19. The Shanghai Pinnacle Cleverness Company

The Christmas season was approaching and there was something I wanted to address before the break.  I called my sales agent, Bert, into my office.

“Bert, I have a question about Shanghai Pinnacle Cleverness Company. They don’t seem up to the task. Why are we using them?”

Bert puffed on his cigarette.

“Yes, yes, very good. Best.”

“But they don’t really have much experience with our software or with B-to-B software in general, and we’re up against some pretty well established multi-national firms. Why are we using them as our exclusive distributor?”

“Yes, I agree, is must,” Bert paused to enjoy a series of rapid-fire coughs, then added, “the exclusive…is only.”

By now I had stopped trying to make sense of his baffling syntax and circuitous reasoning. I spoke loudly and slowly, as if to a deaf person:


“Very busy,” Bert said, “set up, yes.” He coughed and then got up and said, “Excuse me for the meeting,” as he exited through the fumes.

Clearly one of us was misunderstanding. Perhaps it was the cultural disconnect but I felt like something fishy was going on.  It wasn’t the first time I had questioned Bert about the company yet I wasn’t any closer to comprehending the situation. Maybe it was Bert as middleman that was the problem. If I could talk to the vendor directly – or at least through a translator, but in the same room – I could figure out if they had anything to offer.

The next week I asked Bert again about the meeting with Shanghai Pinnacle Cleverness Company.

 “Yes.  The meeting. Yes. Set up.  Excuse me for the important call.”  He then answered his cellphone though I hadn’t noticed it ringing.

Did Bert mean that he had set up the meeting, or that he was going to set up the meeting?  I couldn’t tell, but I didn’t receive any details later that day.

The next day I asked again.

“Yes, the meeting, very busy.  After Christmas holiday,” said Bert.

“Are they actually celebrating Christmas?” I asked.

“Yes, Christmas.  Busy.  Meeting in January.  Is best.”

“Can we nail down a date and time?” I asked loudly and clearly.


I realized I couldn’t use any slang phrases.

“WHEN…CAN…WE…HAVE…THE…MEETING?  I need to know the date and time. When?”

“Yes, the date, time. Is okay,” Bert said. After a pause he continued with, ”Just.”

Then he was out the door again. I couldn’t decide if I should be sensitive to Chinese culture and go with the flow, or fire him on the spot for being a pain in the ass.  I decided to wait and see.

I went back to my tiny corner office suite and sat behind my toy desk to answer some emails.

At least I’ve secured a place to live for my family, I thought.  With that settled, the rest could wait.  It relaxed me to remember that that had been my priority and I had succeeded in it.  Family came first and it would be a great holiday in our new home.  No one could take that away from us.

The toy phone on my toy desk rang.

“Oh, hi Cindy, what’s up?”

“Sorry, the house is no longer available.”

“What?” I said. “What do you mean? We signed a contract on it!”

“Oh, the contract.  Contract is not meaning anything,” Cindy replied.

“…So then why did I sign it?” I replied irately.

“Oh, it is just for the agreement.”

She was beginning to sound like Bert.  Maybe it was a cultural thing.

“But we don’t have an agreement!” I said as smoke puffed out of my ears. “If we had an agreement I’d have a place to live!”

“Yes, the place to live, ha ha.”

“So what do I do now?”

“Oh, there are many other houses.  Almost the same,” Cindy said.

And that was that.  We were back to square one.

The useless contract I signed.  (Signatures blurred to protect the innocent.)

The useless contract I signed. (Signatures blurred to protect the innocent.)

I started to wonder about all the other bits of paper I had signed since arriving in China.  Were they meaningless too?  What about the contracts we would need to sign with customers?  Would they also be meaningless?

The next day Ming and I were back to house hunting.  Cindy was right about the other houses in Regency Park – most of them were the same.  Driving around the neighborhood was like a Twilight Zone episode:  whatever street you turned down, you found yourself back on the same street you just turned off of.  I wondered if I would need a GPS for an evening stroll.

We settled on an identical house.  I asked if we could skip the agreement step given its apparent uselessness, but this wasn’t allowed.  So I signed it and suggested we file it in the garbage can to cut down on clutter.



To Be Continued…

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–          Erik & Trevor Laurence






18. To Get Fat Is Glorious

Cindy got right on it. Within a few days Ming and I were on our way to look at houses in the Regency Park complex.  As expected the builder had brought together some of the best characteristics of Western homes while being careful not to include any architectural details that might suggest we were in China.  As we drove through the sprawling complex, a migrant worker pedaled toward us on a three-wheeled bicycle cart piled impossibly high with discarded cardboard.  He rode past a gleaming purple Bentley and a bright yellow Porsche Cayenne, parked on the street in front of one of the newly constructed upscale homes.  The juxtaposition was an unambiguous reminder that we could be nowhere other than in modern China.

We parked and entered the first house on our list.  It was a three-story home with amazing floor-to- vaulted-ceiling windows.

“Hey, look at this!” I said.

“An elevator?” Ming said, “But it’s only a three-story house.  We’re not that lazy.”

“Speak for yourself,” I said, “I’m trying to put on 20 pounds by Christmas.”

“Oh, but you are already very fat,” Cindy said earnestly.

