Monday, November 17, 2003

 
The Pretender
I've already mentioned the penchant that the Chinese seem have for using foreigners as living, breathing exotic trimmings to promote otherwise routine events, but I recently had the chance to take the experience to another level and to get paid for it.
It was also an opportunity to partially fulfill a fantasy I've had since childhood, that of passing as someone I am not. In other words, a con man. I think the "duke and the king" characters in Huckleberry Finn were my first introduction to the concept and I was hooked from there. Stories of men who successfully posed as physicians, lawyers, linguists, pilots, etc. - as depicted the movie Catch Me If You Can, for instance - but who lacked the credentials, enthralled me.
Hence, meet Justin Mitchell, noted expert on the Chinese-American K-12 school experience as well as on the expectations that Chinese-American parents have for their children's education.
The invitation to speak on these subjects came unexpectedly and through a Hong Kong businessman I know only as "Jenkins." "Jenkins" was desperate to find an articulate foreigner to address the subjects for an education seminar sponsored by a large real estate firm for which he is a consultant.
Don't ask. I did take the gig, but still haven't figured out the connection is between selling luxury apartments in Shenzhen and Chinese-American kids in U.S. schools.
I demurred at first and was honest with Jenkins. Well mostly honest. He'd gotten wind, though, that I'd had some teaching experience in the States. Yeah, but it was substitute teaching. A whole different animal. And, yes, you're right my son is half-Korean, which is kinda/sorta Chinese, but no, really, I couldn't...
Then he named my fee. It was about a quarter of what I'd make here in a month. In cash. Immediately after the speech.
Thank god for the Internet. Within several hours I was able to cobble together enough facts, figures and studies and weave them into a semi-coherent 30 minute speech full of generalities and mostly positive stuff about high-achieving Chinese-American students, which I realize is a biased stereotype, but I was told they didn't want to hear the stories about the kids who hanged themselves because their SAT scores weren't above 1,200.
I was assigned a translator, a young woman whose English name is Alice, and to whom I gave a copy of the speech a day before we would appear. We met at the SZ Daily building and were driven to the seminar which was held in the front hall of the real estate company's office.
"Italian Culture Salon" proclaimed a sign inside, though the only thing vaguely Italian about any of it was the red and white horizontally striped psuedo-Venetian gondolier shirts worn by some company staff members. We had an hour or so to kill before showtime and spent part of it, to Alice's amusement, being shown various model apartments well beyond my financial reach while I pretended to seriously consider questions like would I want to rent or buy a 4-bedroom unit with a clear view from a bedroom balcony of the three-quarter scale Eiffel Tower at the "Windows of the World" theme park.
The audience consisted of about 30 mostly middle-aged, well-heeled Shenzheners, a few with squirming children who ran unsupervised around the chairs and sometimes on to the platform as I was introduced, in Chinese, along with two other speakers, a headmaster of a local elementary school and a teacher at the same school. What they spoke about - and at great length - according to Alice, who was either too bored or too tired to give specifics, was mostly "rubbish."
My turn to deciminate rubbish arrived and I began. I could only deliver a sentence or two at a time in order to give Alice time to translate and about three quarters through page 1 of my 7 double spaced pages, I realized that the audience was glazing over rapidly and that at the rate we were going I would soon be addressing a hall of coma victims.
"I'm cutting the next two paragraphs," I hissed to Alice after she stopped talking.
She immediately said something in Chinese to the audience.
"No! Don't tell them that!" They had visibly brightened.
"I told them that you thanked them for their attendance."
Nice touch. I liked this woman.
I labored on, with Alice transmuting my chicken shit into some kind of Chinese chicken salad for which I got some polite applause. I then asked for questions, as the other educational experts had done. They'd received plenty.
Nothing.
The female emcee for this debacle then said something.
"What did she say?"
"She is offering a gift to anyone who asks a question."
Immediately, about six hands went up.
The emcee picked a young mother with a squirming daughter. Mom addressed the emcee with her question.
"She wants to know what the gift is," explained Alice.
Suffice to say that she got a metal pencil box in the shape of a sports car for her daughter for asking me if I liked Chinese food.
The next questioner, a man, got a racquet ball racquet for asking me if I could use chop sticks.
But, hey, the joke was ultimately on them. Afterwards, I used part of my fee to treat Alice and I to some expensive pizza that we ate with our hands.

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