The meanderings of a recovering ex-expat with the occasional identity crisis
As a contributor to your esteemed country’s trade deficit with China, we Chinese suppliers are often given many unflattering labels – opportunistic, unethical, and misleading. We are accused of seducing overseas buyers with rock bottom prices, then jacking up the costs, as soon as we have you hooked.
Some of us may ignore copyright laws and place famous brand names on objects, which the brand isn’t known for, or alter the brand name a little, so that BMW becomes BBW – a car that might look like a BMW from the outside, but has a worse ride than your toddler’s Tonka truck. But you can’t deny that telling your friends, I’m gonna drive my BBW so fast after work tonight, it’ll make her scream, sounds strangely appealing in a way that a BMW cannot achieve.
One of my favorite things to do while exhibiting at trade shows in China is to approach a native English-speaking client visiting our booth and ask him whether he needs help. Invariably, the customer will turn to me in surprise and say something like,
“Hey…wow – your English is pretty good!”
To which I always reply, “Thanks a lot! Yours isn’t so bad, either.”
Except in Mark’s case I lied: his English is that bad.
Actually, I should clarify: it’s not so much that Mark’s English is bad as he fails to retain anything that he sees and hears, and this includes English. Mark is only in his early 50s, but has the memory of a chopstick. Mark was born and raised in Chicago – a place where you’d expect people to have better memories than, say, Yuma, Arizona, where you could spend the whole day counting the grains of sand, without anyone bothering you.
Mark came to our booth wanting to make a badge – the kind you put on the hood of a car, like the Porsche or BMW car badge – except Mark’s badge had a…
“…a rivet on the back!” Mark’s wife called from another corner of our booth.
“Yeah, yeah! A rivet on the back, that’s what I want!”
“…and you need three hundred pieces!”
“Right! I need three hundred pieces. But…but….”
“…you needed them, like yesterday!”
Then, Sharon, Mark’s wife, looked at me from across the booth, rolled her eyes and mouthed the words, Just kill me now!
At first, Mark’s forgetfulness seemed mildly amusing, like a softcore version of Mr. Bean. Then, it became tedious. But after spending several hours with Mark, I felt exactly the same way Sharon did. Except I wanted to kill myself, instead of having someone else do it for me, as another person would not do as thorough a job as I.
Mark is one of those semi-retired men who made his millions early in life and now enjoys the fruits of his labors, such as antique car collecting, yachting, and philanthropy. Being rich, Mark can afford to have someone else remember things for him. But Mark’s one of those men who can’t stop working completely. In his head, the wheels are always turning, even if the tires are of different sizes, lack air, and seriously need to be re-aligned. Every activity Mark participates in, every scenario that presents itself to him, is the best business opportunity ever.
For example, Mark and I might be walking down the street and there’s a gaggle of schoolkids in front of us chatting and laughing.
“Oh yeah! That reminds me. Our yacht club is sponsoring a group of inner city kids, so they could go to a soccer tournament. I want to get something to commemorate the event.”
“You mean, like a t-shirt?”
“No, no…something smaller…”
“A baseball cap?”
“No, something small that you wear…that, that…”
“A commemorative pin?”
“No, not wear on your shirt…”
“Wear around your neck…like a..a…medallion?”
This no-win, no-fun game of Charades would continue for as long as my ass was wide. Problem was, Mark never knew what he wanted. He just went along with whatever sounded good at the time. Instead of t-shirts, I could’ve said, chainsaws. A baseball cap might as well have been The Flying Nun, and a commemorative pin and medallion – a case of Bud Light and support hose.
One time, Mark called me in China at 3AM to ask the name of “that dim sum dish we had in Hong Kong”.
“I’m pretty sure that it was braised chicken claws, but my friend, Lenny, doesn’t believe there’s such a thing.”
