10. The Vow

I woke up dehydrated and with a splitting headache. I called Wing to make sure that we were still planning to meet downstairs for breakfast.  There was no answer.  Maybe he was sleeping it off, or maybe he was still slouched over in a chair in the restaurant.  Either way, I needed food, so I headed downstairs.

Wing was in the restaurant all right. He was downing a bowl of congee and looking surprisingly fresh.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Ahh, heh heh, fine, fine.” he said as he took a big slurp of congee.

I wondered how this could be. I wasn’t used to having 20 drinks with dinner. Maybe he was.

I went over to the buffet and filled a bowl with congee.  Looking at the other options, it was an obvious choice. Congee is a sort of rice soup often eaten with pickled vegetables for breakfast in Asia.  It wasn’t exactly my idea of something to be consumed before noon, but compared to the Wheel of Death, it was nothing.

“So when do we head for the airport?” I asked Wing cheerfully as I sat down.

 “Actually, our flight has been cancelled.”

 “…What?”

 “It’s okay. They booked us on another flight – different airline.”

 “Oh, okay,” I said with relief, “when do we leave?”

“Thursday evening.”

“…What?” I said, hoping that this time something really had been lost in translation.

“Thursday evening – five-thirty.”

 “What!? You mean in two days from now?”

 “Yes, heh, heh,” he said matter-of-factly as if he had just pointed out that the fried noodles were to the right of the dumpling tray. “That is the next flight.”

“But my flight back to New York leaves Hong Kong on Thursday morning.”

 “Yes, heh, heh.”

I wanted to choke him but there would be too many witnesses.

Maybe Wing didn’t mind two extra days deep in the Middle Kingdom, but I had a barbecue in the Hamptons to get to.  The Hamptons seemed about as far as you could get from Changsha, in every possible way.

Since it was often nice to mix with the locals and get to know the flavor of a place, I decided I would make the most of this unexpected delay.   We finished breakfast and with Wing as my guide, we headed out for a walking tour of the city.

The excursion started with Wing muttering about the unremarkable buildings just beyond the hotel entrance.

“This building is… uhh, maybe government office,” he said, “or it could be apartment building.”

It didn’t take long to figure out that Wing didn’t know much more about the area than I did, but he felt compelled to keep talking and guessing at our surroundings.  We were ambling along at a pace appropriate for my hangover when I heard:

“Hhhhhuuukkkkk…”

A man ahead of us had gathered together the contents of his throat, then cocked his head down and to the right and let fly:

 “Ptooooo!”

I adjusted my stride so as not to step in it. Wing either didn’t notice or didn’t care as he continued droning on about the buildings.  His monotone sent me into a mild daze and I can only guess what he was saying.  Probably something like:

“This is a building. It is made of concrete.  It is extremely ugly.  Nothing about the building would suggest that you’re in China.  It is like every other building we’ve seen. It has a door, some walls, ceilings and floors. Some bits are rusted and the paint, if it has any, is peeling. It is of absolutely no significance whatsoever.”

Wing was clearly trying to impress me with his knowledge of mainland China.  Perhaps his boss Harry told him he needed to sound like an expert.

Hong Kong companies like Harry’s have always tried to position themselves as intermediaries between east and west.  But since Hong Kong had been a British colony since 1860 and with China closed to the outside world until the 1980s, many of these firms, especially in the early 90s, were just as clueless about China as the companies they represented.

In any case, what we needed from Harry’s company was expertise in getting deals done in China, not a tour of Changsha.  With the sun punishing my already throbbing head, I would have been more impressed with Wing had he been able to keep his mouth shut.

Dodging a stream of bicycles and an old woman who tilted her head as she emitted a hearty “hhhhukk ptooey,” we entered a more crowded part of the city.  Here I noticed more discharges of phlegm, first from a man on a bicycle and then from a mother with a baby.  The ground was a veritable exposition of expectoration, and I had to watch my step.

I’ve heard many theories for all the spitting in China.  Some say the heavy pollution requires people to spit out the filth they’ve been inhaling.  Others say it’s simply a case of bad manners or poor upbringing.   My own view is that it’s a massive fit of the willies.  Having shared so much saliva with so many people from so many sets of chopsticks at so many meals, they feel an uncomfortable and continuous need to expel it at intervals onto the street.

