In 1997 I was an emergency replacement speaker at a four-day United Nations Round Table in Beijing. It was October and I happened to be in New York for a meeting on socially responsible investments when I got the call. Could I depart in two days? Yes!
I got into line at the Chinese Consul in Manhattan at seven a.m. the next morning. The line already extended half way down the block. Doors opened at nine and we moved quickly into the offices. I held out my documents from the UN Development Programme, the clerk stamped my visa and said, “You got good papers.” I caught a plane that night from New York to Seoul to Beijing.
The conference, about converting military industry to commercial production, was terrific. Twenty foreigners and 40 Chinese army officers and arms manufacturers participated. Young Chinese engineers were passionate about environmental issues. A bureaucrat promised all the old equipment would be scrapped, but older plant managers nodded enthusiastically when I described a St. Louis company that has a computer that measures products with an electric eye —but also has a four-meter square granite table on its own foundation. Every five years a man polishes this table with diamond dust and certifies it as level.
The paper I presented: Technology Transfer: Applying Military Research to Commercial Industry with Examples of Joint Ventures was well received. I had my laptop in New York, and it was loaded with examples I’d garnered in interviews with subcontractors. Back then I was a sort of therapist for failing military contractors, and I stuffed my talk with tales illustrating management retraining and company networking.
I was in China for four days. My visa application was too late to allow me any vacation time. But our hosts took us to the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Ming Dynasty tombs and the Great Wall — all in one day. On the Wall Chinese tourists took more photos of our group than of the scenery, marveling that so many foreigners from so many places (India, Egypt, South Africa, France, Russia, Brazil, USA) could be captured in one picture.
We each had an interpreter. After my presentation, many people had questions and comments, so I was late for lunch and my interpreter was pressing me to hurry. But I had to use the bathroom. I hurried and when I came out, she said, shocked, “You did not wash your hands.” She made me go back and wash my hands.
The food was splendid. Meat, cheese, pickled condiments and endless stuffed rolls for breakfast. Mongolian pots of stew at lunch one day. The mayor of Beijing gave us a dinner at the Emperor’s Summer Palace. There must have been 15 or more round tables, each seating ten: two interpreters, conference participants, and Beijing dignitaries. The food was grand and the conversation was stimulating. Then there was a pause and a line of chefs, wearing their tall white hats, marched out carrying platters. One was placed directly in front of me. It was a white fish, still breathing. The flesh had been filleted and rolled back, skewered into servings that lifted easily off the fish.
Determined to try everything, I took a piece. It was the best fish I ever tasted, cooked, I think, in boiling sugar. The Lazy Susan turned around the table and when it came back to me, the fish was still breathing. I didn’t take a second serving. That’s the most extreme food I’ve ever eaten, the most amazing business trip I’ve ever taken.
* The Great Wall of China, photo credit- Wikipedia