I walked out of the elevator and down the hall to my new office. I was the boss of the Greater China arm of the company now and was looking forward to getting started. Julianna, the office manager, greeted me cordially and led me through the outer area and toward my next perk – the corner office. I never had a corner office before and as with the chauffeur, was at least slightly enthusiastic about this improvement in stature.
I followed her around the corner and into a tiny room that could easily have been mistaken for a supply closet, except that it was extremely low on paper, ink, coffee cups, and shelves to put them on. This would be the helm from which I would manage the expansion of our business into the world’s greatest market.
The smallness of the office was outdone only by the flimsiness of its contents. The desk was one of those with a peeling wood veneer finish that accounted for nearly a third of its thickness. The phone was one of those squeaky plastic types with a permanently tangled cord. In this age of ubiquitous smart phones I didn’t know you could still find these.
I hung my coat in the cabinet by the door and waited for the structure to stop swaying under the added weight. Julianna carefully squeezed out past me, being cautious not to upend the toy coat closet.
The main area had two small manager offices, each about half the size of mine, if you can imagine such a thing. The managers had glass partitions separating them from the rows of cubicles. Presumably this was so they could take important calls in private. But one of the managers was on the phone and the whole office could hear him clearly. It reminded me of the Cone of Silence in the old Get Smart TV series.
The cubicles were packed so tightly that when one of the employees stood to introduce himself, he accidentally snapped shut the laptop screen of the guy sitting behind him.
The whole setup was like being on an airplane. The cubes were coach, the tiny offices were first class, and I was sitting in the cockpit. But this was no Singapore Airlines. It was ValuJet, where first class means an extra inch of leg room.
I called one of the managers, Raymond, up to the cockpit.
“Wo men qu lou xia, zai xin ba ke kai hui ba,” he said to me.
I understood him perfectly: Let’s go downstairs to Starbucks for our meeting. My Chinese would be just fine.
We sat down with our coffees. Even though Starbucks had prominent no smoking signs posted, Raymond lit a cigarette and offered me one. Although I find smoking to be kind of disgusting, I appreciated the gesture.
We made small talk in Chinese for a few minutes, and then we got down to business.
“Supporting our most important reseller is going to require many shoes and three goats,” Raymond said in Chinese.
At least that’s how I understood it. Since Raymond didn’t seem to be out of his tree, I asked for clarification.
“Yes, the important partner. Three goats.” Raymond coughed, took a drag on his cigarette, then added, “And a chicken.”
It struck me that this wasn’t going to be easy. Raymond continued on in Chinese.
“They need exclusivity and a big discount, and exclusivity is not needed for the discount.”
At least there were no farm animals in this sentence. But it still didn’t make sense.
The problem with my Chinese was that I had never before used it for business, and was clearly missing some vocabulary. This was made worse by my difficulty in deciphering tones – pitches that change the meaning of a word. If you take away the tones, a single syllable like yang – which can mean goat – can also mean 30 or so other things. I pressed on anyway.
After half an hour, I learned that Raymond’s dry hacking cough likely had something to do with his chain smoking. I hadn’t learned much about the business during this time, though. To his credit, Raymond sensed this, and decided it would be more effective to try English. This came as a relief.
“The partner very strategic stadium security. Project is important must, and support is must.”
“Ah right, the strategic partner. Which one are you referring to?” I asked.
“Yes, partner. Important. Is must,” Raymond said with a few coughs along the way.
“For which stadium?”
“Yes, stadium. Must.”
Raymond seemed as proud of his English as I was of my Mandarin. He wheezed and took another drag on his cigarette.
We had arrived at an impasse. Trying to decipher Raymond’s sentences was like using Babelfish to translate a legal document. It was giving me a headache and the feeling was probably mutual. I considered taking up smoking for a moment, but then thought better of it.
Back up in the cockpit, I hoped things would go better with the other key manager, Walter.
“The realignment program that was recently implemented is having an unexpected effect on the team’s ability to focus on revenue augmentation for the fourth quarter,” Walter said in perfect corporate English without smoking or coughing.
My spirits lifted.
“If training and fulfillment can be propagated to ensure parallel skill development, we should be able to sustain continuous improvement while accelerating market acceptance indicators.”
My spirits soared.
Walter was speaking corporate gibberish, a language I had some background in. It was clear that he had been around the block with large multinationals. While I would have preferred direct, no nonsense communication, it was music to my ears compared to Raymond’s scrambled English or my own half-baked Chinese.
As with all corporate-speak though, eventually I started to lose focus. He had good insights into the business, but I got lost in his circuitous stream of catchphrases. My attention turned to his broken front tooth.
The only time you would ever see an American sales guy with a broken tooth would be right after he got into a bar fight or an accident. As Walter didn’t seem like a brawler and had no other visible bruises or broken bones, I wondered if America was unique in its obsession with the perfect smile.
I forced my attention back to what he was saying but after another hour and a half of “…productivity enhancement can be achieved while concurrently mitigating the justification of aberrant results,” my soaring spirits began to experience a negative growth trend.
In the end Walter wasn’t much better at communicating than Raymond. I needed a break to take care of some personal business and ponder the situation properly.
The office restroom had both a toilet and a urinal. Like most men, I have always appreciated the urinal, and once even knew a guy in New Jersey who had one installed in his home, much to his wife’s unending disapproval. But this was a unisex office restroom. Wouldn’t women take offense?
Perhaps not. In a country where many bathrooms still feature filthy squatting holes that require specialized targeting skills, a urinal was probably innocuous.
After washing my hands I noted there were neither paper towels nor an air dryer, just a tattered wet rag hanging from a hook on the wall. I couldn’t tell if this was meant to be shared for drying hands – even though it was sopping wet – or intended for some other purpose like wiping the inside of the toilet bowl. Maybe it was for both?
It reminded me that so much of what we consider normal is a function of our upbringing. I imagine that if I grew up washing my hair in the toilet each morning and using the flush to rinse, I would find it odd if other cultures didn’t do the same.
The environment you grow up in until the age of five influences your development almost as strongly as the genetics you inherit, and is almost as hard to change. We all have a lens through which we see the world, and because of our cultural bias we often think that our own view is the only correct one. In this case, I’m sure mine was correct.
I shook my hands in the air and rubbed them on my trousers as I made a mental note to ask Julianna to buy some paper hand tissues.
My Fisher Price phone rang. I lifted the receiver but the tangled cord kept it from separating from the base. I pulled them apart with both hands and said hello. It was the local representative of the moving company. She was calling to inform me that our shipment from New York would arrive in less than five weeks.
“And I like confirm please,” she said in slightly stilted but reasonably serviceable English, “that delivery address is to the Number One Long Dong.”
I wanted to joke that there would be no Long Dong in my future, but she wouldn’t have understood. Where was Bill from Queens when I needed him?
I told her simply that we were planning to move and would let her know the address as soon as I knew. Then I wondered how we would find a new place in so little time.