A portion of the following article was originally published in the Global Times.
The coarse sweater was making him visibly uncomfortable, further forcing him to squirm in his chair like a student avoiding the questioning gaze of a professor. He paused, unsure of how to start the introduction — more for linguistic reasons than personal — silently plying both his hands across the table with a business card creased between his thumbs.
A sock manufacturer hailing out of Shangyu, an industrial zone in Zhejiang province, China, had sent him to this English tutoring agency to gather foreign talent for what is known in some circles in Shanghai as the ‘big nose’ job — ‘big nose’ being a common pejorative name for white foreigners.
At first I assumed the job would entail something along the lines of an outsourced business teacher. Unknowingly, I accepted to meet at my recruiter’s office under the minimum requirement that I wear something “business-like.”
“Very simple,” he awkwardly assures me, “Tomorrow you will just eat some lunch. No negotiating – very simple.” Details are made inconspicuous, which is to be the tone that would define the events me and my incognito colleagues-to-be entered the next 30 hours.
Arbitrarily hired foreigners posing as investors
Investors are ostensibly invited to meet other foreign investors or workers, who are in fact arbitrarily hired westerners posing especially for the occasion. The company pays a generous sum to the English recruiting agency – one of the multitudes of mediums that materialize overnight in China, to rent the first three white males they can find in hopes to pull one over on their future clients.
That being said, those conducting business in China should be chary of who they are meeting. The ruse, as promised, is unbelievably simple. After awaking from our five-star hotel in Shangyu the next morning, we pile into the awaiting van and start off towards the office.
Assigning the roles
The desultory plot is hatched with all the whim of a half-rate TV series. The roles are assigned: an Australian man of 45, the boss; an American, who by great chance speaks fluent Mandarin, the translator; and me, the assistant. Luckily for our employers, and us, our translator has a basic knowledge of the dialects of the area as well, having lived in Zhejiang province half a decade ago.
The grand tour
“He says these are samples,” our translator says, who wishes to keep his anonymity. “That’s a way of saying they don’t have the license yet.” We are given the grand tour of the factory, more out of an attempt to occupy our boredom than to inform. The company makes ‘samples’ of Pierre Cardin-brand socks in a compound that houses several hundred workers. The workers get about five to ten RMB (about $.60 to $1.5 USD) an hour and free on-site accommodation. The socks are produced in assembly-line fashion in a three story warehouse opposite where they live. A rickety wooden exoskeleton dominates the area next to the workplace. This is to be the site of the new canteen employees have been rewarded with.
Completed socks are sold for about three RMB (about $.5 USD) a pair, but if the company can show some proof that the quality is good enough to make it to the international market, then they can convince clients not only into buying their product, but also into charging more for it.
Backstage in the office, we rehearse our roles over some tea and assorted Chinese fruits. Lychee and tangerine peels pile up while we run through the scene. Our boss, the older man from Australia, is to play the part of a Walmart executive who has just agreed to buy 15 million pairs of socks. We assume –and hope – that no one will pick up on his thick Australian accent, especially since Walmart isn’t in Australia.
Either our guide’s new sweater has started to cause visible irritation, or he is beginning to get stage fright. He voices his inaudible angst by toying with his phone in a dual attempt to distract himself and look busy. We are left eating a quiet lunch in a secluded VIP dining room of the hotel while awaiting the signal that has left us all wondering for three hours. The much anticipated call finally comes.
Meeting the boss
“Do you know huang jiu?” he asks. Zhejiang province’s famous yellow alcohol is quickly, as it is insistently, topped off in our champagne glasses. Our fake Australian boss giggles, “I’ve been here for 18 months and I’m finally going to do what I’ve dreamt of. Be in a Chinese business meeting.”
The rotating plate is swirling in the center of the circle table with half eaten hot and cold Chinese dishes when we are guided through the double doors in the adjacent room. All eyes search us as we are led over to greet the guests of honor. “I look forward to working with you in the future,” our fake boss bellows, holding up his glass for a cheer. “I’ve seen the factory, and it is very nice. I plan to buy 15 million pairs of socks.” The sentences are translated and a second later the room hoists the glasses up before a bilingual cheer is given and the golden liquid is taken back. Smiles and handshakes are exchanged before we are quickly ushered out and back into seclusion.
Second staging as a German electronics company
For our dinner we pitch a similar staging, now posing as a German electronics company planning to invest in construction projects for the sock manufacturer’s warehouses. Why an electronics company would propose this is still unknown to me. This time we are invited for a full sit down meal with a Chinese executive who is also considering investing, though obviously still needs some extra incentive.
“Huanying De Guo,” our Australian boss gregariously groans. “Welcome to Germany!” My translator and I share a surreptitious giggle as our boss shoots another glass of huang jiu, downing the glass with a sour expression tearfully engrained around his baggy eyelids. He exclaims, “Thank you!” No pair of random white guys could have made worse German businessmen. This time the situation was very dodgy. The Chinese executive could very easily have brought a German translator, creating a detrimental, as well as hazardous, situation. “Pretend you’re drunk,” our translator begins to whisper, “Stand up and wobble around. Then we can get out of here.”
Globalization gives prestige to a race, making ‘big nose’ jobs a simple ruse that bolsters business and –more importantly – reputation. In a country where face is intimately woven into business, money, and power – a night at a five-star hotel, transportation fees, three square meals, and 2,000 RMB (about $294 USD) a head is a small price to pay. The cash is doled out back in our hotel room before we are dropped off at the Shangyu train station. We have acted well, and despite attempts on their part to pay one of us less – we’ve stuck together. The Three Musketeers of Shangyu, emerging unscathed out of a hoax that outlines the innate advantage of our nature in this globalizing world.