Authors: Eden Collinsworth
ALSO BY EDEN COLLINSWORTH
It Might Have Been What He Said
Copyright © 2014 by Eden Collinsworth
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies.
is a registered trademark of Random House LLC. Nan A. Talese and the colophon are trademarks of Random House LLC.
Jacket design by Gabriele Wilson
Jacket illustration by Roderick Mills/Heart Agency
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
I stand corrected : how teaching Western manners in China became its own unforgettable lesson / Eden Collinsworth. —First edition.
ISBN 978-0-385-53869-5 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-0-385-53870-1 (eBook)
1. Collinsworth, Eden. 2. Business etiquette—Study and teaching—China. 3. Businesspeople—Western countries—Social life and customs. 4. Etiquette—Western countries. 5. Etiquette—China. 6. Western countries—Social life and customs. 7. China—Social life and customs.
TO MY FATHER, AND FOR MY SON
You can be comfortable at home for a thousand days, or step out the door and run into trouble.
I do not claim to be an expert on China, and though this book includes my personal opinions on that subject, it is an adventure story rather than an analysis. Everything I describe happened, but I have changed the names of some of the people. It was the polite thing to do.
n the early 1980s, I was invited by a delegation of Chinese businessmen to visit Shenzhen. It was during China’s progressive campaign of economic “opening up,” and this former fishing village was growing into a booming metropolis constructed with what looked to be gigantic Lego pieces. At the time, I was twenty-nine. I was also tall, fair skinned, and redheaded, so when I arrived in Shenzhen, it was easy for the Chinese to believe I might have come not from America but from another planet entirely.
“What do you mean, he’s asked how much I am?” was my stunned question to the colleague acting as my translator at a business dinner.
“Just that,” he told me.
All at the table had been drinking a great deal of
distilled liquor with a high level of alcohol—and I asked my colleague if the man inquiring was sober.
“He seems to be,” was the answer.
“Have you correctly translated?” I asked. “Surely he’s asked how much it would cost to buy the company we represent.”
“No. He means the cost for you, as a woman,” reiterated my colleague. “Our guest has just inquired about taking permanent possession of you.”
Latching on to whatever composure had not yet deserted me, I pointed out that I was not just a woman—I was also the
president of a company. “One who happens to be the host this evening,” I made clear.
“I can translate what you’ve just said,” volunteered my colleague. “But it won’t matter.”
“Why not?” I wanted to know.
“Because he believes that your gender makes your professional rank insupportable.”
And there it was. A full-in-the-face statement that forced upon me the irrefutable difference between my self-image and my status in China. Whatever I may have considered myself, I was at that time, in that place, a Western luxury item possibly to be purchased.
“What would you like me to tell him?” asked my colleague.
It took a moment before I realized it wasn’t so much that I needed to surrender my self-image as that I should consider suspending it for the sake of what might be future business in China. Making a bottom-line calculation with that in mind, I responded with falsehoods calibrated to avoid embarrassment.
“First, thank him for his interest,” I instructed my colleague. “Next tell him I am extremely flattered. And then let him know that, sadly, I belong to someone else.”
Five years after a man in China tried to buy me, I gave myself away for free to another in my own country.
Marriage rewarded me with intoxicating happiness. It also pummeled me with impossibilities levied by a man I nonetheless adored. During a particularly desperate time—believing my husband would change course if he understood what was at stake—I spoke to him of separation. His response was starkly final. He left.
The end of our fifteen-year marriage unmoored my heart and stole my bearings. It also resulted in our eleven-year-old son, Gilliam, being left solely in my care. Inconsolable, I put my trust in time. And with time I realized that, despite the nonnegotiable requirement to support myself and Gilliam, I could choose what was next for us both.
It is often our subconscious self that underlies the choices we make. And so it must have been with my far-reaching decision
to travel with Gilliam. That decision—more instinctive than cohesive—moved me off a single career path toward a wide vista of varied occupations. For the remaining years of Gilliam’s adolescence, an e-mail service notified me each Wednesday of discounted airfares to international cities. By learning the system of last-minute hotel deals, I could afford to take us on a long weekend in a different foreign place every second month. Seamlessly changing countries, we became a nation of two.
Granted, it was an unorthodox way to raise a son, but there was a screwball comedy buoyancy about it. And nothing in our decade-long saga was as preposterous as the fact that it worked.
Given his upbringing, it wasn’t entirely unexpected that at eighteen Gilliam, who was attending a Japanese school, chose to study Chinese at a British university. Two years later his academic program placed him at a Beijing university.
The Chinese have always revered education. Five hundred years before Christ, Confucius set in motion the ideal of rule by educated leaders, and the nature of China’s educational system has been central to its cultural identity ever since. Making education available to the masses holds out the promise of upward mobility for anyone who can survive the rigors of study and examinations. But “survive” is the operative word. In China, college openings are limited, and students struggle under what translates to “the glory of high scores” in preparation for taking
, the life-changing national college entrance exam. Gilliam observed that the extremely competitive nature of the Chinese system, the extraordinarily long hours of repetitive study, the expectation to conform and fit in, the lack of encouragement for creative expression—all of these factors seemed to create roadblocks for the young to achieve an advanced level of emotional intelligence.
He called me one day with an idea.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that China’s school system is producing socially disconnected kids,” he told me. “And I’m wondering if their parents would pay for an after-school program.”
“What kind of program?” I asked.
“Classes for improvement in something like etiquette,” he said.
We discussed Gilliam’s business proposition until I remembered unpleasant news. My voice dropped when the subject changed.
“Bangkok is looking less likely for your birthday,” I said in a sober tone.
“Something’s happened,” Gilliam guessed correctly.
“I’m afraid Sondhi’s been shot,” I told him.
“Is he dead?” asked Gilliam.
“Luckily, no. But his driver is.”
“Mother, listen, I’m glad they haven’t managed to kill Sondhi, but I’d like to live to see a few more of my birthdays, and the odds increase if I avoid your friends who incite riots in politically unstable countries.”