Whatever the reason, spit was flying everywhere:  it was like having a box seat at a major league baseball game.  At least the Chinese were cultured enough not to adjust their jocks and slap each other on the butt, and for this they deserve credit.

We ducked into a local restaurant to escape the heat.  An air conditioning unit blasted me as we walked toward an empty table.  It felt great.  We then sat down a few steps away where the A/C had no cooling effect whatsoever, possibly because it was positioned next to a row of open windows.  They might just as well have set it up on the street ­– at least then it wouldn’t have been so loud.

Wing looked at the menu.

“Do they have General Tso’s Chicken?” I asked, hoping to finally sample my favorite Chinese dish in China.

“Ahhh, yes, I order for you,” he nodded, but I wasn’t sure if he knew what I meant.

What arrived was definitely not General Tso’s Chicken. I wasn’t sure what it was.  I ruled a few things out – it wasn’t eyeballs, snakes, dog, or shoelaces. Several more dishes appeared. I think I recognized one from the night before. Wing mumbled through lunch. I caught a few words here and there.  It was like listening to a poorly tuned radio.

Wing and everyone around us slurped nearly everything they ate. I hoped that my lack of slurping wouldn’t cause offense. If it did, no one said so. The meal wasn’t bad. Perhaps I was getting used to this strange place.  As we were finishing, I realized I hadn’t seen a fortune cookie since leaving New York. I hadn’t seen them in Hong Kong and I had yet to see them in China.  I didn’t think they weren’t offered at the Wheel of Death dinner, but given my condition I couldn’t be sure.

“What about fortune cookies?  Isn’t it a Chinese tradition to have a fortune cookie at the end of a meal?”

“Fortune cookie?”

Wing had no idea what I was talking about, something I was also getting used to.

We set out back through the bicycles and characterless neighborhoods until finally the bleak sightseeing tour was over.  As we headed toward the elevator, Wing said,

 “We meet later and see more of Changsha?”

I detected not the slightest hint of irony in his voice. By this point I couldn’t bear more of Changsha or, for that matter, of Wing’s company.  Wing needed to learn that if he was going to form enduring relationships with his clients, he would have to be quiet every now and then.  As a professional, I felt it was my duty to tell him this. So I took a deep breath and said,

“I’d love to, but I’m really not feeling very well. I’m going to rest this afternoon.”

Why should I have to be the one to tell him that he was a pain in the ass?  I decided to leave that for someone with more tact.

I rested happily in my room that afternoon, then ordered one of the three dishes that was listed in English on the room service menu: Spaghetti Bolognaise.

After fiddling with the various Chinese labeled buttons on the TV remote, I stumbled upon CNN.  This was a remarkable and most welcome discovery.  I happily caught up on world news, delivered in American English as if I was sitting on my sofa back home.

The spaghetti arrived, and while welcome and also filling, a better name for it would have been “Spaghetti with Watery Ketchup.”

After a while, the stories on CNN started to repeat themselves so I flipped through the channels and found what appeared to be a Chinese variety show.  It involved a man in a bright blue jacket and an even brighter red tie moderating some sort of singing competition.  Between performers, he yelled into the microphone and the audience cheered.

I watched this for a while and then switched back to CNN.  I continued this routine for the next two days, during which time I got to sample the other two English language food items: the tuna fish sandwich, which remarkably wasn’t bad, and the rice balls.  I first thought rice balls were something that you got from riding in a dirty rickshaw with loose shorts, but it turned out to be a decent side dish.

Every few hours a new story was inserted into the CNN rotation, and this lifted my mood.  But after my fourth viewing of the story about the trial of the officers involved in the Rodney King affair and a related feature about whether the City of Angels was going to hell, I broke down and nearly called Wing.  Instead, I ordered another plate of Spaghetti with Watery Ketchup.

Finally it was Thursday evening and as I walked with Wing toward the Russian Express – the Tupolev that I expected would fly us back to Guangzhou, from where we would catch the train back to Hong Kong – it became clear that it was not a Tupolev at all.

“Yeah, G’day, ladies and gentlemen,” came the announcement in perfect Australian after I settled into my seat, “this is your Captain speaking….”