“Mark, it’s 3AM in China!! You’re calling me at 3AM…about chicken claws!“
“Gosh, Susan. I’m so sorry! It’s 2PM here in Chicago and I thought you’re just a couple of hours ahead of us, like five o’clock in the afternoon. Well, you get your beauty rest, my dear. I’ll catch you another time. Maybe when I get back to China again, we can go for some dim sum again.”
After I hung up the phone and desperately tossed and turned, trying to get back to sleep, I thought…
Five in the afternoon – where did Mark think I was – Ithaca? I need to increase his prices to make up for this aggravation.
And then I thought…
Dim sum? With Mark? …in China?
What…are the words I’m looking for…?
In the Chinese language, the name “Ben” sounds like “笨” (bin – fourth tone), which means stupid.
Ben’s Father started their company in 1968 and built a good and sizable business in promotional products, representing several licensed brands. Their company was privately-held, large and profitable year after year, with a lot of big and loyal accounts. Ben was sitting on a gold mine that only an idiot could’ve screwed up.
The problems were there from the beginning: we’d be asked repeatedly about Purchase Orders that we had never received. Invoices would be paid twice, or not at all. Item numbers would be misquoted and orders mixed up. For example, reference would be made to an order of trophies, and we’d be asked to put more “hair” onto the products. The stupid requests would persist, even after we tried explaining that the trophies we make don’t have any “hair” on them.
But, as Chinese suppliers, we have to be careful to use words that don’t make our clients feel like the dolts that they really are. We are forever the lowly Chinese factory, and our foreign customers the high and mighty buyers, who could do no wrong –
We are sorry for not replying to you sooner.
Please refer to your original PO attached. We did not receive any instructions to apply “hair” to your trophies at that time. It is not too late to do so, but there will be an additional cost of $0.25/ea trophy, depending upon the type of hair you need, the amount and location of the hair (ie. Hair type: Horse, synthetic, human. Location: Bottom base of trophy, upper side or lower side).
Things took a turn for the worse, when Ben ran up an outstanding balance of over US$100,000.00 and couldn’t pay within the usual payment terms. He insisted on talking with me over the phone -
“Susan, I’m awful sorry for not paying you any sooner, but I’ve got my money tied up right now in this great business idea. You know health food products, like wheat germ, flax, and stuff like that? Well, they’ve developed this great product that you can drink. It’s got all the vitamins and nutrients you need right there and has been proven….”
As Ben rambled on about this health food product, which was basically a pyramid scheme, I had that same panicky sinking feeling you get when a loved one tells you that, instead of becoming the doctor he has been working towards for the last 8 years, he’s going to join the circus as a clown and devote his life to jumping a purple glitter unicycle across fifteen Ford Broncos, while humming Britney Spears songs on a kazoo.
After hanging up the phone with Ben, I called my Assistant General Manager and told her to request prepayments, plus 10%, every time Ben’s company places an order with us, so that his debt with us wouldn’t get any larger and he’d pay off the old balance in increments.
Today, Ben’s company owes us less than US$10,000.00 and he is placing far fewer orders with us than he used to. The last time I talked with him, he said that he couldn’t secure financing with the banks and had to take on an investor after 44 years as a privately-held, family-run business. He couldn’t even get a re-finance on his over-valued house and high-interest mortgage because of his poor credit. He was in danger of losing his house.
Last year, when writing holiday cards to our customers, I wrote a card to Ben, but instead of writing,
I know the last few years have been tough for you, but I’m confident that you’ll lead your company to greater achievements in the coming year. Best wishes for a happy holiday season and all the best for a better 2012!
I really wanted to write:
Dear Rachel (Ben’s wife):
My condolences on the slow and gradual loss of your husband’s brain, which has caused your family unimaginable hardship and mental distress. I know the last few years have been particularly hard for you and hope things will turn around for you in 2012. You are a brave and patient woman. My deepest sympathies.
Wining and dining foreign customers is standard for any Chinese supplier, but I draw the line at taking clients to sex-themed massage parlors and KTVs – Karaoke bars with female escorts- because a) I’m a woman and it makes me uncomfortable to go to those places; and, b) I don’t want to contribute to the sex industry in China or anywhere, as it degrades and objectifies women.