A migrant worker trundles past a bright yellow Porche and a purple Bentley hauling garbage on his bicycle cart.

Only in China: A migrant worker trundles past a purple Bentley and a yellow Porsche.

I might have gotten upset at Cindy’s comment if I hadn’t grown so used to such remarks.  Historically, only wealthy people in China could afford enough food to become even the slightest bit pudgy. When China’s new trajectory toward a market oriented economy began in the late 80s, Deng Xiaoping famously said, “To get rich is glorious.”  Complimenting someone by telling them they look fat was almost an extension of this famous exhortation.  I wondered to what extremes one could take this:

“Your business must be doing well, you are very fat,” said Chinese guy #1.

“Oh, thank you very much!  Did I mention that your wife has an enormous ass?” replied Chinese guy #2.

“You honor my family, but it is you who are on the fast track to morbid obesity,” said Chinese guy #1.

“You are too kind, hopefully we will all get gout soon and become invalids.”

On the other hand, try complimenting an American guy by telling him his wife has a big ass.  I wondered how many Chinese traveling abroad must have learned the hard way that this is a huge – no pun intended – social faux pas in the West.

Just across from the elevator, and roughly the same size was the kitchen, which had but two burners on the stove.

The small stovetop reminded me of an aspect of Chinese cooking that had puzzled me for years.  My father-in-law, while staying with us in New York, would often prepare dinner.  This would typically consist of four or five dishes, plus rice. His approach was to cook the first dish, transfer it to a bowl and put it on the table.  He then prepared the second dish, transferred it to a bowl, put it on the table, and so forth.  By the time dinner was ready, all but the last dish was cold.

I always wondered if the problem was the inadequacy of our stove, which had a mere four burners.  Were the burners too close together for him to use more than one at a time?  Was he trying to leave the extra burners open in case I wanted to cook something else?  Was he trying to save energy?  Did he not know that the other knobs operated the other burners?  I could never figure it out.

But here, in this modern kitchen in Shanghai, it all became clear:  single burner stoves must have been the norm in China.  The house we were seeing was a high-end one, so the builder had outdone himself by doubling the number of burners. Yet it still didn’t add up for me – we would need four burners if we were going to be able to become obese without having to eat cold food.

I walked the flight of stairs down to the basement and waited for the others to arrive in the elevator.  It was nicely finished and spacious.  There would be room for a playroom, a bar, and even a ping-pong table.

In a room off to the side, there was a modern looking washer and dryer.  I was pleased that it had no markings in English on it.  That would be the perfect excuse for me to never do the laundry.

“Look at this nice closet here in the laundry room,” I said.

“Ha, ha, not the closet,” said Cindy.  “That’s for the Ayi.”

Ayi means “aunt” in Chinese, but it’s also a term typically used for domestic help, like Nannies.

“No!  Really?  We can’t make Lili sleep in here.  There’s barely enough room for a bed.”

“Yes, bed. She very happy here.  And next to laundry machines. Very convenient for the work.” Cindy said, letting her true identity as a real estate agent shine through.

As I climbed the two flights of stairs to the bedroom level, I wondered if Cindy had meant what she said or if she was just spouting another line of her real estate puffery.  I pondered whether this was a human rights violation as I again waited for the others to arrive via the elevator.

Lili had been living with us for a few weeks by that point.  She was from a small village in Sichuan province, had a great attitude and had been pretty much working 24/7 except when she took breaks to sleep.  She cleaned the floors, cooked the meals, did the laundry and helped the kids with their Chinese homework.  She had a great attitude, always smiled, got on well with the kids, and all this for less than $500 a month.

I pondered this for a moment, and thought that perhaps Cindy was right.  Maybe she would be happy in a tiny room next to the laundry machines.  Other people from villages like hers all across China were flocking to the cities in unprecedented numbers for factory jobs that paid far less in far worse conditions.  Many of these poor migrants would toil 10 to 12 hours a day in dingy factories exposed to any number of chemicals, toxins and other hazards.  The work would often be monotonous if not downright mind numbing.  At the end of each day, they would retire to an adjoining equally dingy dormitory building.  And at the end of each month, they would pocket little more than the equivalent of $100.  Thought of in this context, Lili had practically hit the jackpot.  And besides, could there be a better way to spend a day than with my kids?

By the time we finished touring the house, I was on board with the idea that Lili indeed would love living next to the laundry machine.

Two blocks away, we had a look at a newer house.  This one was one story taller.  I was thinking that the elevator might actually come in handy when I realized that this house didn’t have one.  I wondered if this was a product of some miscommunication between the architect and the contractor.

“No, you dimwit, I wanted the elevators in the taller houses,” said the contractor.

“Oh, but then the cables would need to be longer, and that would cost more.  To save you money, we put them in the shorter houses,” replied the architect.

I liked the taller house.  And the stairs would help me get into shape.  We quickly signed a rental contract with the owner and were scheduled to move in in about 2 weeks – just before Christmas.  And what perfect timing:  our furniture was on schedule to arrive at the Shanghai port any day now, and would need a week or two to clear customs.

It felt good to have the housing issue settled.  Finally I would be able to devote myself fully to my new job. I had been in my new China role for little more than a month, but perplexing problems were already beginning to form.