The world wasn’t making sense to me, just as it hadn’t for the past week.  But this time it was in a good way.

 “Our flight to Hong Kong today will take an hour and forty-five minutes,” continued the good news from the cockpit.

That’s me at the Changsha airport, happily learning that I wasn’t headed for the “Russian Express”

Summoning my enormous powers of reason which consisted principally of perusing the literature in the seat pocket in front of me, I worked out that I was aboard a Dragon Air Boeing 737 and that Dragon Air was a Hong Kong based operation that hired foreign pilots.

When we got to Hong Kong, the city felt different.  A few days earlier, it was a foreign place with a distinctly Chinese flavor.  But after mainland China, it was a familiar and welcoming place.  In the taxi, we passed glittering skyscrapers as we glided through orderly traffic.  The friendly clerk at the New World Harbour View Hotel (now the Renaissance) quickly checked me in.  I proceeded, without passing a single floor guard, to a room with incredible views of Victoria Harbour.  The Italian restaurant downstairs was not only elegant, but also had real Spaghetti Bolognaise.  In Hong Kong, I was as good as home.

I flew back to New York the next day, and made it to that barbecue in the Hamptons the day after.  As I chatted with friends and recounted my Chinese adventure of the past few days, I appreciated how nice my surroundings were and how truly fortunate I was to not have to live in a place like Changsha.

I vowed that if it was at all within my power, for the rest of my life I would never again set foot in mainland China.

 

9. The Wheel of Death

We got back to the hotel around five. I was planning on a quick nap to feel human again, and then a light meal at the hotel restaurant. I was tired enough that I was actually looking forward to the sheet-covered wooden board that masqueraded as my bed.

“See you for dinner at seven,” I said to Wing as he opened the message he just collected at the front desk.

Without waiting for his response I headed straight for the elevator.  I passed a man pushing dirt around with a filthy mop and had the elevator in sight when I heard footsteps gaining on me.

“Heh heh,” he said, as I reached for the button, “Good news!”

“Really?” I asked, hoping he had found an earlier flight back to Hong Kong.

“We’re having dinner here with our hosts from the PLA.”

“Dinner?”

“Yes, they will be here soon.”

“For Christ’s sake, Wing, you must be fucking kidding me!” I thought as I said, “That’s great. Please call me when they get here.”

Despite my lack of enthusiasm, this was theoretically a good thing and in any event I was ready to tuck into a plate of General Tso’s chicken and a bowl of hot and sour soup, followed by a few orange slices and a fortune cookie. Back in my room I managed to splash some water on my face and lay down for a few minutes before Wing knocked on the door.

I was worried about the business conversation, and hoped the soldier would be there to help with the translations.  Otherwise the back and forth would be bounded by the limits of Wing’s Mandarin, and we would be spending the next two hours exchanging pleasantries like “soup good food,” “China big country,” and “America far away.”  Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.

Wing and I sat down in a private room off the main dining room at a large circular table on which sat a glass Lazy Susan.  About ten people were already there.  The soldier was not among them.

Introductions were made in the usual Asian way.  One by one, we shook hands, then, facing one another, each presented, with two hands, a business card to the other.  This had happened a few days earlier in Hong Kong too. It’s intended as a form of respect, but I found it a little awkward.  If each person uses both hands to present a card, there comes an uncomfortable moment when one of them has to take a hand away to accept the new card. It was a game of chicken – who was willing to risk offending the other by releasing his own card first?  Not knowing when to let go, I decided not to. They each eventually caved, which is fortunate, otherwise I might still be standing there.

One reason that cards are exchanged in this manner is to give the recipient time to make a connection between the name, face and title of each person. Most of the cards were printed only in Chinese – a few had English on the reverse side, though no one tried to greet me in English – and the names were hard to understand, much less pronounce. We sat down around the table and I realized that I had no idea who was who or who did what.  And why did all these army people have cards anyway?

Several waiters and waitresses, who had been standing by the walls, came to the table, opened beer bottles and filled our glasses.  One of the hosts, a thin man missing a front tooth, stood up to make a toast.  I figured he was in charge, so I took to thinking of him as “the colonel.”

I worried I wouldn’t be able to make sense of Wing’s translation.

