Getting Paid to be American

Sometime between the heaviest business lunch I’ve ever had and my discussion with Shaun, my Malaysian counterpart, on the dock of Tianjin’s only yacht club I realized something: I’m a brand name. And if you’re white and from the West, so are you. That’s an obvious statement on the surface, but the implications go far deeper. They involve a profound reversal, or co-opting, of 19th and early 20th century European, and later American, society’s tendency to approach China with a pre-conceived aesthetic, into which everyone was supposed to fit. Edward W. Said made a career on the fact. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First thing’s first. If you’ve never had a business lunch in China, even a small one, you’re probably better off. I love Chinese food, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s about the heaviest cuisine on the planet, especially the northern variety. Up here, and even more so in Heilongjiang province, the specs for the cuisine were clearly drawn up by farmers and manual laborers more interested in the raw tonnage and calorie output of their food than its subtlety. It’s the kind of thing that makes Tex-Mex seem downright understated in comparison. Which isn’t to say it’s bad, mind you—I yield to no one in my love of classics like ????? (literally translated “farm food in a pot”)—but in the middle of the day it’s not the best thing to eat, especially in bulk, unless you actually are a farmer or a farm animal, and if there’s anything business lunches are concerned with, it’s bulk. The strategy behind this is to impress the client with your company’s obvious resources, at least in the beginning stages. Once they’ve got you on board, most Chinese employers try to cut costs any way they can. “Yes, we know you were paid for one hour of work, but had to translate your comments for five hours previously. That’s your problem.” That’s the standard philosophy. A rich lunch is in this sense a trap because the client, or prospective employee, sees a company willing to shower them with gold, and unless he or she is particularly canny, or isn’t planning on being around long-term, the only showers they’re likely to experience will be of extra responsibilities. My business lunch was loaded with about the heaviest food imaginable, with cold beer to boot, so by about 2:00 that afternoon I was strongly inclined to emulate the excellent behavior of the northern grizzly and sleep until life required my services again. Unfortunately, I had too much to do.
But what was I signing up for? A friend of a friend works for one of the largest interior decorating companies in China, and they were putting on what amounts to a trade show here in Tianjin, and wanted someone to present a short lecture on the differences between western and eastern architecture. As is true with any company in China looking for a foreigner to make them look good, the only thing I needed was to be non-Chinese. I know as much about architecture as I do about quantum mechanics, but they’d already put together the lecture anyway, so all I had to do was read and look smart. They paired me up with one of their designers, a Malaysian man named Shaun, who is distinguished in my mind not because he has designed multiple apartment complexes and villas in Malaysia and China, but because he shipped 90 kilos of coffee to Tianjin when he moved here, knowing from prior experience that Chinese coffee is not quite as good as charred firewood crumbled into hot water. I admire that kind of dedication to one’s food and drink. (Note: Shaun was enthusiastic about giving me a kilo for free, which I will definitely take him up on. My supply of firewood is running low.) Shaun, our Chinese supervisor, and I hashed out the details, agreed on a price, then went our separate ways.
Shaun had also asked me to send along a picture of myself and a short profile, and on Friday evening, after I had done so and he’d had a chance to take a look at it, he sent it back to me with “a few additions.” Ahem. I’ll pause here to emphasize that appearance is everything in China. EVERYTHING. Chinese companies are not above lying through their teeth in order to score a contract, or impress clients. This is why, whenever I or any of my friends, have done translation or editing for companies around town, we always come across phrases like, “So-and-so company is world-renowned for their high-quality products.” My friend Natalie once got a gig reading a promo for Tianjin that emphasized the beautiful Haihe River, which is stretching the truth to the breaking point. Strictly speaking, the Haihe is a river, insofar as it’s a body of water that moves along a channel towards the ocean, but “beautiful” it isn’t. In many places it’s more like an open sewer than anything else. But even a rookie public relations wonk knows no one’s going to visit a city with an open sewer instead of a river. And as it goes with rivers and “world-famous” commercial chains, so it goes with people. When Shaun sent me my new profile, I learned a great deal about myself. For one, I’ve been working for the Yuanzhou Decorating Company since 2008, and am a “ten-year’s honored lecturer.” I’m also apparently an “art worker,” a title which should amuse anyone who knows me. It’s a good day when I can remember the cardinal colors, much less do something with them, and my knowledge of decoration stops with putting books on a shelf. There was no mention on the profile of my having lived in China, or that I was currently studying Chinese literature at Nankai University.
