The following entry is the story of my 36 hours in Chengdu as a Rent-a-White-Guy. At several points throughout the trip I honestly wondered if I was in the middle of a dream. However as has been the case several times this past few years, you just cant script this stuff. It reads like a short story…because thats what it is. As with my last entry, I apologize for the length, but I think you’ll agree that the details make this story what it is. So wait until you have a few minutes to read this in its entirety. I hope you enjoy!
It all started when a coworker told me that a friend of hers was looking for a model, and if I was interested in some work (which I was). The job was in Chengdu, Szechuan province, which is a two hour flight from GZ. I would have my travel and accommodation expenses paid for, and would be paid $400 for 2 hours of work. So far so good. I had the days off, and I welcomed any chance to see a different part of China.
I asked what exactly I had to do, and this is where it got a little confusing. They wanted me to bring my suit, but I wouldn’t actually be doing any modeling. There was some kind of presentation being done and they wanted me there for it though (Remember that people don’t speak english well here, so even basic questions seem complicated). So after ruling out a fashion show, photo shoot or any type of advertisement I figured that the event organizers wanted a token white guy, possibly to welcome guests.
Having been somewhat jaded by the industry, I asked for half the money to be paid in advance and that my tickets be given to me in advance as well. This was provided and on April 23, I was off to my first modeling (sort of) job in China.
I caught an airport shuttle bus that went directly to the airport with 3 minutes to spare (they only come every 30 minutes). As I was checking in, I was informed that the plane would be leaving two hours early, which meant that I had only 20 minutes to clear security. I managed to get through security, and grab a coffee (of course) and basically walked directly onto the plane. It couldn’t have been a smoother trip up to this point; and then we sat on the runway for 45 minutes, in 30 degree weather. I was where I needed to be though, and had a few back issues of The Economist and GQ to keep me busy.
Once I arrived in Chengdu, the plane was once again delayed for 30 or so minutes. Now at least I understood why we had left so early…because of the delays we would experience on the actual plane…such foresight…thank you Air China! While waiting to disembark, I received a text message from my translator and driver (who I was assured would take good care of me). “Pick-Up card to write your name in the station“, the message read. Well it wasnt the best english, but I think I know what he is talking about I thought. “Alexander“, I replied, being extra careful to state my full name so as to avoid any possible confusion.
“Good hard you at the airport waiting for you!” he replied, followed by “Our exports in the second.”, and shortly thereafter, “we arrived in the country on the second export.” Oh I see, now I get it…
Alright, I’m off the plane, bag in hand, and looking for my “pick-up card”. Odd as this might sound, this was the first time I can remember being the only white guy around. So, you’d think I would be easy to spot, but there wasn’t anyone around with my name in hand. Strange given the clear instructions provided by my translator…
After 10 minutes an older man finally showed up with “Alexander” written on the back of a cigarette carton. “Great”, I thought, “At least I wont find myself stranded in another foreign airport.”
After driving for ten minutes it was clear that my translator/driver spoke absolutely no english. This was confirmed by the smiles he would give me whenever I tried to communicate with him. Kind of like a “I don’t have a fucking clue what you’re saying, but I’m just going to nod my head and smile…but honestly why are you talking to me…cant you tell I don’t have a fucking clue what you’re saying?!?” Then his phone rang, and he started screaming and yelling into it.
I swear after 6 months in this country I still have no idea when someone is screaming in order to be heard, or out of anger, or shock or maybe a hearing impairment. I’ve just concluded that this aspect of China is as nuanced as the language itself (same word with many tones and multiple meanings). Anyway this guy started going off into his phone, and then shoots me a look far different from the smiles I had become accustomed to. This one looked like he had seen a ghost and I really didn’t know what to think when he handed me the phone.
A woman on the other end asked me if my name was Alexander and whether I was German. I said yes my name was Alexander and that my father was German. Id like to ask you, the reader, what the probability would be of there being two Alexanders of German descent showing up at the same airport in Chengdu China at the same time? Whatever the odds, it happened, and I was in the wrong car. I was dropped off back at the airport and thankfully my real translator and driver were there within seconds. How did I know? Well, my name was spelt “Alexander Uonkaldenberg” and only getting one letter wrong is pretty good even by Western standards.
Now I was in the back of a nice Benz getting to know my new friends. My translator (whom I’ll refer to as Mr. Google from here on in) it turns out, didn’t speak a word of english but did know how to use Google translator on his phone. This explained the cryptic messages I had received, but meant there really wasnt going to much conversation, or accurate translation taking place.
We spent three hours in that car driving and I dosed in and out of sleep, not knowing exactly where we were going or how long it would take but finding the scenery a nice change from the sprawl of urban GZ.
We arrived at our hotel that evening and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a brand new room with a king sized bed. I was asked to stay put for a few minutes until it was time for dinner, and that I’d be escorted to dinner. For those of you who have never been lucky enough to experience a full on Chinese style dinner, let me explain, and for those of you who have, please forgive the explanation.
