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.

This is all a lead-in to a story told to me many years ago by a client/friend. When initially told to me (via email), I responded by saying that I would strip it of any identifiers and then wait sufficiently long and then post it. I found that email today and here goes:Dan….I see you saw the FB post….what a wild experience.

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.

Dan Harris

I am a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

I mostly represent companies doing business in emerging market countries. It has taken me many years to build my network and it takes constant communication and travel to maintain it. My work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

I was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, I am AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), I am rated 10.0 by AVVO.com (its highest rating), and I am a SuperLawyer.

I am a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and I constantly travel between the United States and Asia. I most commonly speak on China law issues and I am the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog (www.chinalawblog.com). Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed me regarding various aspects of my international law practice.

I am licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at my firm, I focus on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.

  • Paul Gillis

    I guess I have been here too long.  That story seems completely normal to me. 

  • Chris

    This is interesting. We do about 20% of our business working with Chinese capacity of “rent-a-laowai.” We don’t call it that because we think the term cheapens the work. Our Chinese clients and often ask that we participate in visits and negotiations with western companies. This makes perfectly good sense. We essentially act as the intermediary between the parties explaining what either side is really saying to the other side. This only works if the “Laowai” has been here in China for a long, long time. Non Chinese speakers and short-timers need not apply (because it is difficult to gain credibility with the client).

  • Saddams Body Double

    I agree with Paul. It’s exotic only if you’re not used to it. Many of us have been roped in to make the event look more important than it is. Its not “rent a high-end laowai” it’s “Rope in some gweilo no-one knows to make my event look good and save my face”.
    You were used, Bro, and because you are unknown its even better no-one knows who you were because you might have been someone important so no-one will challenge that. They were smart in sucking up to your ego and you lapped it up. Sorry but that’s the deal. Get over it. In a nation of 1.3 billion everyone gets famous for 15 seconds, and that was yours. You served the Communist Party well.


  • Ethan

    This person agreed to a deal with Chinese counterparts, with no contract (not even a clear verbal description of the event from his host), and he was surprised.  
    Now he is surprised at the surprises.  
    Isn’t that what you keep telling your clients not to do?  
    Now I am surprised.  

  • r_s_g

    It would have been fun if the letter writer had announced some bizarre, sweeping change to U.S. policy in front of an audience of government officials, just to see what would happen…

  • bystander

    I love those bean paste doughnuts!  Really.  Bean paste is one of things I like most about Asian food.  I gag when I chomp into a Krispy Kreme and it’s fully of *whipped fracking cream*.  What is UP with that?

  • ManGod

    Where does an American sign up to be a rented Laowai ???? Hell, I am bored …living in Tianjin awaiting Spousal VISA….?