Go East, Young Man

Fear and Loathing at the Chinese Consulate

Plus, Slate’s China reading list.

This was administrative week—a welcome relief, given the bruising I took last week for suggesting that the migration of low-end manufacturing jobs to China was not only inevitable, but, in many ways, good. This week I studied quietly, bought my plane tickets, and applied for a visa.

Even these activities, it turned out, led to an embarrassing confrontation with my ignorance. First, I wasn’t sure whether I even needed a visa—no country I’ve visited in the last decade has required one. (I do.) Second, I wasn’t sure what else I’d need. Slate readers have taught me that China is essentially two countries, one First World, one Third World, the equivalent of Frankfurt plopped into Guatemala. This observation, combined with a recent New York Times article about an epidemic of “snail fever” (aka schistosomiasis) made me wonder whether I had to get shots.

Then there was the transportation question. I had this romantic idea that I’d take the train from Shanghai to Beijing—me and my business suit in a car full of farmers and chickens. Then, I learned from the Internet that the trip would take some 13 hours, too long for my cover-China-in-two-weeks itinerary. So I called a travel agent and opted for air—Dragon Air. Despite my decade as a Wall Street road warrior, I’ve never been big on jet travel, even First World jet travel, and Third World jet travel is another thing altogether. The travel agent hadn’t heard of Dragon Air, either, which didn’t set me at ease. His Sinologist colleague assured him (and me) that it was fine, but I couldn’t shake the image of Cultural Revolution-era Aeroflots and Communist maintenance practices.

Meanwhile, in the visa department, China wasn’t doing a bang-up job of stoking my enthusiasm for “going east.” Despite my broadband connection, the consulate’s Web site repeatedly failed to load. Finally, after 12 hours of trying, I sucked down enough data to glean where and when I could apply for a visa in person. This morning, I went.

In New York, anyway, when it comes to consular real estate, China got the shaft. No 19th-century, Upper East Side mansion for this emerging superpower. China’s consulate is a cookie-cutter rectangle on the corner of 12th Avenue and 42nd Street, overlooking the West Side Highway and the docks of the Circle Line. As I made the pilgrimage west from Times Square, trudging into the icy wind, wiping construction grit from my eyes, I figured that the journey might be best conducted as a tribute to the late Hunter S. Thompson.

I’d brought along The China Dream, Joe Studwell’s chronicle of centuries of idiot foreigners trying to “crack the greatest untapped market on earth,” as an ironic prop, but I didn’t even get to open it. In the consulate lobby, feeling guilty about being oblivious to the plight of the Falun Gong protesters outside, I was shooed through the metal detector into a Department of Motor Vehicles-like waiting room. I took a number, sat in a plastic bucket seat beside an incongruous, rock-sculpture fountain, and began to fill out the visa form. Then, even without pharmaceuticals, the experience became vaguely Thompson-esque:

AFFIX PASSPORT PHOTO HERE. Passport photo! Oh, Christ, I’ve forgotten to get a passport photo. I’ve wasted the trip!

Wait, why do I need a passport photo? Why can’t I just Xerox the one in my passport? And just my luck that this appears to be the only DMV waiting room in history in which I won’t have time to hike to Times Square and back before my number is called. Oh, wait, there’s an in-house photographer!

Of course there’s an in-house photographer. In fact, the system has clearly been designed to make me use the in-house photographer. She no doubt charges Shylock rates—if she’ll even take my picture. This is China—and I don’t have guanxi!

No line, no bribes, a pretty smile, and a (relatively) reasonable $8 for a last-minute Polaroid? What’s the catch? No catch? Just a quick blow of the hair-dryer on the Polaroid paper and I’m done? How do I say “Thank you” in Chinese? Should I bow, too? Do they bow in China—or is that just Japan? If I bow, will I trigger some deep xeno-driven offense (“The clueless bastard thinks all Asians look alike!”)?

They’re about to call my number! Quick—finish the form! Does “home address” mean “residence address” or “mailing address”? If I write my mailing address, will I be accused of fraud?

If I hadn’t already been accused of fraud, I wouldn’t be filling out this damn form. I’d be sitting at some cushy hedge-fund applying for a visa by mail—while looking forward to helicopter tours of the Great Wall and investor soirees in the Forbidden City with dim sum and chardonnay.

I finished the visa form and shoved it under the bulletproof glass to a scowling “Ms. Ding.” She shoved back a receipt and told me to pick up my visa on Monday.

Slate’s China Reading List. Several readers have requested that I post a running bibliography as I cram frantically in an attempt to avoid sounding like the China moron I am. Here are some of the books I’ve read to date:

Mr. China. Tim Clissold’s memoir about rolling up Chinese auto-parts factories in the 1990s, which I describe in detail here. One reader dismissed the book as “Gordon Gekko-era stuff,” but it is superb.

Cowboys and Dragons: Shattering Cultural Myths To Advance Chinese/American Business. An explanation of why and how Chinese and American businesspeople “think differently” and what to do about it. By Charles Lee, once a Chinese national, now a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist.

Harvard Business Review on Doing Business in China. HBR articles from 1994 to present about multiple aspects of foreign-China business, including negotiation, “hidden dragons” (powerful Chinese companies), marketing, company-structure, etc.

China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World. Ted Fishman’s new bible on China business, history, and economics. The first 100 pages are excellent, and Fishman seems optimistic about the China gold rush. The New York Times claims the book sags at the end, but if yet another ex-Wall Streeter can write this well, there’s hope for me yet.

The China Dream. Joe Studwell’s 400-page chronicle about “The Quest for the Last Great Untapped Market on Earth.” Studwell has a pessimistic outlook on the current China gold rush, viewing it as simply one in a long string of China gold rushes in which foreigners have slobbered in excitement, invested jillions, and lost their shirts. From what I’ve read, Studwell’s analysis sounds sober, but several readers have suggested that the reason he’s so dismissive is that he’s pissed that he himself isn’t getting rich. Whatever the motivation, it’s a well-written book.

Life and Death in Shanghai. Nien Cheng’s memoir about the Cultural Revolution. Don’t miss this one. A member of Shanghai’s postwar aristocracy, Cheng was ripped from her house by Red Guards, ordered to confess her crimes (working for Shell), and jailed for six years because she didn’t. The book is a vivid illustration of not only the meaning of human character and will but how entire societies can temporarily go insane. Along with another memoir (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by a French magazine editor who suffered a stroke that paralyzed everything but his eyelids), Life and Death serves as an inspirational kick in the butt whenever I get to feeling sorry for myself.

As always, please send suggestions and feedback to chinagoldrush@yahoo.com.