I am an American who has felt a closeness and interest in China from the earliest times I can remember. Despite growing up with chop suey and occasional trips to Chinatown, everything about China, no matter how mundane or kitsch, was exotic and fascinating to me. Fueled by James Clavell novels and TV documentaries, that passion about China led me, in 1979, midway through my university studies, to begin studying Mandarin. My hope was that upon graduation it might lead me to some kind of opportunity in the coming boom in US-China relations. Perhaps it might lead to a career in the US Foreign Service or in some other government capacity. Or perhaps learning Mandarin might lead to some other career in journalism or business. Back in 1979 there was a great buzz in the air about how everything would one day be made in China.
Laszlo Montgomery [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
I graduated in 1981 and moved to Los Angeles to get closer to the Pacific Rim and seek out opportunities that could lead me to a career in China. This was the earliest phase of China's opening up to the outside world. It wasn't as easy and convenient back then to visit China or seek out opportunities as it is now. I moved to Hong Kong in September 1989. I landed at Kai Tak Airport in September 1989 and by October tenth I was working for a very large Hong Kong manufacturer who was playing a role in the miracle going on north of the border in Shenzhen.
From 1989 until I left Hong Kong in 1998, I worked for two different China manufacturers, both publicly traded companies, both typical of the tens of thousands of enterprises who manufactured light industrial consumer goods shipped to the US mass market. In both companies I was the sole Westerner. I enjoyed a front row seat working in this exciting industry not only as a participant but also as a Westerner working inside the China operation. Being fluent in Mandarin, I sat in on important meetings and from all these years working for Chinese companies, I gained an appreciation and understanding of Chinese sensitivities and sensibilities that few foreigners can ever see.
The road I have traveled in this career has been as interesting and fulfilling as much as it has been long and winding. To this day I am still doing the same work I have done since 1989, working as the "Western guy" in the China enterprise. For twenty-two years I have helped Chinese deal with difficult Westerners, opened up doors, managed problems and crises, translated, interpreted, acted as a concierge and tour guide and served as a point man for a variety of projects and what not. And on occasion when my skills are needed for some PR or shoe-shining endeavor, I always represented my China employers well and I know they privately beam with pride when I particularly give them good face in front of foreigners or officials.
I recall in 1979 when many of my friends and relatives had a good laugh at my expense when I commenced my Chinese language studies. Of course it was all good-natured kidding but where I came from it was an extremely unconventional road to take. Of course back in 1979, who knew what 21st century China would be like.
Although I'm sure there are plenty like me out there, I haven't met anyone who took my unique road, being the foreign expert, manager, problem solver, marketing expert and all around liaison to the western world for the Chinese manufacturer/exporter. When I hear the word "bridge" used to describe certain persons or organizations, I look at myself and I can hardly think of a more appropriate metaphor than "a bridge" to describe the essence of my career.
No matter whether I am trying to open a potential customer's door at a trade show or translating for my boss, I am always acting in the capacity of a bridge between my China employers and the US customer or official or potential investor.
After two decades of doing this as a daily job, it has become second nature for me to think of myself as a roving ambassador for America to the Chinese and for China to Americans. In the world of manufacturing there are a myriad of things that can go wrong and do go wrong. Many a China factory has tasted the bitterness that follows some kind of error or misunderstanding on their part that results in a heavy fine or expensive fix to the problem. The penalties for failure are draconian, especially in these unforgiving days. Therefore when disaster would strike, I was the go-to guy in the company to make sure the best interests of the China-side were looked after.
No one at these companies spoke English as well as me nor did anyone have my communication skills and understanding about how Americans view things. After twenty years of working to constantly keep both sides happy about each other, I found my calling in life. Even in daily life, on the streets, malls, parks or at airports, when I come in contact with Chinese in the States or see someone who needs a hand to get them out of a certain situation, many a Chinese visiting in the US recall the friendly "lao wai" who spoke their language and helped them out of a tight spot.
The same interest and passion to learn about China that I felt as a six or seven year old child has never left me. So the nice part about my career is that I have been able to use it as the mechanism to continue my ongoing study of China, Chinese language and culture. Huo dao lao xue dao lao 活到老学到老. Even if I live several more lifetimes I can never truly ever complete learning everything there is to know about China.
Last year in an attempt to explain China to my fellow Americans at a time when I felt increased understanding of China was necessary, I launched a podcast show on the Internet and on iTunes called the China History Podcast. Each week I introduce a new topic from five thousand years of Chinese history. The world wide web is packed with educational podcasts like these and I hardly expected to make even a ripple. The emails I received from listeners all over the world gave me inspiration to "gei li" 给力 in my efforts to keep this going and satisfy a curious and appreciative worldwide audience, all united via the internet in their shared interest in China's history.
After ten or fifteen shows about topics from ancient and modern history I received so many requests from listeners to start at the beginning and slowly cover China's history chronologically, dynasty by dynasty. Listeners from Asia, Africa, Australia, northern and southern Europe and of course in the US and Canada all made the same request. When I uploaded my first episode of this Chinese dynasty series covering Yu the Great and the Xia Dynasty, I thought of the day the Communists left Ruijin for destination unknown back in 1934. Now over more than thirty episodes and half a year later I am at the Qing period and the Taiping Rebellion. Yan'an seems not to far away now.
Like so many thousands of "lao wai" who embraced China studies, my life in China is filled with countless stories and meaningful experiences from encounters with everyone from high ranking Chinese officials, everyday people, casual workers, beggars and everything in between. From every chance meeting I had the great pleasure to learn and appreciate aspects of Chinese culture and history that I now try to pass on in my podcast show and to anyone else in my daily life inquiring about China. It truly has been a wonderful life that all began in May of 1979 when I saw the advert in the local college paper regarding a two semester Chinese language course offered that summer.
I suppose my China story is that the everyday fabric of my life has been so woven closely with the Middle Kingdom. I never did work for the government and didn't even pass the Foreign Service exam. I never became a famous journalist or face in China who achieved great things and made big contributions to US-China relations. My story is that I have worked quietly and anonymously at the grass roots level, helping out these China companies and as a private person doing my daily best to spread goodwill between China and the US, one person at a time. Over the course of my career I have touched many lives in China. Now with my China history podcast show I am reaching out to more people around the world. I feel the best is yet to come.
The author currently lives in southern California. He spent nine years in Hong Kong and now handles US business affairs for a large Ningbo-based group company. In his spare time he produces the China History Podcast (www.ChinaHistoryPodcast.com) each week with listeners in 50 countries.
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