Thursday, January 8, 2009


Change often comes suddenly and without notice, questions or explanation here. In my first few months in Shenzhen I lost my bank. One week it was there, the next no trace, only a sealed over enormous cement slab where it had been. It took me about a week to find that it had relocated about three blocks away. Perhaps a notice had been posted in Chinese. And maybe none at all. The latter is as likely as the former I've long sinced learned.

About five months after coming to Beijing I had some midnight noodles and a tepid beer in a barely lit, grubby 24 hour noodle shop across from my apartment. It was part of a small group of private businesses, among them a small fruit, produce and tobacco shop, a pirate DVD setup, a ramshackle barbecue stand, and a liquor store where a 14- or 15-year-old daughter of the owner used to take some glee from uncorking the occasional bottle of cheap Chinese red plonk for me because I lacked a corkscrew at home and could never seem to find one to buy. I'd make an exaggerated "plop!" sound when the cork sprang free and she'd giggle - a small pleasure for us both. The noodle shop had no real appeal other than 24 hour service but it was cheap and reliable. About 13 hours after finishing my last noodle meal, I emerged from my apartment and looked across the street to find it was all gone; as if a noiseless bomb had decimated the block. No noodle shop, no liquor store, no fruit or barbecue, no 14-year-old wine steward. She'd been replaced with strange migrant workers gutting the buildings.

The day after Thanksgiving I received an email notice from what passes for my employer's Human Resources office telling me that my contract, which expires in February, would not be renewed. The explanation - a steaming heap o' dung about reallocating resources despite my "valuable contributions" to China Daily etc - made no sense from my point of view. I'd been a near-model worker. Versatile, on time, met deadlines, minimal tantrums, eager to help out and had been asked to give writing and reporting seminars on my own time, something I enjoyed.

When I protested politely I was told that the decision was final. A "Committee" composed of no one I'd heard of except one Indian editorial lickspittle stooge called "Master R---" by his Chinese handlers had decided my fate. None of "The Committee" were my editors, supervisors or had any first hand knowledge of my work. The decision was final. Kafka came to mind but the HR woman hadn't heard of him and seemed surprised that I would question The Committee's decision.

In past weeks two Chinese reporters sitting near me have disappeared with no notice. One day there, the next gone. Had The Committee decided their fate? Were my job woes viral? No one was saying. It was as if a Chinese Scotty had beamed them up or they'd been suddenly dispatched to the countryside to feed pigs or be fed to them. I finally ran into one in the elevator and asked her where she had gone and why. She named a department in the building unconnected to her journalism degree and interests and shrugged when I asked her why. I still have no idea where the other has gone.

Though sudden, the changes have not been all bad. The noodle shop was replaced by a 7-Eleven which in a glorious holiday miracle, opened for business on Christmas Day. Say what you will about the evils of sterile corporate globalization, I'll take a spacious, clean, brightly-lit 24-hour fresh sushi, fruit, beer, saki, broiled chicken, dumplings, toilet paper, razor blades place any day over the cramped, 40-watt, tepid beer and cigarette butts-on-the-floor alternative. Though I still miss the teenage oenophile.

And I have a new gig pending helping launch a new English language paper in Beijing. I'm the first barbarian my soon-to-be employers have ever hired. Kind of a Marco Polo of 21st century Chinese journalism ... well, yes, I exaggerate. Let's just say it could be the beginning of a great adventure or blow up suddenly with no explanation. Just ask The Committee.


john said...

Good luck Justin -

Remember, in a land of small people the Barbarian is king!

Anonymous said...

Do you think it's related to your blogging activities?

Ben said...

Congrats on the new job, or should I say your "opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a new publishing empire"...

Your comment about sterile corporate environs reminds me of the days travelling with road bands and, after many "colorful" hotel stays (the most notable of which was the Irish Pub in Pueblo, Colorado on St. Patty's Day weekend, where our band after sleeping one night in the digs upstairs, the kind of place one really doesn't want to touch the mattress, decided to drive back to Boulder at 3:00 a.m. instead) found that Holiday Inns and Best Westerns were a welcome, clean, and often sanitary choice.

Anyway, a very Happy Western New Year to you, and here's a glass raised to New Starts, and heroism in the face of run-on sentences.

Justin said...

I kinda doubt my blogging had anything to do with it. As it happens, I wasn't the only casualty.
Three other foreigners, all with more time than me here, also got the boot and more are sure to follow.
The "reallocation of resources" we've figured out seems to involve hiring cheaper Indian labor recruited by "Master R---" (we've dubbed them the Mumbai Mafia) to replace more expensive native English speakers.
The Chinese have no idea about the differences between how many - not all - Indians write and speak English.
It's truly a separate form of English sprinkled with Victorian-era phrases, quaint, antiquated terms and outmoded grammatical rules that are already showing up in the paper. But hey, if they want the paper to read like the Mumbai Tattler, it's their money.

pdm said...

Justin my man, hope this new change is a good one for you. You seem to have fairly good luck at least finding new gigs with a quickness. All the best to you, as usual!

Peter said...

Sorry to hear about the lay-off, but at least you got a new job fast. Hope it works out well :-)