The meanderings of a recovering ex-expat with the occasional identity crisis
Some of you may wonder what the hell it is I do in China. I frequently blather on about my Mom’s English, my hatred of Chinese banks, and my bewilderment with everyday happenings in China, as I bumble through this country of 1.3 billion, like a female Mr. Magoo.
On any given day, I receive over a hundred emails from my clients and my employees. At any given moment, my desk is covered with expense reports, client files, documents and factory samples – and sometimes the occasional treasure. Like an unused bag of Stash tea, or my Costco membership card, which I thought I’d lost but for some reason had brought with me to China, where there are no Costcos.
I wouldn’t have gotten this far without learning some very valuable lessons about doing business in China. I’ve compiled my learning into this guide, that any foreign idiot, like myself, can follow. I can’t say these pointers will work for everyone, but they have for me so far:
Surround yourself with good employees, particularly an angry accountant
For as long as I can remember Vivian, my Accounting Manager, has been impatient and angry with me, the company, fellow employees, our suppliers, her job, everything on TV, and her boyfriend/husband/fiance, who she says is not her boyfriend/husband/fiance, even though they’ve been living together at his parents’ house for over 5 years and she calls his Mother, Mom.
Everyday, Vivian will enter my office like a category three hurricane, dramatically drop a huge stack of papers onto my desk, glare at me, then leave. Sometimes she might say something like,
“Did you get around to reading the expense reports I gave you last week?”
“Uh, I’ll get around to it later this afternoon.”
Then, Vivian would stomp angrily out of my office, as if I had just said her Mother has the hairy armpits of an orangutan.
When I told Vivian I would give her a raise with next month’s paycheck, she reached across my desk – not to hug me – but to strangle me.
“What! Do you think money grows on trees? How can I work like this, when you increase everyone’s salary in this way?!”
Vivian’s job is to make everyone’s life fiscally miserable. Vivian has to examine and sign off on every expense before I do. Nothing upsets her more than product costs going up, employee raises, increased insurance premiums, and frivolous expenses – or what Vivian sees as frivolous – RMB850 (USD134) for a dinner with the clients? Couldn’t you just go to McDonald’s instead? The clients are Americans, aren’t they? They invented the damn thing!
Whenever I see Vivian approaching my office, I’ll grab a few expense reports from the top of a random stack and look at them as if they hold the key to perpetual weight loss. If Vivian wasn’t so demanding, I’d probably have expense reports stacked all around me like a little fort. But it’s because of her constant hounding that I’m a borderline-passable, financially-responsible business owner.
One day, Vivian asked for three days off, as she was going to Hangzhou to have her wedding pictures taken.
“OHHH…you’re getting… MARRIED! Congratulations!” I made sure to omit the word, finally, as this would no doubt send her into a great rage.
“What marriage! I only said I’m getting my wedding pictures taken. Who said anything about marriage?!”
Vivian stormed out of my office, only to return a moment later to get her pen, which she’d left on my desk. But she looked at me, as if I had pick-pocketed the pen off of her when she wasn’t looking.
Of course, the wedding pictures were a disaster. The weather was horrible. She was too fat and the wedding dress was too small. Why did wedding dresses have to be white? They didn’t camouflage anything! The light wasn’t right. Vivian came home early, even more enraged from the wasted trip. She then had two more wedding picture sessions – one in Shenzhen and another in her hometown; both were washouts.
Now I think Vivian’s “wedding-picture taking” is actually a production that tours different Chinese cities, like Mamma Mia! or Lord of the Dance, and has nothing to do with marriage. I imagine Vivian, in a fussy wedding dress, going from scenic spot to scenic spot, while a frenzied crew of boyfriend/husband/fiance, photographers, lighting people, hair designers and makeup artists chase after her.
When Vivian returned from Hangzhou, she gave me a bag of teeny tiny walnut-like nuts – the size of my nostrils – and demanded that I eat some in front of her – because they are rare and excellent and are a specialty from Hangzhou. They are so rare, she only bought two bags: one for her Mother and one for me, so I’d better eat the entire goddamn bag. Or else. (Goddamn: Mine. Or else: Vivian’s.)
As Vivian watched, I nervously ate the tiny nuts while studying the expense reports. The nuts tasted like grass and dirt. When Vivian left, I hid the bag and pretended I’d eaten them all in one sitting. But then several days later I felt guilty, took the bag out and started munching on the nuts again. This time, they tasted like stale grass and dirt.
