It was a lonely existence for me in China. We only had a dial up connection and couldn’t often talk to friends and family back in Canada. Plus, as mentioned in previous letters, there was no community of English-speaking people in Changsha at the time outside of the members of our own team. So, while I had my colleagues, we could not spend all of our time together inside and outside of work.
One day while walking through the market, I did the most sensible thing I could think of and bought a puppy. I named him “Lake” after Lake of the Woods, a large lake that borders Manitoba, Ontario and Minnesota and my favourite place in the world. He was not the usual fluffy small pup that the Chinese people seemed to prefer in their pets. He was a caramel coloured Vizsla.
Lake was malnourished when I bought him and remained quite weak for a while. He broke his leg once when my Chinese colleague tried to teach him how to swim in a shallow river of rocks. Luckily, we found a vet who would do house calls. Once he realized that he was visiting one of the very few white women in the city, his visits became quite comical. He would dress up in a tux and bring along different people every night who also arrived in gala attire. I wanted to be in my PJs, but that felt disrespectful. So, I wore my business attire. I think Lake only needed a few checkups, but it lasted for three weeks.
Lake had his run of the apartment building we lived in. While I was at work, he would run up and down the stairs all day. He was my best friend and every chance we got we would go for a walk. House pets, especially dogs, were not so frequent there. So both of us would get quite the stares. Lake moved with me to Romania and then to Prague. Once he was getting a bit old and was not well liked by our Great Dane (another story to come), he moved to Canada to live with my parents. He enjoyed summers at their cottage and winters at their chalet. He was very loved and spoiled by my parents, who treated him like a prince for the remainder of his fifteen-year life.
But, back to China. As expats I should explain how our company’s agreement was structured with the Chinese government and was meant to work. It was set up where we would advise our Chinese counterpart in our area of expertise. This arrangement was set up to look like we were equal partners. But, in reality, those who worked for the Chinese company held all of the power. They were heavily connected to the government, with many of them being officers within the Red Army.
These were the associates we were working with on a daily basis. We tried hard to influence our counterparts, but it was a frustrating and mostly impossible task. During this time, I realized I could not be a “consultant” where I would sit back and watch to see if my suggestions would be implemented. I prefer being operational and to be the thinker and the doer within any team or company.
In China, I was head of marketing and sales and my counterpart was a woman I will call Ms. S. Most of the staff came to us already with an English name selected. However, some wanted us to select their name. So I chose the names of my friends back home: Marla, Kelly, Rachel. I thought this would make me feel closer to them and my friends did love hearing about their namesake from another country. I wouldn’t follow this again though, as I would be respectful enough to call them by their birth name.
Working with Ms. S proved to be a handful. I soon discovered that she was a senior officer in the communist party and I struggled many times to understand her motives. I realized just how dangerous she could be to not only our business, but possibly our safety, when she got us involved with the Triads (a notorious crime organization in China that you want to stay clear of!).
One of the projects I was working on with Ms. S was to solicit bids from several firms to present their visions of our advertising strategy. We received presentations from five companies and Ms. S was strongly advocating for us to choose a particular one. All were below my expectations, but by far the weakest was her preferred supplier.
When I proposed selecting another supplier, the shit hit the fan! That evening, she told me first that all five companies had to be paid for their pitches. She also insisted that one of the advertising companies that pitched would need to be paid a lot more than the other four. I questioned her on this and she confided that she had already accepted money from one of the companies. And since we did not select them, they want their money back.
The company in question was a front for the local Triads. Their CEO was an arrogant guy who had no qualms about imparting threats and he had apparently threatened Ms. S that there would be consequences if the money was not paid back.
It was certainly a nerve-wracking experience. We decided to pay all five companies a ‘presentation fee’ and not pick any of them. But we held off on the big sum to the Triads. I was truly scared afterwards and went to Hong Kong to take a few days break.
We ended up talking to the Mayor about the issue, as even after the small fee was paid, they were not letting up. The next thing we heard was that the main person harassing us was executed in Centre Square.
A few months later, I heard that the same person had also been running a prostitution ring and that was why he had been killed! I tried to keep moving forward, assuming that it was the prostitution that had gotten him killed, as opposed to his foray with Ms. S.
This was just the start of our troubles, and my experiences with Ms. S. Next week, we will dive into the experience that finally made me realize this project was a losing battle.
~ Karla xoxo
Karla Stephens-Tolstoy has stage 4 chronic cancer, diagnosed in 2018. She is Her2 negative, IDC. She takes 50 pills daily, including Ibrance and letrozole, her cancer fighting pills. Karla is the co-owner of the online store StandUpSpeakUp.ca with her son, Zach. Through this venture, they are proud donors to various charities. All proceeds of their limited edition Healing and Empowerment Scarves are donated to Wellspring Cancer Support Centre.