As it turns out, the reason for this is because it would spoil my image. During the van ride on the way to the, well, “gig” I guess you could call it, Shaun apologized for the additions. “In my country, we can’t do that,” he said. “But in China we have to. We have to play the game here.” True enough, if you want a thriving business. But then this would also be why bribery and corruption still thrive here. It’s not considered unethical, either, because what is or is not “ethical” is defined entirely by its practical effects. What does it hurt, for example, if I’m cast as a visiting art worker from America? Prospective clients are impressed by the company’s ability to hire a foreign professional just to give a quick presentation. The company gains face. The foreign “art worker” gets paid 300 RMB (about $50) to talk for twenty minutes. Everybody wins! And bowing out of something like this is much harder than it might seem. For example, if I had said, “I don’t care how things are done here, it’s a lie and I won’t do it,” it wouldn’t simply give the company a problem (which wouldn’t have bothered me, to be honest), it would have made my friend Charles (who got me the gig in the first place) look bad, and would have made several other individuals look bad as well. Typically if you want to protest based on conviction, you need to get it done early in the game.
Anyway, I’m still saving money to go study in Taiwan for a month this summer, so I just shrugged my shoulders and went along with it. As it turns out, the gig was at Tianjin’s only yacht club. This was funny, as well, because there weren’t many yachts. Three, in fact, and these were all more like very large rowboats than yachts, a fact noted by my apologetic hosts. I encounter this attitude a lot among upper-class Chinese people in Tianjin. The common perception seems to be that every American has a thirty-foot yacht, drives an expensive car, and has millions in the bank. They would probably find it incredible that the only sailing craft on which I’ve spent any quality time was a ferry from Anchorage to Seattle when I was five or six, a journey marked by hours of choppy seas and everyone in my family except my father vomiting for the duration. Also, the only car I’ve ever owned was a 1986 Ford Crown Victoria that leaked oil the day I drove it off the lot, and whose only positive feature was a trunk the size of Nebraska. Oh, and I don’t have millions in the bank. I have hundreds. But it’s indicative of how people in China’s upper crust think that they would feel the need to apologize for the state of their yacht club to an American literature student.
As Shaun and I were getting out of the van, he informed me that I was not to speak Chinese with anyone there. They wanted me to be the “pure American.” I’ll let you digest that for a second because it’s an interesting semantic twist. “Pure” isn’t too far removed from “unsullied” or “innocent,” meaning what they wanted was for me to be the wide-eyed innocent westerner who comes to the mystical East with nothing but an impression and a dream. And a preternatural ability to arrange furniture, apparently. I personally found this hilarious, so I went right along with it. I gave serious thought to my friend Jessica’s suggestion that I speak nothing but Pig Latin with everyone, but gave that up because you never know who really does speak English at places like this. While Shaun went over his powerpoint (he had been roped into this because he’s Malaysian, and the only thing better than one foreigner giving a presentation is two foreigners giving a presentation), I went out into the main room to take a look at the floor plan displays, and was glad I wasn’t having to live in any of the places represented. They all looked like movie sets, or horribly garish imitations of movie sets. As though to emphasize this, the background music for the trade show was being supplied by a karaoke machine set on random. I lost interest in the floor plans very quickly, and went for the food because I hadn’t eaten lunch yet. Sadly, the only things available were several baskets of little cookies which tasted like smashed-up chalk with vanilla flavoring, and a huge platter of the least-filling fruit (watermelon and grapes, which are only filling in diarrhea-producing quantities).
Having finished my meager repast, it wasn’t twenty minutes until they called Shaun and me up to the stage to give our presentation. I read from the powerpoint, putting my heart and soul into the material (which was easily as dry as the cookies), as though it was not a presentation on architecture, but rather a political manifesto, while Shaun looked on, offering commentary in Chinese when the opportunity presented itself. I, of course, had to pretend I didn’t understand a word he was saying, except when he said things like “Texas” or “America,” at which point I beamed in excited recognition and gave a thumbs-up to the crowd the way any red-blooded American would whose first act upon arriving in a foreign land is to learn how to say his home country in the language of that place. The audience, I should point out, spoke no English at all. I knew that when I agreed to give the presentation, but it’s a mark of how long I’ve been in China that it didn’t even strike me as odd. The powerpoint had my words, as well as the appropriate Chinese subtitles. I used my best teacher voice, making eye contact with each person in the audience, and generally played the part of excited foreign professional to the hilt.