“Mutual China-America cooperation and friendship, and the great city of Changsha with the visitor of honor from New York and the great teleconferencing mutual benefit of friends.”

I was right to worry.  We were also back to teleconferencing again.  Terrific, I sighed to myself.

Gan bei!” exclaimed the colonel as he began drinking his beer.

“Cheers!” Wing translated.

I had a sip of my beer and put it down. I then noticed that the colonel and all his lieutenants had emptied their glasses.  Wing had emptied his too.

“You’re supposed to finish,” Wing said, “Gan bei means empty your glass.”

“I thought you said it meant cheers.”

 “Yes, heh heh, same thing,” Wing said.

I had been to college and was good at this, so I didn’t bother pressing the point. I chugged my beer and placed the empty glass on the table. The colonel and his lieutenants smiled and said something.

“They say you very good drinker,” Wing translated.

I was a good drinker, and maybe this would be a nice evening after all.

Before I had a chance to order my General Tso’s chicken, one of the waiters placed a plate of food on the turntable.  The colonel then rotated the dish to me.  It was unrecognizable – nothing like the Chinese food I had grown up eating. I wasn’t sure if it was meat, vegetable or fish. It didn’t look like any of these.  Several of the lieutenants were smiling at me and motioning for me to eat. One of them, a lady, even said “please.” She was one of the few who had English on the back of her card.  I decided to think of her as the “foreign liaison officer.”

I understood that it was an honor to be offered the first taste, but a quick sniff was really all I needed to determine that it wasn’t stomach-worthy. As they eyed me cautiously I recalled that in ancient times, the Chinese Emperor would have a food taster test his meals to ensure they were safe.  I considered insisting that someone else have a go, but instead relented and took a bite of this slippery treat.

The battalion – as I started to think of the group – looked pleased as a waiter filled the small shot glasses in front of each of us with a clear liquid. I took a whiff and recognized it immediately. This was definitely something I knew from back home – jet fuel.

Another one of the men stood up, made some remarks to me and cried, “Gan bei!” Down the hatch went the jet fuel.

Wow!  I checked to see if flames had scorched my seat.

“This is called bai jiu or white wine,” Wing said.

“Wing, there’s no way this is white wine.”

“Oh, yes, heh heh, white rice wine,” he clarified. “They like to drink it a lot a lot.”

At least it would help me get the food down.

The Lazy Susan spun again and I continued to sample unrecognizable foods that to my Western palette were either too soft, too slimy, too fatty, or all three of these at once. Several times I thought, “dog meat, I bet this is dog meat.” Evidently the Chinese palette was much broader than what I was accustomed to.  As soon as I sampled each new dish, the rest of the battalion would dig in.

Every so often one of them would stand up and toast me individually with a glass of bai jiu. The ones on the far side of the table would walk around to make their toast with me.

The foreign liaison officer even came around to make a toast.

“Cheers!” she said.

“Oh, your English is very good.”

 “Ah?” she replied.

 “Cheers!” I said.

 “Oh, cheers!” she smiled back as we finished off our shots.

Wing sometimes got toasted too.  But they weren’t toasting each other.  It didn’t take a mathematician to figure out that I was drinking a lot more than they were.

Despite my better instincts I kept eating and kept drinking, washing the food down with beer instead of bai jiu whenever I could.

“He said you very good with chopsticks and wants to know where you learn,” Wing translated for one of the lieutenants.

“My dad taught me to use them when I was a kid.  I come from a small town, but we had four or five Chinese restaurants there.  We have Chinese restaurants all over America.”

This seemed to surprise and amuse them.

“Which is better, the Chinese food here or the Chinese food in America?” the colonel asked.

I thought for a moment how best to evade this diplomatic trap, but the bai jiu had started to get the better of me.

“It is an impossible comparison since I believe that many of the foods here are not legal in America.”

Wing coughed lightly, paused, said “Heh heh,” then conveyed my response in an agreeable tone. The man answered Wing happily and the battalion smiled, then continued chattering lightly among themselves. Wing looked down at his plate.

“What did he say?” I asked, pressing for the translation.

“Yes, heh, heh, Chinese food. Very good, heh, heh. America, heh heh, yes,” Wing blathered nervously.

I was certain Wing didn’t have the courage to translate my original statement.  That was probably a good thing.