When I first started living in China, a middle-aged German client visited our factory, which was still located in a small town at that time. At night, we went to a Motel 6-like hotel bar, which served weak beers and rubbing alcohol with fizzy water and tried to pass them off as drinks. A few tables away there was a table full of local prostitutes who were in their 20s. As it was winter and there was no indoor heating in southern China, these women were dressed in cheap, woolen-like clothes with tufts of fake angora around the cuffs. There were lots of pinks and light blues and shiny, glittery baubles. The women huddled in their seats, sitting on their hands, looking as miserable as hungry cats in the rain.
Axel, the client, turned towards me and asked in a matter-of-factly, German way, “These women are prostitutes, yes?”
“Yes. They are here every night.”
However, I didn’t tell Axel that I thought a small-town hooker in China was probably the worst kind of hooker to be. I had no idea how much these women made, but it was probably pocket change. On a few mornings when I jogged past the park, I’d see a prostitute get deposited onto the sidewalk from a vehicle, after a night with a john. The john was usually a day laborer, who made less than US$120/month, so I couldn’t imagine how much she was given. It made my stomach turn to see the john, his leer, and the condition of his truck. Jogging past the woman, I always smelled the cigarettes and alcohol.
The next day, Axel failed to meet us for breakfast, which was unusual and un-Germanlike. Axel always planned his days with the precision of a Tag Heuer and the efficiency of a German train. I sent my assistant to knock on his door, but he came running back to our table shortly afterwards, “Axel is…not responding….” my assistant panted, “Nobody…answered…the door!”
Frightened that the rubbing alcohol martini or the chicken testicle fricassee from the night before might have *disagreed* with Axel and he was now laying unconscious on the cold bathroom floor in a puddle of his own drool, we ran up to his room and pounded on the door. There was no response.
After minutes of pounding on the door and calling the phone without a response, we managed to attract of a curious crowd of hotel guests and staff.
“Maybe he is fat. Foreigners are fat and liable to die more suddenly than us Chinese people.” volunteered one old Chinese hotel guest.
“It’s the butter and cheese,” another woman said, “They are bad for the heart.”
“…fat and no exercise…that is the worst.” the first hotel guest continued. “Why are foreigners so fat?”
As everyone excitedly discussed how fat, unhealthy and liable to die on command most foreigners are, we finally got the Hotel Manager to open the door of Axel’s room with the spare key. To prepare for the death that everyone was certain would be before us, somebody had even called the ambulance and the Fire Department, who were fully-uniformed and standing by with large axes, eagerly awaiting the chance to hack something that belonged to a fat foreigner. In fact, the atmosphere was similar to a school full of children waiting for the bell to ring to announce the beginning of summer vacation. I half-expected an enterprising Chinese to offer overpriced peanuts and popcorn while we waited.
Just as the Hotel Manager opened the door, a half-dressed Chinese woman darted out of the door and down the hall. Then, another woman followed. And another – just like an old Benny Hill sketch.
We all stood stunned, as we counted four women dash out of Axel’s hotel room. One wasn’t wearing her shoes; another was wearing Axel’s blazer. They all smelled like cigarettes and cheap alcohol.
Afterwards, Axel sheepishly claimed that this was the “first time” he’s ever done this, and that he’s not too proud of it, but whatever I do, please don’t tell his wife.
I had never met Axel’s wife – I didn’t even know her name – so there was no way I could tell her, even if I’d wanted to. Axel was just a client, not a personal friend. But looking at his anxious German face, I thought maybe he would die right then and there out of fright and worry.
So I said, “Don”t worry Axel. I won’t tell your wife; your secret’s safe with me. Today, let’s just go to the office and talk about your purchasing plan for the coming year. I ‘m sure now you will increase your orders with us dramatically in upcoming year, yes?”
No, I’m not an unethical Chinese supplier, but I can always learn. By example.