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.
But here, I realized my preference didn’t matter. It was like a spell had been cast in the air. It said “bow and play by our rules.”
The Uncle started to introduce the men to us. “This is...” Titles were super important in these meetings. One was secretary of the communist party. The others were heads of this or that bureau.
Multiple sets of eyes were looking at Mary and me, maybe more me than Mary as I was introduced as a teacher from America -- a Chinese turned foreigner.
Mary was accustomed to dealing with these types of men in China. Her manner was no longer the powerful woman I had gotten to know in the last few months. I watched as she played herself low, almost like a less educated naive young girl. She posed no threat to the men in power. I found myself following her lead and transformed into pleaser, no longer bright, much smaller.
I felt like a foreigner, who doesn't understand the language or the culture. That is, the language the men spoke among themselves and the culture the men set up in this world.
This scene has haunted me over the past couple of years.
Why was I playing dumb and naive with those yellow-toothed men in a small room filled with smoke when I was received by the president of a nation with respect? Why?!
What made me behave that way?
I had dimmed my light. I wasn’t strong enough to not let the outside world bother me. Instead I conformed to the environment and lost my spark.
Today, as I am writing this article in a small trailer in the middle of a desert in New Mexico, my request in life is no longer about saving the world and being the hero.
Now I am on a quest to find my own inner peace. I know I can only find peace within.
Faith is getting me there.