Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Rent-a-foreigner

First, let me say that our wedding was beautiful, even though a massive deluge interrupted the ceremony! It was lots of fun, and I recommend our method to anyone, which is to have a three-day party with friends and family and just embrace and enjoy every second! More on that later.

So, while I was back on Long Island just before the wedding, I was going through my many boxes of stuff that was in the barn. Among said stuff, I found a business card... This card did not bear my name, but it was mine for a few days back in 1997 or '98. I have contacted the only person I could find in all of Googledom with the same name as this guy, and will post his response if it ever comes. In the meantime, I've blurred out his last name just in case.

What follows in the whole sordid tale.....(note: I wrote this shortly after getting back from China in 1999, and have edited slightly since then. )

The Garry Identity

One day while sitting at my computer at work in Beijing (at website company Chinabig.com,) a colleague, Xiao Hou, sat down next to me and asked me if I would do her a favor. She was cute and always put a hand on my leg when she talked to me, so I said yes.

She gave me a phone number and asked me to call her friend, Helen, who worked for an Australian textile machinery company. She said Helen needed a translation, so I said no problem, as I always look for translating experience and extra cash.

When I called Helen the next day, however, I found that this was no simple translation. This was a covert operation that would involve finesse and deception of the highest degree.

Helen’s company had a problem. A large textile machinery exhibition was coming up in rural Shandong province, and in order to appear as a major player, the company wanted to have a representative from its parent company in Australia make an appearance. But they could not afford to fly anyone over. Helen said that her company would pay me 1,500 kuai, three days of my salary, to impersonate an Australian manager at the two-day conference. All I had to do, she said, was come along, not speak any Chinese, and not talk to any other people who might ask technical questions about the products.

I was skeptical, but as it was an insane and highly questionable endeavor, I figured it would be “good material,” as my mom would say, so I agreed. Helen’s boss, Mr. Wang, said he would make up some fake business cards and my name would be Mai Ke’r — Mike.

This was a strange coincidence because not two days before, I had been hanging out at my favorite bar, the Palm Tree, with friends Rao Shan and Hong Lin, when an older man came in and began drinking heavily. He explained that he was a teacher, and was pretty unhappy with his life. We tried to talk him out of his depression, and he eventually cheered up, but as he got progressively more drunk, he started calling me Mai Ke’r. I told him my name was Ben, but since “ben” is a Chinese word for “stupid,” he refused to call me Ben and dubbed me Mike. When we all stumbled out of the Palm Tree and said goodbye to that guy, I thought I had been called Mai Ke’r for the last time.

A few days later, I had been approved for time off from work (I did not reveal my true plans to my employer) and we were set to leave. I met Wang and a couple of the company's Beijing salesmen at the long-distance bus station and we boarded a mini-bus bound for Quzhou, Shandong. Wang said hello and handed me a small box.

“Ah,” I said. “I’m Mike now.”

“Not Mike,” Wang said. “Garry.”

I opened the box and looked at the cards. Sure enough, there were about a dozen cards that said Garry [last name redacted for now], Regional Manager. These were not some fake business cards of a made-up person. This was an actual manager’s card. We boarded the bus and I settled in to my plastic seat and tried to get into Garry’s mind, wondering what kind of person the real Garry was, and if any one at the expo would know him. I figured I would conduct myself in a professional manner to reflect well on the man, in case his textile machinery career ever took off and he happened to make an unlikely trek to the backwaters of Shandong Province.

Seven or eight hours later we got to the town of Quzhou, and I soon discovered how far off the beaten path we actually were. The Beijing sales reps took me to a small restaurant, which was supposed to be the best in town. The magnificent repast was going to take a while to prepare, so I went off in search of cigarettes (I used to smoke, but have since quit).

In China, smoking is very common, especially among men. It is still pretty off limits for women, except for really old women who nobody could take for a promiscuous harlot. Smoking and cigarettes are a huge part of the culture, as it stands now. Exchanging smokes with a person is an easy icebreaker, and makes an immediate bond. As the saying goes: “yan jiu bu fen jia.” “Cigarettes and alcohol are shared like we are family.”

Also, every province, and many cities, have particular brands of cigarettes that the locals smoke. Some are better than others. Beijing has some really good cigarettes, including the famous “Panda” brand, Deng Xiaoping’s favorite, which cost about $25 a pack. They also have really, really bad ones, such as “Heaven,” which are green in color and are about the foulest tobacco product available. You can feel your alveoli self-destructing in despair with each puff of a Heaven. Regardless, when you go on a trip, it is fun to look for the local brand of smokes and buy a couple of packs to bring back to your friends.

I spied a cigarette kiosk, and was scanning for the local brand. All I saw were “Double Happiness,” a Shanghai brand, a couple of other national brands, and Marlboros, probably fake ones manufactured on a boat in the South China Sea. You can usually tell the counterfeit Marlboros by the typos in the Surgeon General’s warning on the side of the box. It says: “Smoking can cause petal deformities” (instead of “fetal deformities”).