I finished up, said thank-you, and Shaun and I exited stage right. I had things to do that day, so Shaun arranged for the van to pick me up and take me back to campus. But before I left, Shaun’s Chinese counterpart made sure to tell me they would call me before I left for Taiwan in July to set up a time for me to help them with some “training” for their employees. I don’t know what that means, exactly, but I was told I could speak Chinese, so I won’t get to play wide-eyed western innocent any more.
What’s interesting about all this is the extent to which the Chinese have co-opted the same image-based aesthetic used for years by the West. China has always been a part of the mysterious orient, and for centuries wealthy Europeans bought vases, tea-tables, and silk scroll paintings as a way of making their homes seem more luxurious, it being more clearly a mark of one’s resources to have a vase from thousands of miles away than from hundreds. Now the same thing is happening in reverse. The Europeans who bought those vases and tea-tables had no idea what they represented, had likely never studied Chinese art, and certainly didn’t speak the language. In the same way, it doesn’t matter to the average wealthy Chinese person what something western actually is; it only matters that it’s western. Where the East has always represented mystery and foreign-ness to westerners, the West represents money and power to the Chinese. Let’s put this in a simpler way. A Chinese company that can hire a western art worker isn’t solely demonstrating that it has money; it’s showing that it can control a part of the West. It can tell a westerner what to do. Ditto for the commercials on TV that feature westerners simply standing around tasting wine, or gesturing in futile desire towards a beautiful Chinese woman who’s proudly walking past them with a flip of her hair. It’s an extremely logical concept. If the West represents power and control, and your company can hire a westerner just to do a presentation or greet people at the door, then your company can control the controllers. It isn’t merely a business model; it’s a political one, as well.
Don’t think the West isn’t doing the same thing, either. Think of the number of books and magazine articles written recently about China. The vast majority of them have at their root a warning: China’s going to take us over, and that’s bad. Or in some cases good. Regardless, where China’s companies are seeking to broadcast the image that they can control the controllers, the controllers themselves are seeking to broadcast the image that they’re in danger of being controlled, thereby implicitly agreeing with the original message. This is in a sense a way of rallying support from the American public, who are above all else proud of their status as a powerful nation. And at the risk of sounding solipsistic, that’s as much a kind of control as any Chinese company.
I’ll end with this thought. For the past two years my Chinese classmates and I have discussed everything from the philosophy of Zhuangzi to why it’s impossible to write good poetry when you’re happy. We’ve begun to understand, on a much deeper level, that the image presented us by not only corporations, but by academia as well, of the varying categories of cultural qualification are inadequate. There are as many intersections between me and my friend Xuebin, for example, as there are between Xuebin and any of his Chinese classmates. And there are more differences between me and one of my western friends than there are between Xuebin and me. There’s an opportunity, with life in a place like China, to stake out our own unique ground and worldview, one that isn’t limited to the powerful West or the mysterious East, and that’s power of a different sort.
And just as long as no one asks me to arrange furniture, I’m on board.


5 Responses to Getting Paid to be American

  1. Joel says:

    I am definitely spreading this all over the China internets.

  2. Pingback: Hao Hao Report

  3. aimee says:

    Great story – I had a friend who had a similar experience a few years ago. He was hired full-time to play “Senior Architect” for a Chinese firm (with zero experience but an interest in urban planning his only qualification…oh and being American of course), traveling to meetings and answering questions about his “projects”. While he would talk about the weather or a film he’d watched last night, the translator merrily translated the correct answers on his behalf!

  4. Dasi says:

    Loved reading this entry, you have a very interesting blog. Very funny the description about the “wide-eyed American” I had no idea about this side of the chinese culture.

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