Published: August 17th 2010August 17th 2010
A bead of sweat trickled down my back as I furiously pedaled around Houhai, a man-made lake near the Drum and Bell Towers in Beijing. I had been circling the oblong body of water for close to half an hour already and had yet to find the elusive lakeside restaurant I was searching for. To make matters worse, my boss and two visiting engineers were waiting for me, no doubt chortling over my pitiful sense of direction. I was humiliated to think that I was only providing fodder for the stereotype that women have an innate inability to find anything on a map- not that I had one at hand, anyway. Ironically, it had been my idea to spend the afternoon outside, a welcome break from the non-stop activity of the week preceding as we prepared to make a big pitch to an international client. Could things get any worse?
Um, yes. As a matter of fact, they could. Let’s Tarantino this bad boy and start from the beginning.
Last week, two engineers from our San Diego office arrived in Beijing to assist with an impending presentation for a client in Europe. Neither had ever been to China before,
so they were complete novices when it came to the complicated world of Asian culture. This is where I came in. My official title is Business Development/Marketing Coordinator, but part of my role at my new company is also to bridge the gap between American (Western) and Chinese culture. Naturally, I was tapped to arrange social activities for the gentlemen while they were in Beijing and to ensure that they didn’t stumble into any cultural misunderstandings. Both engineers confided in me that they had had no idea what to expect prior to landing at Beijing International Airport. The era they had grown up in had seen a China closed to the world, a country where everyone wore Mao suits, shouted propaganda, and ate rice at every meal (well, people still do that). I always give the same advice to anyone making their first sojourn to the Middle Kingdom: Come with neither expectations nor trepidation. And so they didn't.
Impressively, they showed up at the office at 9 AM sharp the morning after their long flight from San Diego. Perhaps not as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as they would have been if they’d had a sufficient amount of sleep, but there
The entire office out to dinner
Can't help but have fun when you're wearing a sombrero
they were anyway. My boss put them to work immediately. They later told me they were astonished at the pace of the office here in Beijing. And I thought I was the only one! The young Chinese engineers I am privileged to call my colleagues are some of the most motivated, hard-working people I have ever come into contact with. Combine that work ethic with the silliness and hilarity that ensues once we’re off the clock, and you’ve got an employment golden ticket. The culture at our company is the epitome of the old “Work Hard, Play Hard” motto and the US engineers fit right in.
The first weekend they were in Beijing, I arranged the quintessential first-trip-to-China experience: a day-long field trip to the Great Wall of China. We planned to leave early in the morning, have lunch at a luxurious Western restaurant at the foot of the Great Wall, and return home happy and exhilarated from the hike. The weather was going to be gorgeous. Then, reality slapped us on the back of the head and admonished us with an early-morning work meeting that forced the cancellation of our day of bliss. Undeterred, I immediately recommended that
the engineers spend the afternoon relaxing at a water-side café on the banks of Houhai. They happily acquiesced. I would later wish they hadn’t.
Fast forward to the weekend. I was in Beixinqiao, a lovely neighborhood near the Drum and Bell Towers where I rent a practice room once a week to keep up my mad piano skills, when my phone rang. It was my boss. Since he and the two engineers were supposed to be in meetings all morning, I was a bit concerned. Upon answering the call, I learned that the meetings had concluded prematurely and that the three of them had just arrived at the Forbidden City, near Tiananmen Square and a bit of a hike from my current location. Just as I was beginning to panic, my boss made the executive decision to leave the palace. Indeed, visiting one of Beijing’s most famous landmarks during the height of tourist season and during one of the hottest weeks on record did not seem the best way to avoid an unpleasant experience. The line at the ticket window was becoming unruly as foreign tourists vigorously fanned themselves in the heat, families from other cities in China held
He lives on the ground floor of my apartment building and hangs around outside when the weather is nice.
onto red-faced, screaming infants, and the Tiananmen guards tightened their grips on their AK-47s. Seemed like a good time to escape to the lake.
As I was leisurely pedaling down Di’anmen Avenue, my cell phone rang again. It was my boss, directing me how to get to a particular restaurant along the lake. He employed the typical Chinese habit of using the cardinal directions to tell me how to go; being American, I really needed to know whether I should turn left or right. I asked him to clarify- did going south of the Drum Tower mean turning right? Yes,
he cheerfully confirmed, It’s south of the Drum Tower!
Great. Not wanting to lose face, I hung up and kept pedaling. It couldn’t be that hard to find, right?
Fifteen minutes later, I was uncomfortably warm and had already cycled around half of the lake. Heaving a big sigh, I called my boss for clarification. He asked for my current location; I told him I was near the Starbucks (Yep, just like the US, the ubiquitous Starbucks is everywhere). He guffawed and told me that the restaurant was on the other side of the
Home to the beloved Quiz Night
lake from Starbucks. Super! We hung up and I began furiously backpedaling, hoping to find the group with at least one shred of my dignity intact. As I was whizzing past a group of schoolchildren, one smart aleck summoned the courage to point at me and screech “Foreigner!” Soon a chorus of little voices were singing the refrain ( For-eign-er! For-eign-er!
and I began to feel as though they were my own little fan club, providing support as I raced along the route of the Tour de France. Too bad I wasn’t wearing my spandex that day.
Presently, I left them in my dust and screeched to a halt in front of the alluded-to location….which turned out to be a half-demolished café with no one nearby aside from a couple of shirtless, sweaty day laborers. Greaaaaat. I turned around and began dejectedly pedaling back toward the Starbucks, resigned to the fact that I would have to hand in my two weeks’ notice the following Monday since I obviously could never show my face at the office again. I pulled over, snapped my kickstand into place, and leaned onto my bike for support as I dialed my boss’ cell
phone. He answered with a hearty chuckle and asked if I was close. Well….not exactly. I relayed my location and admitted that I couldn’t find the restaurant anywhere. But it’s two storefronts down from the Starbucks! You must have passed us on your way to the opposite end of the lake!
You don’t say.
Utterly humiliated, I coasted back to the Starbucks, parked my bike, and, head hanging low, made my way toward the little group sitting next to the water who had clearly been there for quite some time, as evidenced by the array of Tsingtao bottles on the table. After some good-natured ribbing, I settled into a chair and ordered an ice-cold milk tea. It was then that we realized our misunderstanding- when my boss said the opposite side of the lake, I’d assumed he meant the opposite end, as in North to South, while in reality he’d meant directly opposite, as in west-east. After assuring him that at least I’d gotten some good exercise that day, we started talking business.
It was then that it started to sprinkle. Groaning inwardly, I realized I’d have to bike home in the pouring rain, since
I had not thought to bring my bike poncho on such a beautiful day and I was not yet skilled enough to weave in and out of traffic while holding an umbrella. After hailing the three engineers a cab, I began the long ride home. Though it was getting dark, I kept my sunglasses firmly pressed on my nose, thus preventing the splashing raindrops from washing my contacts from my eyes. Feeling cold, wet, and utterly ridiculous, I was cursing my luck when my cell phone rang. I nearly ran into the curb trying to answer it; obviously, my boss had forgotten something at the lake and I’d have to go back. Instead, what I heard was this: “Thank you for everything you’ve done while the San Diego engineers are in town. I really appreciate your help.” Hanging up, I felt a renewed burst of energy. I pedaled through the rainy streets of Beijing, splashing through puddles and feeling victorious.
What a beautiful day.
There are more photos below