As I was considering my purchase, I suddenly realized that a group of about six men was cautiously gathering around me. I was a little bit nervous, but I realized that they were more likely curious than threatening, and were probably not spies sent by the textile people. So I just said hello: ni hao.

They looked at each other, and one of them spoke up. “You speak Chinese,” he said.

“Yes.”

“We were wondering, where are you from?”

“America,” I said.

“Can we have your autograph?”

This took me by surprise. I was used to the daily “conversation” I had when meeting new Chinese people. “The conversation” was usually exactly the same, and was a sort of daily affirmation for me of how smart I was and how good my Chinese was. It usually happened in a taxi and went like this:

Taxi driver: “Where are you from?”

Me: “America.”

TD: “Wow, your Chinese is excellent! How old are you?”

Me: “25” [or whatever I was that year]

TD: “Great! How much do you make?”

Me: “7,500 a month.”

TD: “That’s so much! How long have you been in China?”

Me: “Four years.”

TD: “Your Chinese is so good!”

And so on. Usually the driver would ask about my family and if the ride was long enough we could get down to some myth explosion like how there is actually poverty in the United States, too, and how prostitution is generally not legal.

I had been to a couple of out-of-the-way places before in my travels around China. In one case, a Tibetan man had asked me how long a train ride it was to get to the United States.

But this request for my autograph was a new ego-bending twist on “the conversation.” I told the man that I was nobody famous and my autograph was really not a much sought-after commodity where I came from. But they explained that they had never actually seen a foreigner before and they wanted my signature just the same. So they walked with me to the small restaurant where my Beijing “colleagues” were eating and asked for some paper napkins, which I signed in both English and Chinese.

My fans waited patiently by while I signed all six napkins, and then politely thanked me and filed off down the street. The more-metropolitan Beijingers had a good laugh about it, and we all sat down for the meal, now ready.

The local delicacy was a greasy mutton soup accompanied by a rock-like “mo,” a round biscuit that appeared to be regulation size and density for the NHL. You are supposed to soak the bread ingot in the gray mire of the soup for about 15 minutes to get it soft enough to eat. The mo then deconstructs itself into the soup and the whole thing becomes a gnarly porridge. I am usually open to fresh culinary experiences, but this was a new low. Luckily there was plenty of 100 proof baijiu, distilled liquor, to go around, which was strong enough to render my furious taste buds temporarily senseless.

After dinner we went back to the hotel to prepare for the next day.

“Remember,” Wang said. “No Chinese.”

I practiced saying “G’day” to myself as I drifted off to sleep.

In the morning we boarded a bus and headed downtown. It was immediately clear that this was this biggest thing to hit this town since 1949. There were banners everywhere and hundreds of people swarming in from all around the country. The main events were taking place at the industrial center of the town: a textile factory. The first order of the day was a lecture in an auditorium at the factory complex about the textile machinery industry, which was excruciatingly dull. It was not hard for me to pretend I did not understand a word of it because I was utterly bored.

Since the company I was traveling with was from Beijing, and since they had a foreigner with them, we were given special treatment, and a special tour of the factory followed. The factory actually had one of “our” machines.

Seeing the machine in action was interesting, because it was controlled by a computer. The design of the cloth was laid out on the computer, and the cutting machine interpreted the data and cut out the pattern on multiple layers of cloth. I wanted to ask questions, but restrained myself from saying anything in Chinese.

As always with any significant event in China, a banquet followed. The president of the factory took me and my colleagues to a local restaurant for lunch and drinks. Luckily, we were able to say that we had already sampled the local specialty, so we were spared having to deal with the gray soup again. The baijiu flowed freely, but I staid my tongue, an especially difficult task since once inebriated, my Chinese becomes more fluent than ever, or at least I feel like it does.

In the end, I believe I did well by Garry, and if I ever meet the guy, I definitely owe him a beer or 15.

5 comments:

Susan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan said...

Ben, blog is a great place to post your writings from China! I remember Garry...a good short story would be that the guys who asked for autograph showed up at the expo and recognized you and had to be bought off--or maybe all foreigners look alike? Also, did you catch anyone talking about you in Chinese thinking you didn't speak the lang? That China (of the mid-late 90s is transformed now. Time to write abt it 4 sure.LUV Mom

Susan said...

Ben, I deleted my comment to edit it and reposted it! Busted! It says one was deleted. Anyway, your writing in this piece is great...you did have some adventures over there-- good material indeed! Time for Chinese Breakfast, the blog???

siewgin_alan_tyler said...

haha.. That's pretty funny. Like your mom, i was expecting those guys who asked for your autograph to reappear!

UltiBlerg said...

sweet story Ben. I'll be testing your Aussie accent at Fright Flight