Call Me Upton Sinclair

I apologize for the radio silence. I can only hope absence made the heart grow fonder. Truthfully, I got tired of posting because I was busy, but also because I didn’t want to write a boring activity report of what I did each week. Instead, I aim to distill all my experiences down to the observations in this blog.

That being said, the following is a soon-to-be Pulitzer Prize winning expose of the Chinese client dinners and to a lesser extent all of Chinese business culture. The findings are a mix of first-hand experience and the war stories of colleagues and friends. Names have been redacted to protect the innocent, even though we didn’t find any.

Overall, China is experiencing a shift in business culture. As foreign presence increases, so has the traditional western white-collar professionalism. For better or for worse, China’s Old-Boy’s-Club business practices have started to fade, but it’s trade-mark “GuanXi” continues to live on to some degree. The client dinner is the last remnant of Chinese business culture

In the US, business is done on the golf course, but in China you assert your business prowess by belting out a weird selection of western music, all the while drinking Baijiu at a KTV joint.

When you step through the front door of a KTV joint, you will be warmly welcomed by over-zealous female patrons. If your KTV joint is especially shameless, you’ll be overwhelmed by a smell eerily similar to the cage of that hamster you had in elementary school, which was neglected to the point that there was more fecal matter than saw dust in it. Depending on your outlook on life, this is either the harbinger of a great night, or the exact moment at which your life began its downward spiral towards crushed dreams and cirrhosis.

When you arrive and meet the Chinese clients, introduce yourself in Chinese. No matter how poor your Chinese us, everyone will be impressed. It will take awhile before they ask you any questions directly. Your answers will probably have to be re-stated word-for-word by your co-workers before they understand. At some point during the introductions that weird Uncle of a Chinese client, who is really here for no other reason than free food and booze, will say the transliterated version of Hello, “Hā luó!”

Laugh, and tell him his pronunciation is perfect.

Once everyone is there, you will be led by the harem of KTV female patrons, some of whom look not a day over 16, into your private KTV lounge. Replete with gaudy furniture and stylings of a 70’s McMansion, this place will be the dreamscape of an unforgettable night, for better or for worse. Bonus points if the room somehow incorporates leopard print wherever possible. By the way, that couch was white at some point.

Once seated, you will be offered something to eat and a glass of boiling water with loose tea leaves. Put the glass on the table before your skin melts off, and eat as much as possible. You will want to build up as high of an alcohol tolerance as possible.

During the dinner, only about 20% of the food will look appetizing. Half of that will be white rice, and the other half will be the dishes you can’t reach. Eat everything you are offered, but spit it out into a napkin if it is inedible, like the chicken skull. Don’t ask what it is called. You don’t know the Chinese word for “duck vagina,” anyway.

Hopefully you brought unique gifts from your home country, such as food items. Anything bought in China will not be considered expensive enough for their liking. When it comes to business, there is no modesty in China, so try to avoid letting them see that you have a Nokia brick, not an iPhone. Do not mention that the Hong Kong partner flew in on Spring Airlines. You should probably throw the airline luggage tags away before you get there.

If you have planned ahead, after the dinner you can use what I like to call “fuck you treats.” When a Chinese person offers you a piece of cold, coagulated chicken with gristle, an artery, skin, and a jagged bone sticking out of it, that’s a fuck-you-treat. A fuck-you-treat is something one culture finds appealing, but another culture does not. I believe the Western World’s most formidable fuck-you-treat is Bleu cheese.

Offer your least favorite clients a large piece, and then remark how good it smells. When everyone has reluctantly swallowed and is trying to keep it down, then tell them how you let it sit on your balcony for three weeks before it got this good.

As a foreigner, you will also go through an endless barrage of questions about your home country and the cultural norms.

You will be asked if Spring Festival is celebrated in your home country. Saying that the West stopped using the lunar calendar in the 16th Century might sound like a criticism of China’s 5,000 years of continuous development, so just say you celebrate Christmas. Chinese people are interested in organized religion, but China as a whole has never really gotten on the bandwagon. Instead, Christmas is an occasion to buy gifts for friends and family, with little or no understanding of the holiday’s underlying meaning. Purgatory must be crowded.

Soon the drinks will start flowing, and the KTV songs will start blasting. Sure enough, the weird Uncle, who is already extremely drunk and equally sweaty, has decided to perform the first song. The song will either before a Chinese chart-topper from 25 years ago, or a famous Mo-Town jam whose subject matter is completely lost upon the performer. Regardless, the lyrics will be indiscernible to your English-hearing ears. If the latter is chosen, the performer will do his best to perform the song despite his English illiteracy by belting out guttural verses that are supposed to mimic the sounds of the words.

After constant pestering, you will finally oblige to perform a song. If you’re an American, you will be obligated to perform Country Road by John Denver for some bizarre and inexplicable reason. This is universal. As you perform, your Chinese clients and co-workers will break out in laughter and clapping. When the song ends and the screen with the lyrics turns to black, you will experience a moment of sobering clarity as you look at your reflection and realize you are are veritable circus monkey performing your schtick. Dance, money dance.