I’ve been to HK a few times, grew up in Richmond, dated a Chinese girl for 2 years and have lots of Chinese friends, but this was by far the most authentic experience I’ve ever had. We were led into a room and I waited to be seated. Once seated, plates of food were brought out one after another and placed in the middle. It was all very delicious and the dishes included, cat, dog, and bison balls etc…just kidding…they didn’t serve cat and dog = ). Anyway, I thought I was doing quite well navigating my way through the feast, when Mr. Google offered me a fork and knife. Slightly offended, I declined, but moments later they appeared anyway. I soon understood why though, because they had prepared a special steak for me without my knowing. This was a little embarrassing because now I felt like a stereotype but I appreciated the gesture.
I should also mention that there were two glasses in front of me. A large wine glass and a small glass about the size of a sherry glass. I thought it was obvious that the large glass would be used for red wine and the small one for some sort of liquor, but I was wrong. They filled the big one up with almond milk and the small one with 2-3 oz. of red wine. From here on in, someone would stand up and say something like “Mr. Aliccce nice to meet you!” and then shoot their wine and expect me to do the same. An attentive server standing on the perimeter would then refill my glass. This happened all night and I even got up and made a few “xie xie’s” and “hen hao’s” of my own. At one point it seemed like the entire room was in a state of constant up and downs from all the toasts being exchanged. When the staff was really on, they anticipated the toast and pulled your chair back from you and put it back when you were about to sit down again.
English was only used a little, as nobody seemed to speak it, but despite this I really enjoyed all the food, just being in the moment, and watching all these businessmen conduct themselves. I was brought into the conversation at one point though, when one of the gentlemen asked me how many wives I had. Apparently he had four wives dispersed throughout Asia and was a huge advocate of the lifestyle.
Post meal festivities were going to include KTV (karaoke) and I was asked if I wanted to come along. I told the table that I didn’t know any Chinese music, but was reassured that it wouldn’t be a problem because we could all sing “The Titanic Song” together. Having heard all about in Karaoke in China, I decided that it wouldn’t be the best idea to drink my face off at an all-you-can-drink karaoke bar, before I had even figured out what it was I was even doing here in the first place. Thankfully Mr. Google chimed in on my behalf and before long I was back in my room.
In my room, Mr. Google handed me a piece of paper with a whole lot of Ch-English written on it. Grammar and vocabulary issues aside, I was addressing the conference as the “U.S. Representative” of Mr. Google’s company. As I was reading this, there was an internal monologue going on that sounded something like this, “hahahahahahahahahaha”. I told Mr. Google that I’d tweak it a little, but that it wouldn’t be a problem. I cranked the A.C., made a quick good night call to Ellen and then passed out…
…Until 2:30AM when the power went out , and i awoke to the hotel’s alarm system. Now, usually in these situations you assume it’s a false alarm and wait it out, which I did, but after a 5 minutes my mind started to wander. Chengdu was devastated by an earthquake in 2008 that killed 68,000 people. What if this was an early warning system, or what if this was a carbon monoxide alarm, or what if, what if, what if…I was completely isolated here and would have no idea if this was a false alarm or not. Anyway within 15 minutes it was all over, but it was interesting to see how my frame of mind shifted.
I woke up the next day and spent the better part of the day in the restaurant reading the news and editing my speech. There was a distinct buzz about the hotel and staff were coming and going preparing for the conference. As I was walking through the hotel lobby I swear I literally did a double take when I noticed that my face was blown up and plastered on 6 foot posters throughout the lobby and corridors. I played it down, but at this point my inner monologue sounded something like “holy shit this is unreal”. I couldn’t discreetly make out exactly who I was or what my credentials were, and the only english words listed said “MIT, Harvard, and UCLA.” Maybe that explained why the staff of the hotel had been treating me so unbelievably well!
At 2:30 I was lead to a table in the banquet hall where my dinner friends from the previous night were already seated. This was the VIP table, but as I was now aware that I had graduated from Harvard, MIT, and UCLA, I half wondered why I wasnt at my own table…Mr. Google leaned across the table and showed me his phone. “You do the 1 hour talk ok?” I picked up the phone and typed, “The page you gave me will take 5 minutes.“, he smiled and said “ok, ok“.
We watched a video that flashed images of celebrities (President Bush, Lucy Loo, Hu Jintao, Ashley Judd), medical diagrams and research labs, and then speeches were made. I gather I was something of a “closer” and following some dramatic sounding music (deep bass) with heavy beats (think Star Wars) I was introduced.
Though I was in my High School plays and have had as much experience public speaking as the next guy, I have to say that I was a little nervous. Not extremely nervous, but just enough to get my pits a little damp, but not nervous enough to stop me from wondering if I’d be able to give my Uncle George Bush a shout out and if anyone would even notice. You can see the intro to my speech here: Rent A White Guy.
Following my speech I was whisked away to the airport. Behind me i noticed a few promotional materials sliding around. They included the same 4 pictures of the VIP experts, only in these I looked decidedly…older…and wearing a noticeably photoshopped pair of glasses
Note how the glasses on my Doppelganger are photoshopped.
In the airport I found myself at coffee shop call “UBC” (which are the initials of my university). I ordered a Kronenbourg but was promptly brought a TsingTao. I tried to point out that this was not what I had ordered. I pointed to the picture, and tried to communicate, but was met with a blank stare. Apparently, just another example of how in China, nothing is as it seems, and a fitting end to what was an unreal 36 hours.
If you want to read another account of a similar situation, The Atlantic did a story on the Rent-A-White-Guy phenomenon that you can read here.