Those are Vivian’s specialties – angry accounting and making everyone feel guilty, without anyone knowing why. Every business owner in China needs an employee like Vivian to keep his business in line. Someone who watches out for the boss’ bottom line and treats the business as her own. Most importantly, someone with strong teeth to chew out the boss’ ass, when necessary. And I have the bite marks to prove it.
Don’t learn the local dialect, but act as if you have
Everyone says that learning Chinese is the new black; I say, don’t listen to those people.
I am fluent in Mandarin Chinese, but my business is Guangdong Province, China. At my office, we hire mainly locals who speak Cantonese, Guangdong’s native dialect. Cantonese is also one of the official languages in Hong Kong.
I understand enough Cantonese to go about my daily business. At the grocery store, the cashier might ask in Cantonese, whether I have a bill smaller than a fifty. Or my manicurist will ask me to pick a color. (This line is universal, ladies, regardless if you’re getting your nails done at an Asian nail salon in Topeka, Kansas, or in Guangdong, China.) But should these people ask for my hand in marriage, or what I thought about the game on TV last week, I’d be stuck.
I don’t think my employees know exactly how much Cantonese I comprehend…and I prefer it that way. The worst thing is to have someone talk about you behind your back in front of your face, as you sit there grinning like an idiot.
But somewhere between learning Mandarin, English, French, a dabble of Spanish, Cantonese, and German and being nagged incessantly by my Mother while growing up, I’ve developed an emergency override switch to deal with the cacophony that develops when foreign languages or nonsensical nagging collide. As a result, whenever there’s a lot of yelling in a foreign language, I shut off, and the yelling becomes background noise.
Now, the Chinese IRS, staffed mainly by local Cantonese-speakers, like to perform “spot checks” on businesses to make sure all the books are “in order”. At its worst, the Chinese IRS might be tipped off to a shady business, barge into its office, bark at everyone to put pencils down and move away from the computers. Then, the Chinese IRS may physically remove the computers that might contain suspect information, such as the main server, or ones in the Accounting Department – pack them up and leave a chilling message - don’t call us, we’ll definitely call you.
The more benign spot check is usually random and may occur before major holidays, like the New Year. In these cases, the Chinese IRS will barge into an office unannounced and start barking orders: they want to see the books, reports, business licenses and tax returns. And if you’re passable, or a business that’s not worth much, like mine, they’re not going to bother going any further.
In November 2011, a couple – a loud ugly man and a quiet ugly woman dressed in matching grey, too-big, David-Byrne-type suits, appeared in our office. I thought at first the yelling was some remodeling noise in another office unit till the ugly man stepped directly in front of my door. He and his partner were then tactfully led to the conference room by my Receptionist.
Half an hour later, Vivian showed up, even though she had the day off. This was her third wedding-picture taking production. She was as pissed off as she was heavily made up: one section of her hair was in ginormous purple curlers, while the other section had escaped the curlers and were just sadly dangling off of her head, as if to say, Awwww…not again!
She was heavily powdered and as white as a corpse, her lipstick blood red and smeared. Her eyebrows were comically thick and sat on her face like polarized magnets. She even had that bib/towel around her neck – the kind you see celebrities wear when they’re getting made up before going on camera and don’t want the makeup getting onto their clothes. But Vivian wasn’t a blushing bride: she was a bride bomb on a timer set to explode. I listened to her thrash about in her office, cursing in Cantonese.
What I did next got me hailed as an incredibly gutsy boss – and that’s the version I’m standing by. But this is what really happened.
Having had enough of the noise, I got up to slam my office door shut in his face, except my door swings both ways, but more inwards than out. Whatever force the door barely nudged the tax collector with came back to me tenfold, clipping the area underneath my right eye and hitting the funny bone of my right knee.
I spent the afternoon doubled-over at my desk, with a cold can of Coke Zero over my right eye, while rubbing my right knee and reading Vivian’s expense reports.
Both Vivian and I learned something that day:
I learned the Cantonese term for tax collector.
Vivian learned that her wedding-picture taking productions will be forever doomed and that she’d better hold off on the marriage (but it’s not like he’s her boyfriend/husband/fiance, anyway).
When all else fails, act like the moron that I am.
My underwear comes to China towards the end of their life cycle. By this, I mean that once my bras and panties have had their heyday helping me whoop it up on the other side of the globe, they meet their sad, sad end in a foreign and unappreciative land, where most women wear bras that look and function like back braces, or doilies, which have no purpose.
China is also where I bring my “oops” underwear purchases, such as the discounted bra that’s shaped to hold in cow udders, or a bra with so much support padding that the distance between my breasts and neck equals the the distance between my two eyebrows. But I don’t care if people think I’m hiding a bag of chips in my bras; it just adds to my colorful foreign character. Besides, in China I never go out and have the kind of fun, which would require cool undergarments.