Following your moment in the lime-light you will either accept your new found charisma or wallow in the fact that you are and always will be a foreigner in this land. Either way, aggressive drinking will follow.

At some point the Diaoyu Islands will be mentioned. (Next year it will be some other territory.) There are two options to deal with this. The first is to completely dodge the issue. The best way to do this is to say, “I love that band!” and start humming a tune. Confusion will ensue, and hopefully you can change the subject by talking about Jay Chow.

Alternatively, you have an opportunity to start a round of competitive drinking. Raise a glass to Chinese sovereignty. Take a large gulp of baijiu, and then accuse the other men of being pussies. Be sure to pick on one client the entire time, offering to switch orange juice if he can’t handle alcohol. The goal is to have him be the first one to quit drinking.

Here is a list of territorial disputes you can drink to:

* Socotra Rock (中国苏岩礁, *Zhōngguó Sūyánjiāo*), “administered” by the Republic of Korea.
* Spratly Islands (中国南沙群岛, *Zhōngguó Nánshā Qúndǎo*)
* South Tibet (中国藏南, *Zhōngguó Zàngnán*), “administered” by India.
* Macclesfield Bank (中国中沙群岛, *Zhōngguó Zhōngshā Qúndǎo*), claimed by the Philippines.
* Paracel Islands (中国西沙群岛, *Zhōngguó Xīshā Qúndǎo*), claimed by Vietnam.
* Scarborough Shoal (中国黄岩岛, *Zhōngguó Huángyán Dǎo*), claimed by the Philippines.
* Trans-Karakoram Tract (中国喀喇昆仑走廊, *Zhōngguó Kālǎkūnlún Zǒuláng*), claimed by India.
* Maritime Province (中国滨海边疆区, *Zhōngguó Bīnhǎi Biānjiāngqū*), “administered” by Russia.

By the time you get to the Paracel Islands, you should probably excuse yourself to go to the bathroom to vomit. You should do this multiple times throughout the night. The night is no longer about two businesses celebrating success. Instead, it is a battle for your survival amidst Chinese businessmen. You are outnumbered, and have no chance.

When you get the idea that everyone is pretty drunk, declare that you hope there are no Japanese products in the house, because you are boycotting them. There will be a round of cheers, assuring you that they have all boycotted Japanese goods as well. Ignore the fact that you came from the office in a Toyota, the elevator in the building was made by Mitsubishi, the television that will be on all evening is made by Sony, and all the everything else was produced by Sino-Japanese joint ventures.

If you don’t know, the Chinese harbor extreme hatred for the Japanese due to the Rape of Nanjing and similar acts of Japanese bullying. To this day, this same hatred is used a national rallying cry in a country prone to internal racism and judgement. More on this in later posts.

Little did you know, you have just signed away your life. Can you hear Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive in the background? Well, that is your death knell. Your riveting speech has just been met by an onslaught of “GanBei”s (Cheers in Chinese) and even more Baijiu. The chief business partner might even take that opportunity to crack open a bottle of Taiwanese Baijiu, which still tastes like paint thinner but at 20 time the price. He is intent on outdrinking you.

By this point, everything I write is your optimal decision, but as your BAC rises and all reasoning shuts down, none of the scenarios will turn out this well.

At some point in the evening, that weird uncle will magically produce a sweat-stained catalogue of the products produced by his company. He will be interested in doing foreign trade. Tell him you are intoxicated, but you know quality bicycle tires when you see them. Ask him about pricing on units in the millions. Tell him that is a damn good deal. Put the catalog in your back pocket, and tell him you will give it serious consideration. Give him a made-up phone number. It was an honest, intoxicated mistake.

You will notice then you have not seen the other Westerners for a long time.

They have wisely crawled away to the corner of the room to dwell on their impending doom. Join them. All of your eyes are glazed over and all of you are silent. You will realize this is not the China you signed up for when you answered the call of the wild.

Meanwhile, the Chinese clients that are still conscious are disappearing to different rooms with the KTV’s female patrons. If you wondered why this place smelled like a hamster cage and none of the upholstery is white anymore, well, this is why. Hopefully you end up falling asleep before propositioning one of the employees yourself.

Regardless of how sound your judgement was, you will probably wake up in a ring of your own vomit and blood but will be completely dead inside and unfazed by this scenario. As you stumble past the female patrons and into the Beijing streets, the smog will for once be a welcome fixture, as it dims the sun to a bearable brightness.

After you take a cold shower and cry for the first time in years, you’ll wonder when and why you developed this case of Chinese Stockholm Syndrome.

Look for more posts this week.

