight from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand instead of the one-hour flight to his home city in the Bay Area.  He realized his mistake when, once airborne the pilot informed them the route would pass over Tahiti.

It seemed odd that Harry, who kept telling us how much of an expert he was on China, would so easily and for so long be confused over a basic matter as where we were meant to go.

I next learned that I would be giving a presentation on voice mail to an audience of some 200 people, all members of the People’s Liberation Army. In all my travels, I just couldn’t imagine that the military, any military, would have much interest in voice mail.

 “Hi, this is Sergeant Qing. I’m currently fighting for my life on the front lines, but your call is important to me.  Please leave me a detailed message and I will respond as soon as possible if I make it back. Thanks for calling and have a great day!”

There would also be an “entry fee” for us to present.  The fee was eleven thousand Chinese Yuan (then about US $2000), also known as RMB, which stands for Ren Min Bi or the “People’s Currency.” This wasn’t a huge amount in the overall scheme of things, but it could only be paid in cash and only in RMB, and RMB was not available to foreigners. This was getting more interesting by the moment.

In those days, foreigners were supposed to use an entirely different currency, known as FEC or Foreign Exchange Currency.  FEC theoretically was worth the same as RMB with a one-to-one exchange rate between the two.  The problem was that FEC could only be spent at officially designated outlets, and local people couldn’t do much with FEC.  Not knowing how to handle this situation, I went to a cash machine in Hong Kong and withdrew the equivalent of about US $2000 in Hong Kong dollars, which was easy enough.  I then went to a bank in Hong Kong and converted it back into a slim wad of twenty American hundred dollar bills that I could easily keep tucked away in my pocket.

As I made my way with Wing to the railway station in Kowloon to catch the train that would take us across the border to the Chinese mainland, I was starting to get the feeling that my past travels – some 40 countries in all by that stage – hadn’t prepared me for China.