As the eating proceeded, it become clear that we were all digging into the same common dishes without using any sort of serving utensils.  The only way to transfer food from the common dishes to our own was by using chopsticks – the same saliva-covered chopsticks that just came out of our mouths.  Wasn’t this an enormous violation of basic hygiene? If one of us was sick, wouldn’t we all now be sick?  What if someone had a communicable disease?

At the Chinese meals I had in Hong Kong—and certainly the ones I had in the US—there were always serving spoons, or sometimes two sets of chopsticks, a “public” set for transferring and a “private” set for eating.  Yet the battalion was completely fine with all the double dipping.

They must do it all the time, I thought. Was I being culturally insensitive?  I considered the possibility that I was framing this in terms of my own background and that I needed to be more accepting of other customs and less judgmental of foreign cultures.

Then I pulled my head out of my ass.  Of course this wasn’t my problem!  They were being insensitive to the realities of hepatitis, H Pylori, stomach flu and god knows what else.  I had dined in 40 other countries, and never saw this to be the practice.  How could five thousand years of Chinese culture miss out on such a basic advancement in human health? And considering, as I learned later, that the hepatitis infection rate among Chinese people at that time was at least 1 in 10 and I was dining with 10 people, what were my odds? I had unwittingly entered into the food version of Russian Roulette.  In later years I would come to call this type of dining the “Wheel of Death.”

The difference between Russian Roulette and the Wheel of Death was that there were no winners in the Wheel of Death. Everyone had to eat.

This can't possibly be a good thing.

I decided then and there that I could no longer partake in this unhealthy practice.  Even at the risk of insulting the People’s Liberation Army of China, I was going to have to find a way to avoid foreign saliva for the remainder of the night, no matter the cost.

This line of thinking prevailed for a while.  The colonel and his lieutenants took turns toasting, and shouting gan bei as I pushed food around my plate.  One advantage I had was that the new dishes came to me first, so I could fill up a little before the  contamination stage (though who knows what was going on in the kitchen).

A young lieutenant with thick glasses slurred a few sentences then ended with “gan bei!

“Respect for drinking…much business…telecom service…drink…trust…happy,” translated Wing.

I couldn’t tell if Wing’s translations were improving with the bai jiu.

Despite a few attempts on my part, broad statements like this were the closest we got to talking business.

A few more gan beis and I was eating directly from the common plates, not even bothering to transfer anything to my own plate first. My inhibitions were rapidly disappearing.

“Tell Lieutenant What’s-His-Face that I’m part Irish, so alcohol has no effect on me,” I said to Wing.

I felt like I was back in college playing silly drinking games.  I just couldn’t quite figure out why I was doing it in Changsha with the Chinese army, and why they were interested in voice mail, or business in general.

I later learned that the Chinese army was much more involved, especially in those days, in business – almost any kind of business – than it was in the typical things you might associate an army with, like fighting and killing.  I also learned that it’s a Chinese custom for business people to get very drunk together, and spend very little time talking about the relevant business issues.  Only if you’re plastered out of your head does the real truth come out, and so if you haven’t gotten to that stage with potential business partners, they won’t feel that they can trust you.  Who knew that American college life would provide such thorough training for doing business in China?

And just like in college, I kept drinking, laughing, toasting and drinking until all at once I didn’t feel so well.  Wing hadn’t had as much to drink as me, but he wasn’t in good shape either.  His translating had turned into an occasional low mutter to himself.  Suddenly, he got up, staggered to the corner and slumped down onto a couple of chairs.  This didn’t faze the wait-staff in the least.

The lieutenant to the left of Wing was faring only slightly better.  His face was red and he looked unsure of his whereabouts. The men were all lighting up cigarettes now and he stood up momentarily, perhaps to ask for one, then sat back down and pulled his chair in as if he had just arrived. He then put his face down on the table and went to sleep.

I said my goodbyes and stumbled away from the table. Soon I was back in my room, though I have no recollection of the elevator or the hallways. I puked in the bathroom, and passed out on the bed.

I had survived the Wheel of Death. Now only a hangover and a flight stood between me and Hong Kong.

8. Lost in Translation

I put up the first transparency and introduced myself.

