It was Feb 2018. Shanghai was still chilly then, the whole city in a cocoon of smog. Mary and Hua had just picked me up to meet the Qua Xi (“connections”) in QinPu district. On the way there, I could barely see the car ahead of us even though our lights were on and it was 11 o’clock in the morning. I had just flown in from Florida, but I felt as if I had entered another world.
QinPu was once a countryside just outside of Shanghai, but it had become well-developed as Shanghai expanded its territory. Some streets of QingPu still look like the early 90s, when I left China, with old neon signs of barbershops.
After an hour and a half drive, we finally arrived and walked into the building. I sucked in a deep breath. Finally, clean air. Not half a minute later, I almost choked on smoke again when I walked into the closed boardroom.
Mary and I were there seeking help to open a joint US-China corporation. Mary was a year older than me, a successful Chinese businesswoman of more than twenty years. We met at a feminine retreat and our shared goal was to teach Chinese women feminine movement and empowerment.
Hua was Mary’s fiancé and his Uncle had called upon a favor to have all these men in the room.
I scanned the room. Six men sat around a long rectangular table. There were ashtrays next to a few small plates of dry snacks, typical for Chinese people’s social gatherings. The smoke was so thick I could only see the faces of these men as their dark grey dirty suits were indistinguishable from the air around us. Every man had a cigarette between his fingers. All had yellow stained teeth. None were smiling.
From the manner in which they spoke and the way they treated us and each other, I doubt they were well educated. Looking in their late 50s, they spoke with a heavy dialect among themselves that neither Mary nor I could understand.
Hua’s Uncle walked up to the man sitting at the head of the table, smiled, lowered his head and offered him a cigarette.
Then Hua’s Uncle gestured to us, the alpha man looked over and slowly scanned us top to bottom. “Emm…” He nodded his permission. Following Mary’s lead, I pulled a seat across from him and sat down. Immediately, the already heavy smoke got heavier. My eyes started to get water. I always use, “I’m allergic to smoke and alcohol.” whenever I travel in China to deter people from smoking in my presence and from pushing drinks onto me as a hospitality gesture.