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…

Shanghaied is a book that we’re writing in the form of a blog.  We expect to be posting a new chapter every few weeks.  If you subscribe to Shanghaied by entering your email in the box in the right column, we’ll make sure you get each new chapter hot off the presses.  In the meantime, if you’ve enjoyed reading Shanghaied or if you have a suggestion to make it better, please let us know, either in the comments box or by contacting us directly.  We’re trying to build an audience, so if you like Shanghaied, please share it with your friends on Facebook or by email!

–          Erik & Trevor Laurence