Kulturkampf, Pt. 1

This week I’ll post a two part series because it’s too long to read in one sitting. It’s called Kulturkampf because it chronicles my struggles during the week that is Chinese New Years, my most eventful time in China so far.
Chinese New Year, celebrated on the lunar calendar is a multi-week event. People emigrate from the their cities of work back to their villages and families. So for a few weeks, I felt like a Jewish family on Christmas. At Beida, everything was closed, and I resorted to eating oatmeal in my room during the day to save money for Chinese New Year festivities. During my time abroad, I’ve decided that when in Rome, do as the Romans. During Chinese New Years that means getting bibulous and shooting off fireworks. Going into this, I knew I was bound to lose something — I just didn’t want to lose a thumb.
The weekend was kicked off with my 21st birthday celebration. The birthday had less significance than if it was in the US, since you can drink in China one you grow your first facial hair. For some Chinese, this means effective prohibition. Whatever the case, I was determined to be a cultural ambassador of good ol’ ‘Murrican drinking tendencies. The Chinese are not known for their drinking ability, so it was my duty as a public servant to pass on a great American tradition — 21 shots on the 21st birthday.
As a cultural gesture, I began the journey with Chinese 白酒, which is 60% ABV. After that, we ventured to a friends apartment, then some bars and clubs and finally McDonalds. The details, understandably, are hazy, but in the morning I began to piece things together. When I woke up on a towel outside of my dorm room door, the satisfaction of presumptuous success was over-shadowed by a sense of self-loathing. Where were my phone, my room card/ID, and money? At least, I had the foresight to not bring my whole wallet.
While people left the city to celebrate with their families, firework stands took their place. In Beijing, and most Chinese cities, people are permitted to shoot off fireworks in the city for the week of 春节(Spring Break). On the day of Chinese New Year’s, fireworks can be heard throughout the day, sounding something like a war zone. You wake up at 8 am to the boom of fireworks, and as midnight nears, fireworks can be seen in 360 degrees. People simply set off fireworks in the streets of Beijing. Traffic comes to a stop and everyone joins in the revelry. In Beijing there was no show put on by the city; instead, the public has access to fireworks on caliber of those used during the rest of the world’s New Years. Even better, they’re dirt cheap.
As midnight nears, if you aren’t hearing the boom of fireworks, you’re hearing car alarms all across the city crying in unison. At this point in time, Beijing’s smog had cleared up, but by midnight on New Years, the haze of fireworks replaced smoke. The city is still littered with the red tissue-paper wrapping of fireworks, as well the giant cardboard shells they launched from.
We followed up midnight by going to Beijing’s premier club, Spark. The club was relatively empty since most of the Chinese people had returned home, or they were setting off fireworks in the streets. The club wasn’t packed, but it made up for quantity with quality. Being Beijing’s premiere club, it was filled with European models working in Beijing’s fashion industry. The music was also a nice change. Instead of the typical Top 40 playlist, the DJ’s spun house and some throw-back hip-hop.
Upon entering, I spun a raffle wheel and won 12 shots for friends and I. I realized this saved me almost $100. Not even that, however, resulted in enough courage to approach the models. After a while a few friends and I realized that most of the girls there were paid promoters of the club. In other words, they were paid to come and make it clear that everyone with white skin, fake tits, and an eating disorder frequented Spark. It was the place to be.
Every conversation with these girls eventually led to, “Let’s buy a few drinks,” so I ended up talking with a few Swedes who worked in finance in Beijing. I shouldn’t have been surprised that the conversation focused around the corruption of finance in China, especially Beijing. Shanghai has a much bigger financial industry, but Beijing’s is closely tied to government and direct investment. Since these deal with investment primarily in China, it escapes the peering eyes of Western regulation. With its lack of transparency, Chinese guanxi, laughable regulation, and underdeveloped stock markets, corruption runs amock. Insider trading is a part of business, and the customer is a cash cow. This, along with environmental issues and more, will eventually be the speed bump that slows Chinese growth. Through classes and discussion with Chinese people, you come to realize that the Chinese citizens have a much less optimistic view of China’s future than the rest of the world does. Sure, they’ll be a world power, but it will take longer than many on the outside think. From an outsiders perspective, China is a land of blistering growth, but political, economic, and environmental issues have created a pressure cooker that is about to burst.

Our night at Spark resulted in me losing my iPhone in the cab we took home. Unfortunately, the cab we took was an illegal one. It had the same paint scheme as the licensed cabs, but the price was twice as high, and the driver refused to enter our campus, which would’ve required him to show his ID. This all meant that he was going to be impossible to track down. Managing to lose two phones in two days, my self-loathing had hit new levels. The blog title had never been more pertinent.
In the morning I set out to find my Chinese phone and cards. I went from place to place, and after conversating in my broken Chinese, I finally found my phone and cards, learning some new words in the process. Some friends and I were setting off on a cross-country tour of China the next day, so finding my phone was a huge relief.
In the coming days I’ll post about our travels to Nanjing, Suzhou, and Hangzhou, but I’ll leave you with the song that, regrettably, embodied 春节 so far.