TECHNOLOGY CONFERENCE BEIJING, CHINA
“The high-tech world is risky business,” a respected colleague told me prior to the trip. “It’s all about geopolitics.”
Well, I’m sure happy I took the risk! I thought, stuffing the prized purchase order into my briefcase.
Rounding the hotel hallway between the meeting room and the main conference center, I heard the robust voice of a male speaker and read a sign: “IT Conference. Keynote Speaker: Ken Chiang, Chinese Ministry of Science & Technology.”
Curious, I half hid behind the thick red pillars and listened.
There was complete silence in the packed auditorium, making the speaker seem even more intimidating. Hundreds of men and a few scattered women sat so quietly they likely could hear each other breathe in the forced stillness. Rows of crimson ties matched the blood-red hue of the high-domed ceiling. Crisply tailored suits clung to thin frames, feet planted in a matching and precise stance.
Not one of them seemed to dare stray from China’s Communist party rule. I wondered if they remembered all too well the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square a few years ago. Better to serve those in power than to be taken down with brutality.
“My fellow Communists. The past decade saw Chinese manufacturing take off like a rocket.” The commanding voice of the IT Leader echoed into the smoggy air. An enormous red flag with the symbolic five stars hung from the center ceiling, a calculated backdrop for the leader’s fiery speech.
“But we can’t stop here! With the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have a unique opportunity to once again become the world power! To achieve this, we need not only industrial strength; we need technological leadership! The People’s Republic of China will become the world’s tech-hub of innovation!”
The dutiful audience came to life, cheering and clapping with a reverberating beat—but not without a look of apprehension on their faces. I often heard that even the most devout party loyalist questioned the technological and free-market arena. He seemed to sense their hesitations.
“We must acquire cutting-edge technology to propel our great nation further. The Americans… such short attention spans! The capitalist—they are weak! Their weak spot, anyone?
Nobody answered him. I felt the urge to raise my powerful purchase order to put him in his place. “Money!” he shouted. “Money is the weak spot of the Americans! We will make capitalism their biggest enemy!”
What the fuck? I cocked my head to the right, in a bid to get my ear closer.
He seemed to have their full attention now, as they shift militarily erect in their seats. Then he delivers the highlighting remark. “My fellow comrades, California’s Silicon Valley is at the center of a gold mine of innovation and engineering prowess. Its entrepreneurs are willing and able to sell their technology to the highest bidder, even to foreign markets.”
“Holy crap,” I muttered. But not quietly enough to have a few heads turn my way. Feeling exposed, I slid behind the huge red pillars, hoping nobody would say anything. When I felt the coast was clear, I peek out from between the columns. The speaker continued:
“After we have their technology on our soil, we will develop global, social, and military dominance for centuries to come.”
A brave young soul cried out, “But we’re not entrepreneurs! We’re …we’re—”
“Revolutionaries.” The speaker interrupted. “Silence! You are not to question this mission! We must take our country back, and our progress will come from this technology hub! We will modernize our nation.” He glanced at the young man who spoke.” You said it yourself, Wei Sun. You saw what happened to those that became counter-revolutionaries.”
Wei Sun, along with the others, visibly cringed. I figured they learned their lessons too well during the bloody purges of their youth—perhaps saw friends slaughtered last year in Tiananmen Square.
The audience went from subdued silence to a thunderous standing ovation after the party allegiance signaled the end of the speech. The last words from their leader were, “Napoleon said, ‘Let China sleep, for when the dragon awakes, she will shake the world.’
I couldn’t help myself. I plop down onto the plush bed at the Shangri-la Hotel, laughing hysterically. The laughter derived from a blend of sheer exhaustion and the pure joy of a twenty-nine-year-old spirit of mockery.
That old Chinese man doesn’t know what he’s saying. In the silence of the luxurious hotel room, I kick off my pumps and laugh again. “Weak Americans selling their technology to foreign markets,” ha!
With shaking fingers, trembling with excited energy, I reach into my briefcase for that all-important commercial document I flew from Boston to China to secure. It took me months to lure in the prospect, but I sealed the deal in a day. Today, I sold 100,000 electronic components to one of China’s biggest automakers.
Opening the manila envelope to reveal the purchase order quickened my pulse even with the awareness of the total sale amount. Somehow seeing it on paper made it more real. $1.2 million dollars! I made a quick calculation of my commission check, $96,000!
Last week I couldn’t get money from the ATM, there was nothing in my bank account until payday—which mercifully was the next day. With my credit cards maxed out, I’d borrowed a ten from a friend for gas to get to and from work. Hopefully, the commission check is enough to pay off my student loans and credit cards.
Today, I made more than many people’s yearly salary in one sale. I’m on a roll. So that Chinese speaker thinks money is my weakness, hey?
I did a little dance. Standing in the middle of the bed, I began jumping up and down singing, “I’m a weak American! I’m a weak American! Yay!” I raise the purchase order in the air, “Power to the P.O.!”
I fall back onto the glorious bed, the soft pillows and silk sheets enveloping me in comfort. Overtired from travel and pre-stage sales jitters, my laughter would be a side-splitting show for any surveillance cameras.
