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.
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.