As a business owner, I usually have to fulfill my “figurehead duties”, which include entertaining clients, business partners, or people I need to suck up to.
Many years ago, when I first arrived in China, our factory had partnered with another factory boss, Mr. Ho, to set up and manage a particular part of our production line. This production line was located offsite at a government-regulated area, where the runoff from our production would be properly treated before being re-released into the environment.
The dinner was to convince miserly Mr. Ho to jointly purchase another piece of equipment, which would improve the efficiency of our production.
But in China, you don’t go into a meeting like that armed with statistical projections showing the added benefit that this expensive new piece of equipment will bring to your business over the long term. Instead, you go to such meetings with a lot of antacid and a thick wallet to deal with and pay for the expensive seafood dishes and alcohol, which will convince your business partner that the purchase will benefit the future growth of your companies.
As the meeting was very important, I had to feign great interest in Mr. Ho’s favorite topic of conversation – the differences between Hong Kong Hairy crabs versus regular crabs versus American lobsters – which wasn’t really a topic of conversation as much as it was what Mr. Ho wanted to eat for dinner.
Like many Chinese people, Mr. Ho “spoke between the lines”, which meant what was NOT being said was much more important than what was being said. And, Mr. Ho was also a master of Verbal Tai Chi – the art of talking in big, slow descriptive circles that appeared to go nowhere, but would hit you between the eyes, if you weren’t paying enough attention.
So, instead of having dinner with Mr. Ho, I was subjected to 5+ hours of unscripted modern Chinese performance art, where Mr. Ho was breaking crab legs with his bare hands and cracking the shell with his teeth, while lamenting the rising material and labor costs, which have made his wife too cheap to give him baby formula money for his son (which I assume is the code name for his mistress, as his youngest child was already in the 7th grade).
As Mr. Ho was speaking, I felt my right bra strap – the one closest to Mr. Ho – slowly inch off of my shoulder and onto my upper arm. I was wearing a sleeveless white top and the only bra I had to match – by color and by occasion – was a utilitarian one with straps as thick as my toes were wide. The straps had become so loose that I had shortened them to the very end. The bra should have been been retired a year ago and faced with Mr. Ho’s Academy-worthy performance, it was quietly trying to commit suicide.
I could have excused myself to go to the bathroom and re-adjusted the bra, or hoisted the strap back in, but instead I tilted my right shoulder up a bit to keep the strap from sliding down further. This caused my left bra strap to attempt a similar journey down my left shoulder.
“…so, what do you think about that idea, Ms. Wang?” Mr. Ho asked, looking at me. It was then that I realized minutes had gone by and I was just looking intently at Mr. Ho while my mind was willing my bra straps to stay put.
“Well…Mr. Ho….I have to say, that…your ideas…are…interesting…and deserve some… deep…thought.”
“So, you agree with my proposal then, do you?”
“Mr. Ho…it’s not a matter of agreement, but a matter of what’s best for our production and the future of our companies. As a smart business man, I’m sure you know what I mean.”
Then, I stopped talking, not only because I had no idea what the hell I was talking about or referring to, but also because speaking had caused my bra to unhook by itself. I was in danger of having my bra fall down my shoulders and out of my top. I looked at Mr. Ho intensely, straightened my back and stuck my chest out to keep the bra from falling further.
Mr. Ho looked at my chest for a bit, nodded approvingly, and finally looked at the others around the table, “Ms. Wang, you are taking my last pennies. I’m just an old man; I don’t even want to have a factory – my wife and kids – I do it for them. You know I have high blood pressure and cholesterol – it’s because of this goddamn factory: these high costs are killing me!”
Everyone around the table murmured their sympathies for Mr. Ho. Someone even raised a glass of Moutai wine to propose a toast to Mr. Ho’s long life and good health. Mr. Ho absentmindedly gan bai (bottoms up), then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Miss Wang, you are a woman of very few words, but are shrewd and leave me no choice but to agree to buy this machine. What can a poor, old man do? My hands are tied. I just make no money this year, that’s all. My wife – I will never hear the end of it from her for sure.”
My Factory Manager then ordered another bottle of Moutai for celebratory rounds gan bais. I managed to keep the bra from falling apart for the rest of the evening, but retired it later that night after getting home.
Keys to running a business in China:
1. An Angry Accountant.
2. Capitalize on Your Foreigness and Idiocy.
3. Breasts (preferably unrestrained by undergarments).
4. Moutai, or any other kind of Chinese rice wine.