When I first went to Korea on business maybe 20 years ago, a friend who had lived there stressed that “nothing is ever as it seems.” He kept saying that things may look one way to me, a Westerner, but that does not mean they are as they look to me. He turned out to be so right.
The thing that really highlighted this for me was a doughnut. Yes a doughnut. I went golfing with a client and we stopped at the snack/drinking shack and I was starving. I did not recognize much (any?) of the food, but sitting right there in a case were a bunch of delicious looking doughnuts. I ordered one up, expecting a few bites of sweet goodness. I took a bite and just about gagged. The doughnut had a filling (I think I knew this before biting) and that filling was anything but sweet. It was some kind of totally unexpected and terrible tasting bean paste. Yuck.
It harkened back for me a similar culinary experience I had in Turkey during the beginning of my year-long stay there as a high school junior. I instantly loved the food (not so of Korea) but I was craving good milk, as opposed to the boiled to the hilt tasteless near-water my family had bought at the grocery store. One day, we found ourselves in the finest bakery in all of Istanbul. It was gorgeous and everything we were getting there tasted incredibly good. I then noticed in the perfectly chilled refrigerated section a glistening old-school like bottle of what appeared to be milk. In what was then my pigeon Turkish, I clarified that it was milk, or so I thought. I bought the bottle and eagerly gulped down a massive sip. I just about puked. It was so bad I had to run outside. I thought I had just had spoiled milk. But it wasn’t milk at all; it was Aryan, a Turkish drink made with yogurt, water and salt. I later had this drink under better circumstances and didn’t mind it at all. I had assumed it to be milk and then when it didn’t taste like milk, I just assumed it was spoiled milk.
Things are not always what they seem.
Long story short. Joe’s Dad [changed the name], Bill [also changed this name], who also lives in BJ, asked me to go to a meeting with Beijing ABC, an SOE that he’s been trying to work with for a long time. I hit it off with the guys. Then, they invited me to attend an economic development conference with them. Seemed a bit odd, but I was happy to do it for Bill. I figured it was a ‘rent a laowai’ situation. But a bit of networking never hurts. Plus, they were going to cover all expenses. Sure, why not?
Surprise #1 – Get to Beijing airport. Learn that I’m one of the few non-diplomat VIP guests. (15 total) Several Ambassadors to China and other senior diplomats from several countries and the UN. Cool.
Surprise #2 – Arrive at the _____ airport. A group is carrying a sign saying “USA Representative.” They came over to me, present me with a large welcome bouquet of flowers and start taking my pictures, etc. (only the Ambassador from Vietnam and the head of the Russian trade mission got similar treatment) Go with it, I’m thinking.
Surprise #3 – I have my own car, driver, personal aide and an interpreter for the whole trip. (!) There is also an overnight aide stationed in the hallway outside my room, in case I need anything. My car has a police escort. (!) That’s China.
Surprise #4 – We go to a meeting with the governor of the province and other officials. You know the drill. Big meeting room, cameras, interpreters, everyone in a seat with a name-card. I am introduced as the special representative of the United States of America, his excellency (!) Mr. _________. You will start calling me that, right?
Surprise #5 – Although I introduced myself to everyone as a citizen from the private sector, that didn’t stop everyone from asking me “When is your new Ambassador arriving in Beijing.” (!)
Surprise #6 – This is an international economic development conference, coinciding with the ____ Festival. At the end of the day today, they told me that tomorrow afternoon, I need to give a speech as the American representative with remarks about the Mississippi River (!) (fortunately, my ancestors are Mississippi River people.
Let’s see what the rest of the trip brings.
Three comments at this point….
- Couldn’t the US Embassy get it together to at least send a junior rep? Sheesh. This is a big conference in an important province. Where’s the US commercial rep at least?
- All kidding aside. I’d probably be damn good at the diplomat role. Perhaps in another lifetime.
- Talking to these other diplomats, all rather senior. Wow, the US global reputation has really taken a hit.
Bottom Line: Are you sure what you are seeing/hearing in China is what you think it is, or is it just what it would be back in Kansas?
Any rent-a-laowai and any other “things were not as they seemed” stories welcome.