“I’m very happy to be here in Changsha, China,” I lied.

Wing translated this and we were on our way.

“I’m here today to talk to you about voice mail, and the global trends we are seeing.”

Wing began translating, but half way through the first sentence, he paused, then made a long “ummm” sound just as he did with Mr. Disheveled.  He then seemed to restart the sentence, perhaps taking a different tack. Almost immediately he was back to “ummm, ummm” followed by “heh heh.”

I looked to him waiting for the signal that he was done.  But he kept talking, and he kept ummming.  Finally he finished.

“Many telecom carriers have discovered voice mail to be the new killer application driving traffic to their networks, especially to their cellular networks,” I said cautiously, pausing before biting off more than Wing would be able to chew.

 “Ahhh…”

Something was seriously wrong here.  Wasn’t Chinese Wing’s first language?

He managed to get through the sentence and I spoke another.

“Ahhh…ummm…Chinese words…Chinese words…ahhh…Chinese word…heh heh.”

We were still on the first slide.  This is going to be a long afternoon, I thought, glancing at the thick stack of remaining slides.

Wing knew the industry well and had been working with us for some time.  But I had yet to say anything complicated or technical.  Surely he knew the Chinese terms for things like “voice mail,” “telecom carrier” and “global trends.”  Didn’t he?

Maybe he was just losing his mind.  Either way, I was starting to lose mine. I plodded on, hoping things would improve.

Apartment building? Army headquarters? Bank? Conference center? It was hard to tell as many buildings in Changsha looked like this in those days.

Wing got more and more nervous and his “heh hehs” became more and more frequent.  I was sure we were losing the audience. At this point it probably would have been equally effective if I turned to charades to act out the presentation. It couldn’t be worse than what was happening now.  My annoyance level was rising rapidly but I was also beginning to feel bad for Wing. He had done a lot of work to get us here and now it was all going south.  What a disaster.

A few more slides went by and you could almost hear a collective sigh from the audience as Wing searched for the right words, or any words at all. I was wondering if we would have been better off had Harry sent us to the wrong city when a man raised his hand.  Wing called on him.

“This man can speak both Cantonese and Mandarin,” Wing quietly told me with an almost confessional look on his face.

So that was the problem!  Wing’s Mandarin was terrible.

I knew that coming from Hong Kong, Wing mainly spoke Cantonese, but he had assured us that he also spoke Mandarin.  I thought Mandarin was similar to Cantonese anyway and that it wouldn’t be a big deal.  Clearly I was wrong. Wing’s Mandarin seemed quite serviceable when we were getting around town, eating and even exchanging money.  Now I realize he was probably constructing Mandarin phrases on the order of “please take Honky hotel” and “we eat food hungry.”  This would explain the trouble he had earlier with Mr. Disheveled.

And so it was that we proceeded:  I said it in English, Wing translated effortlessly into Cantonese and the helpful guy from the audience–I’ll call him “the soldier”– translated it into Mandarin.  Despite the tedium of this three stage communication, the audience, exactly as promised, seemed highly interested.  Their heads followed us as if they were watching a triangular ping-pong match. They even stopped to explore topics in greater depth a few times.  Most of the questions proceeded through this long chain of translation via the soldier and Wing to me in English, with the answer finally arriving back to the audience in Mandarin.

It wasn’t very efficient, but it was working.  A few of the questions only made it as far as Wing, who was able to answer them himself in Cantonese.  Some of the questions were even fielded directly in Mandarin by the soldier.  My mood began to improve.

At the end, the audience even applauded. Imagine, a kid from Long Island getting a round of applause from the Chinese army! Maybe they were just happy it was over. We left the stage.

We soon found ourselves in a cab heading back to the hotel.  I had learned a lot about China in a very short time, I thought.  Part of me wanted to stick around to learn more, but fortunately it was a small part of me and was easily overpowered by the much more formidable part of me that was looking forward to a quiet dinner and the next flight back to Hong Kong the following afternoon.

Little did I know that there was one more obstacle I’d have to surmount before leaving.  It was a horrifying tradition – the ultimate test a Westerner could ever come up against in China. I would have to survive the Wheel of Death.

 

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)”

“Wah?”

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

“…Wah?”

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.

“Sorry?”

“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.