My eyes move around the extraordinary room. Asian artwork in imperial porcelain and jade grace the walls, soothing earth tones infuse the exquisite architecture of the classical furniture and ceiling. There’s the huge brown vintage bathtub—looking like a giant soup bowl—strategically placed near the bed and adorned with fresh rose petals. The only thing separating the tub from any peering eyes is a folded room divider in brown and green tones.
It was as if my boss booked me into a romantic getaway rather than a business trip.
I can still hear his voice, “Caryssa, we’ve been trying to land Beijing Automotive Group for a while. Your sales have not been stellar, but you have what it takes to win the prospect.”
I glance at the dreamy bathtub again and wince. No, he wasn’t expecting me to use sexual power to gain bottom-line profit. I’m not sales bait.
Shaking my head and pushing the thought aside, I couldn’t wait to reward my good salesmanship with a hot soak and a glass of the Chinese wine this delightful hotel offered. I was pleased to walk in and see the bottle of red on the table, replete with wineglass, corkscrew, and note all in Chinese except one word: Complimentary.
And not some cheap rice wine but from a local vineyard, Greatwall Cabernet Sauvignon the label read. Yes, I’ll savor sips of oriental wine while soaking in rose petals. But not until I go for a walk to see the charms of the Forbidden City and modern shops of Wangfujing street.
Suddenly, every reason exciting me about being the only one sent from my company to this far-away exotic place frightened me. Could I, should I walk the streets alone at night in Beijing?
Oh… why not? If I’m strong enough to reel in a big fish in a foreign land, I’m brave enough to face Beijing on my own. The manual process of getting the purchase order was unusually quick. I had the sale practically closed over the phone. All I had to do is show up in person with my kick-ass sales narrative. Or… was it my new power suit that cinched the sale?
I stood in front of the full-length lit mirror admiring the pale-pink Ann Taylor suit I’d found in a thrift shop. “Dress for success,” my boss said. I had to admit, this shoulder-padded suit demanded attention. A coat of armor, like a female linebacker. Hmm… I’ll stay armed in this killer suit for my walk. I can carry the weight of the world in this!
After grabbing running shoes and applying lipstick that matched the soft pink of my power suit, I took off for my adventure.
The blood-red carpet of the hotel hallway seemed creepy to me, like a scene from the novel-turned-movie, The Shining. Half expecting the word “REDRUM” dripping from the walls, I sighed in relief when passing the simplistic and soothing beauty of the Golden Bamboo Mural. The classical music drifting around the paintings and dramatic architecture matched my mood, at once relaxed with an upbeat tempo of high energy.
I descend the gold-plated winding rail tempted to stop into the hopping lounge, but announce to the front desk, “Taking a walk to the market area, Wangfujing Street!”
“No walk. Too Far. Take taxi,” the woman working the reception area advised.
She clearly did not understand my need to burn off the adrenaline rush that came with presenting to hardcore Chinese executives and winning a huge deal. A sales pitch which oddly took place right next to the massive testosterone-laden meeting in the main conference room I had encountered.
Rounding the corner, I set off into the steamy night walking the neon-washed streets. The air is heavy, thick with lead and smoke mixed with unique smells of cuisine. Tucking my purse close to my side, I increase my pace to a near jog, hoping the sweat didn’t stain my fancy designer suit.
The brisk walk cleared my mind, and I thought through the words spoken by the CEO, the key decision-maker who signed off on the deal. “Only 500,000 PC’s in China today. By Y2K China own computer industry, yà yà. Thank you, these electronics will use in big military vehicles, yà yà.”
Whatever. All I care about is making the sale so I can pay off my student loans and not be broke anymore. Realizing I’d walked for miles in the heat past chic and cheap vintage shops I have no energy to browse, I wish I’d taken the taxi. Famished, I stopped and noticed a side street sign. Wangfujing Street. I made it!
Immediately hit with bright red lights, planks of people, and fascinating market stalls full of mystery meats, I am drawn in, accepting nibbles of food that seemed safe enough, like fried banana and grilled shark. “I’m starving,” I say out loud to nobody. I needed a full meal. I read signs: Grilled starfish, seahorse, cockroaches, flying lizard, centipedes.
“Where can I get a dish of something… non-insect-like?” I ask people working the market, all lined up wearing red hats. They looked at me like I have ten heads.
I turn to a street vendor holding a skewer with ugly little worms speared through them. Wait, not worms, these things had claws and tails, wriggling in agony. What the fuck?
“Scorpion. Good. Taste like chicken. You try. Come.” He pointed to a large pot of boiling oil.
Not wishing to insult his culinary art, I come closer, bending at the waist. “But they’re… alive! Aren’t they poisonous?” My heart pounds.
The man held up the arachnids on a stick, “Deep fry. No poison. Delicious. You see.” He swiftly dispatched a few into the hot oil, when one of them moved fast between the stick and pan, and I laugh nervously. “That one was smart, little bugger got away,” I say.
The guy stares at my legs with wide eyes and at first; I think it’s a sexual thing until the intense sting. The scorpion clung to my shin, it’s back arched high in pain where it had been impaled with the stick.
Kicking the creepy crawler off my leg, I shout in fear, “Why isn’t the stinger removed?”
The man answered, “No venom, you be okay.”
It didn’t matter. I no longer was the brave wandering sales warrior.