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.
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.