The other day,  in “China: Where Nothing Is Ever Quite What It Seems. The High End Rent-A-Laowai Edition,” we wrote about a friend-client/everyday businessperson who had been “rented out” as a United States diplomat for a big Chinese banquet/occasion. My favorite comment on that post was from Paul Gillis, who said “I guess I have been here too long.  That story seems completely normal to me.”  I am guessing even Paul will be surprised by this next one. I sure was.

So right after we did our “High End Rent-A-Laowai” story, I received an e-mail from someone I have known and trusted for years. This e-mail concluded by requesting that “If you were to quote me here, please obscure the details and don’t post pictures.” We are going to tell this bizarre rent-a-laowai story while honoring that request.  Here is the e-mail, modified for obfuscation purposes:

Wen Jiabao (温家宝), Chinese Premier
Wen Jiabao (温家宝), Chinese Premier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I read your latest post with amusement, as I felt like I had a mirror experience. One day, I arrived at ____ Chinese university campus to find it all abuzz. Large crowds were waiting at each major building because Premier Wen would soon be stopping by. I was asked to go to the library. That’s where the show will go down. When I got there, it was T minus one hour.

A university official came over to me and asked if she could ask me for favor: would I speak to Premier Wen about one of the University’s projects. Say again? Yes, the University would like to start some big joint venture with “a leading Chinese research institute” regarding _______.

To this day I don’t know exactly what that means, but I had exactly one hour to prepare a pitch to Premier Wen and I was going to do it. I was supposed to talk about supposed research the University had been doing in this area – which I pretty much knew to be a vast exaggeration, and about a supposed joint venture it was undertaking with an unnamed major Chinese research institute with a supposed prototype product coming out within 3 months, all of which I was pretty certain could not be true.

I found the situation to be so amusing/nerve wracking though that I didn’t hesitate much to agree. Remember, I was just a laowai university student. Questions like ‘why are not the people doing the research presenting this’ were irrelevant at this point. None of us were kidding ourselves here.

Then, an hour late (and by this point I was hardly even expecting him to show up) Premier Wen’s bus arrived. A bunch of security guys rushed into the room filled with about 300 staff and students, none of whom had been screened or in any way pre-selected. The security guys asked where Wen should be seated. The university officials point to the chair opposite me and, again without any further measures to ensure Premier Wen’s security, he entered the room just a few steps behind, greeted like a superstar with cries of his nickname ‘Wen Baobao’.

I ended up giving a 10 minute pitch, mostly making it up as I went along and sitting opposite Premier Wen for another hour of Q&A.

Do I feel guilty for this blatant dishonesty? Not one bit. This was not about me. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

I have so many questions though from this encounter. For one, how could it be decided on a whim who would be talking to the Premier of China? How could it possibly be that there was no screening of anyone in the room? And apparently no pre-screening of the venue either? How could it be that Premier Wen had no prior notice as to the topic to be discussed?

It all seems so surreal that I feel compelled to attach pictures and videos below.

Okay people, and here’s the kicker. The email contained two pictures of my e-mailer sitting right across from Premier Wen, with all sorts of university looking people and cameras all around. Could they have been re-touched? Yes, but why would this person bother. The email also contained a link to an online video site where there was a video of the whole affair, starting with Premier Wen’s entrance and including at least five minutes of my e-mailer talking while sitting right across from the Premier. This video had definitely been online a lot longer than a few days as it had thousands of “likes” and about half as many “dislikes.”

Is this story unbelievable? Yes it is. Do I believe it? Yes, I most certainly do.

What do you think?

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?

Well……

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.