“Never trust your interpreter. He’s the one selling your secrets to your competition.” So said a Chinese business acquaintance I met while employed for six months in the People’s Republic of China during the fall and winter of 1994-95. I worked for a Thai-Chinese company that installed bowling centers at airports and amusement arcades. My employer put me up in a rundown hotel near the Olympic Village in Beijing. Occasionally the job took me to nearby cities as well.
Anyway, not too far from The Forbidden City on Chang An (“Long Peace”) Boulevard in the choice Wang Fu Jing area, McDonald’s had a huge franchise outlet that could serve several hundred people at a time. The place had twenty-five cash registers and the Chinese customers would all push and shove and jostle with one another to place and receive their orders. What a madhouse!
But one day the management decided to organize things. They made the Chinese customers stand in lines while service personnel came out to take orders which the customers would find ready when they reached the front of the line. I couldn’t believe the bitching and griping that ensued over that attempt at efficiency. After about a week the management gave up the experiment and the typical happy chaos of China resumed. Then came Chinese New Year. The city emptied out and practically closed down as nearly everyone went back home to visit their families for the holidays. I’ll never forget sitting in the cavernous McDonald’s with only one cash register open and three of us foreigners having the place all to ourselves.
None of this came as any surprise to me after living in Taiwan as a foreign exchange student from September of 1972 through January of 1973. I quickly learned not to stand back and wait my turn for service at a bank teller’s window. People would simply assume that I didn’t want service very badly and would crowd in front of me, one after another. I finally figured out the drill and pushed my way forward to the front like everyone else. Nobody objected or even seemed to notice.
But my most enduring lesson in the hyper-competitive world of Chinese experience came one day when I waited for a public ride at a bus stop. An elderly gentleman with an umbrella stood beside me as a crowd began to form to board the bus. Thinking that I would shield the elderly man from the typical pushing and shoving, I positioned myself close beside him, placing my body between him and the others. Misunderstanding my intentions, just as the bus door opened, the old man jabbed me in the ribs with the point of his umbrella and quickly jumped aboard the bus ahead of me. I learned to watch out for the aggressive old geezers with their umbrellas. They don’t carry them around expecting rain.
While working in Beijing, I often rode the crowded buses and subways. So many people packed into those buses that I could hardly move, often finding my arms pinned to my sides. Of course, some people tried to take advantage of this kind of situation. Many men would use the opportunity to cop a feel off the women who could do nothing about the groping. Once I saw a lady step down off a bus and just before setting foot safely on the ground she turned and smacked this Chinese guy right across the face. That certainly caused him to stop smiling.
Another time someone deftly sliced open the back pocket of my pants to swipe my wallet. I didn’t even notice until I got to my office and someone asked me how I tore the back of my pants. I didn’t carry much cash on me, but I did lose my driver’s license, some business cards, and several pictures of my kids. I figured I would never see those again. But a few days later someone called my office and asked for me. When I identified myself to their satisfaction, they told me they had found my wallet and would like to return it to me. In a vast city like Beijing, a compassionate Chinese person went to the considerable trouble of doing this kindness for me and would not accept any payment in return. All I could say was, “I don’t know how to thank you,” over and over.
When we installed a bowling center at the Friendship Hotel, I met a young Taiwanese guy named “Tony” who ran the entertainment franchise. He had lived in California for many years and spoke pretty good colloquial English. When I asked him how he liked his job, he told me that it took him three tries before he found out how to get a successful business going in Mainland China. He told me that most Taiwanese attempting the same thing wound up cheated by the local Mainlanders and would often find Vietnam a much easier market to develop. Other Taiwanese business people have told me the same thing. Anyway, Tony told me that he really didn’t like the newly rich Chinese businessmen who would act like complete assholes and abuse the working girls, often picking a new one every time they visited the amusement center. When I made an innocuous comment about how China had some very good people who didn’t behave like that, he replied: “Good people are good people everywhere. It’s the bad people you have to watch out for.”
Nowadays here in Taiwan, the Mainlanders arrive in their tourist droves and often act like complete jerks. Visiting Japanese act much better. When the visiting Mainlanders find that they can’t eat or drink on public transportation they get royally pissed off and can’t bitch long or loudly enough. Some people will always think that if they have a few dollars and can afford to travel, that they can act in any way they please. I’ve seen that in every country that I’ve lived in or visited. But most Mainland Chinese with any real money buy up prime real estate in Arcadia, California or London, England. My wife told me recently that on the local news she heard that some Mainlanders have even started buying Detroit. Something tells me that the reverse colonization of America by the Chinese has already started. I mean, since MIT means “Made in Taiwan” and UCI means “University of Chinese Immigrants,” I’d say the process has already gotten well on its way.
Michael Murry, a Vietnam Veteran, gargoyle sculptor and poet, occupies the Asian Desk for The Contrary Perspective.