Laughter, Beer and Business at 23

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I’ve simply got to get the details of this day on paper, this day was just too much! At the moment I am sitting on a bus, I’ve just passed through China customs and I am waiting to pull out, drive around the building, get out and go through Hong Kong customs, then finally make my way home to Aberdeen. Just another day at the office! Oh this crazy place. 

I met Jimmy at Kowloon Tong this morning where we grabbed the KCR into Shenzhen and met Kiefer and Peter. From there we battled the Shenzhen traffic to the candy factory where I would be performing a pre-production inspection. The management team eyed me warily upon arrival, and barely said a word to me as we strolled through the factory. After a morning full of meetings and a factory inspection, we headed off to lunch, arriving at a fancy Chinese restaurant where we were taken into a private room on the fifth floor. In our “dining room” sat a typical large, round table with a glass center piece that spun, a bathroom, a few couches, a TV and a view overlooking 40′ shipping containers stacked so high I couldn’t see past them.

So there I sat at a table of five Chinese men- Kiefer to my right, Peter to my left, beside him sat our factory guide who spoke no English, then Mr. Fune who spoke what I call “selective English,” and then Jimmy. Jimmy and Mr. Fune sat together with their heads down, giggling quietly when suddenly Jimmy looked at me directly and asked, “Greta, how old are you?”

I immediately recalled my conversation with Enmin about how Chinese businessmen typically discriminate against age even more than race or gender. This was important.

I could tell the men were evaluating the level of respect they were going to give me, and somewhat justifiably considering I am quite young to be out here doing business on my own. I smiled a bit and tilted my head responding, “A woman never tells,” winking. They all laughed loudly and conceded- Jimmy saying, “Yes of course you can’t be expected to divulge, he just thinks you look young.” To which I responded,”Thanks for the compliment, but let’s just say I’m old enough.” Peter joked that they had asked because they wanted to know if I was old enough to drink beer. After inspiring a round of laughter at Peter’s joke, they all got excited and pulled the waitress aside. Although they were speaking Chinese I heard “beer” several times.

As the food was brought out and placed on the glass centerpiece Mr. Fune pointed all of it toward me and gestured that I be served first. We began with lanyou(likely spelling that wrong), a fruit that has a grape-like consistency but a skin that must be peeled first. They grow on trees and taste similar to a combination of grape, plum and melon. Different. I move on to the tofu smothered in some type of gravy.

Then comes the beer. Everyone chuckles as James says, “He wants you to have beer so you give us your age.”

To which I reply, “Well they better have a lot of beer!”

All of them roar with laughter, holding their stomachs and rocking back and forth. We all toast, standing slightly and clinking glasses. A few bites into lunch, Mr. Fune asks with an uptick in his voice, “Twenty?”

He is clearly not letting this go. Everyone laughs as I dramatically gesture “up” with my finger. James and Mr. Fune point down. The next toast is to my age. I thank them graciously saying I must be doing something right if I can manage to appear so young.

We continue to eat, the contents of my plate constantly being replenished as they bring forth a seemingly endless array of food. They insist I try everything, and I do, for the most part. I avoid the things I have tested before (or should I say detested…), chicken feet were never a favorite of mine, nor pig knuckles. Chinese food can be quite messy for the novice and is still nearly impossible for me to eat gracefully as many dishes are very slimy, greasy or too big to eat in one bite (a challenge when using only chopsticks). Even though my chopsticks skills are much improved, I still feel clumsy eating in front of Chinese people.

We continue to toast and as drink levels get low Mr. Fune signals for more beer, pointing at me saying, “Ladies first.”

Despite my small size, I’ve always managed to hold my own when it comes to putting back beer. I keep my composure and graciously accept more beer as they top off my glass. I know they were judging, evaluating me the entire meal and I wanted to remain professional, but also relaxed and witty, comfortable dealing with them and not intimidated. I was, after all, a very young professional woman all alone in the depths of China just learning the ropes of the way things worked doing business out here. I had no mentor at this point, no act to follow, I was learning the dance right there at the ball.

After all the food had been brought out and I took a big gulp of beer, our factory guide suddenly said “Yum sing!” He slammed his half-filled glass down on the table and stood up ready to cheers- everyone followed suite, touching their glass to the center and raising it upward. We clinked a final time and I drank, watching Mr. Fune and our guide finish off their beer. I had never hear “yum sing” before, and although I assumed what it meant, I didn’t want to mistakenly chug my beer. Instead, I took a big gulp and looked at them questioningly.

“Oh, you don’t know.” Jimmy said and gestured to finish it. I smiled and said, “Oh, down the hatch!”, raise my glass and finished my the rest of my beer in one gulp- they all clapped and cheered.

As we sat around the table nibbling on the fruit platter I see Mr. Fune gesture toward me, look at James, smile and give an approving thumbs up. I have no idea what it really meant, but I had passed exceeded some expectation, passed some test, and came out with camaraderie on my side. I am still buzzing from this day as I jot this story down, oh what an experience every day is over here!!

I pulled this tale from one of my journals I kept through 2006-2007, as my early education of business abroad was reaching new heights. I went on to continue working with this factory for several months, and my engagement with factory management was starkly different after this lunch. The selective English of Mr. Fune suddenly became more conversational English, and we ended up working closely together to solve problems and figure out solutions that came up when we hit production barriers. I never did end up divulging my age to him, which at the time was a nice young 23. He never again asked.

Through all of the years I’ve spent in so many different working environments across various countries and cultures, maintaining a genuine sense of humor has always managed to defy the boundaries of cultural stereotypes and judgement. Simple interactions involving joy and laughter go an incredibly long way when we embrace and engage cultures and people different from those we already know, as well as embracing new situations and challenging circumstances. What a beautiful gift we all have within us, the capacity to laugh with one another. It also doesn’t hurt to be able to hold your own when the beer comes out 😉

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Documenting my adventures while living and working in China

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