These days, I seem to be doing a lot of traveling and a lot of talking. The traveling, unfortunately, does not take me to the mom- and-pop pickle store in Dali, or a breathtaking valley in Shangri-la, but rather New York or Boston. The talking is less about traveling to China, and more about why I have choosen travel as a profession. People tend to be very curious after they learn that I have a Harvard MBA and used to work for McKinsey as a management consultant.
Just last week, I took our young DC office intern, Sammie, along to Boston, because I was the guest speaker in a Harvard Business School classroom where the MBA students were to examine the WildChina case. Sammie was eager to see what a famed MBA class looked like. I don’t know what she got out of the classroom, but I got something out of the journey.
I pre-warned Sammie that I travel light, a carry-on suitcase and a purse. No checked luggage. She came prepared. Well done, I thought, until we got to the security line. I breezed through the detector and was putting on my boots at the other end. Two people cut in front of Sammie while she was busy removing her metal bracelets, belts, laptop, digital camera… she was obviously getting frazzled. I smiled at her, and told her she should watch “Up In the Air.” George Clooney’s Ryan definitely got the airport system worked out, and that comes with repetition.
The Blue line subway station at the airport didn’t seem anything new to Sammie. She was used to subway rides in Beijing, where she studied at one of the top universities. However, the “Downtown Crossing” stop was an eye opener: “ WOW, 美国的地铁怎么那么破呀?´ (Wow, How can American subways look so grungy!) Yes, the walls were dirty and covered with dust that had accumulated over the years; the lighting was dim; and there was a musician playing guitar in a corner.
Her shock was justified — who would have expected to see subways of this condition in America, after riding the brand new lines in Beijing? The subway stations in Beijing all sport bright lighting, with colorful ads for the newest model of cell phone and Nike shoes.
“Mei jie (“Sister Mei” in Chinese – that’s what she calls me), you walk so fast! Do you do this all the time? Is this what an entrepreneur does?”
I told her that the English word of “entrepreneur” glorified my job. Entrepreneur is often translated into Chinese as 创业者，or 企业家, but the version I like best is 个体户 — a single-unit entity, pronounced GE-TI-HU. GE-TI-HU often reminds me of the dumpling vendor in the old alley way not far from my apartment in Beijing.
It was a husband and wife stall. They got up at 4am to start making the fresh dumplings for the day by hand. The first clients would arrive around 6:30 am, and the last ones left around 8 or 9 at night. They mixed their own dough, cleaned all the tables, and washed all the dishes themselves. They made a grand total of RMB 3000 per month — about $350 in those days. They had a baby and thought they had the best lives, compared to their relatives back at home in the villages near Shanghai.
I went back to look for them again last year, but they were gone. Where their stall once was is now the construction site of a new apartment building. I just hope they have a similar stall in other parts of Beijing, or back home.
On the trip, I told Sammie that my job is “搞业务的”, or “Sales or Business Development” in English. A long time ago, I never really understand what 搞业务的 meant in Chinese. To me, it often conjured up the image of a young male in a cheap suit, holding a fake leather case, handing out business cards with a huge smile on his face. But, after years of airport travel, subway rides, and rental car trips, I have finally came to terms with this title for myself. Yes, 我是搞业务的。 I am a salesperson, because I am proud of what I am selling – a different experience in China. wildchinajourneys.com