Friday, July 22, 2005
On my way to the Beijing Grand Hyatt today, I was busy memorizing Chinese translations of English words. One of my close friends had helped me got an English-Chinese interpreter job at a big seminar on online marketing. I had done a few Chinese-English interpretations before so I accepted the offer with many assurances to him that I could do the job well.
It wasn’t until when I got into the cab that I realized I was so unfit for the job. English has become second nature to me, while Chinese requires conscious mental processing. I was mumbling to myself the Chinese translations of “Relevance”, “Define a market”, “Sales”, “Drive”, “Measure” and “Transactions”, etc. I made a few calls to my friends for help, one of whom felt sorry for me that I had so pitifully lost my native tongue. Then I started laughing.
It’s truly ironic that I’m doing the same memorization drills as I did in high school and college, except it was English vocabulary then and Chinese words now. What a circle.
At the seminar, I was introduced to a very young CEO of a famous American sports-brand’s online subsidiary. When we reviewed his slides together during the break, I asked why he included several graphs on the monthly traffic numbers to his website. He said he suspected that the Chinese Internet companies do not operate based on numbers; he wanted to remind them the importance of numbers.
For a moment, I stared at him speaking in that childish or arrogant (depending on how you look at it) tone of his and remembered the article I had just read in the China Internet Weekly magazine. The magazine interviewed Chen Nian, a co-founder of Joyo, an online retailer that had been acquired by Amazon recently. Chen was rumored to be leaving the company, which he did not deny or confirm. Asked how he felt after the acquisition by Amazon, he answered:
Chen: … Amazon came to China with a strong culture and a strong sense of superiority.
China Internet Weekly (CIW): When you say “strong culture”, are you referring to the corporate culture?
Chen: Let me give you an example. Recently we all have been talking about patriotism. Our generation in the 1980s were once very lost, spiritually. We even thought how great it would be if we were all one big family and no longer had any concept of nation. But after these many years I finally realized – nationalities and personalities are tightly related. When you are faced with a person from a strong culture, he would not rid himself of his discrimination towards your weak culture just because you yourself are outstanding. Absolutely not!
CIW: So was there any discrimination like this during Amazon’s acquisition of Joyo?
Chen: I wouldn’t comment on this statement. I only want to tell you that this is not an issue of corporate issue. It’s a cultural issue. …
The article seemed pretty odd for a tech magazine, with such a lengthy discussion of cultural discrimination. Also a bit heartrending. The portrait of Chen accompanying the article looked as if he was about to cry.
So when I was listening to the young CEO telling me how he would like to come to China and educate the market, I couldn’t help wonder – how much of the Chen’s disillusionment arose from his own superiority-inferiority issues and how much from Amazon’s arrogance?
I told the CEO not to spend too much time on the numbers, knowing the Chinese Internet companies tracked the same numbers as their American counterparts. Then the conversation moved on to his big plans in China, following the now familiar logic – China has a big market, a huge market (!); there’s no category leader for the segment his company is in; they already have manufacturing in China; they’ll win the market once they decide to invest in marketing…
The CEO looks no older than 26. His eyes sparkled when he spoke. He also told me excitedly that he had been telling his friends to convert US dollars into Chinese Renminbi in anticipation of Renminbi’s appreciation. Last night China unpegged the Renminbi’s link to the dollars and the Renminbi appreciated 2%.
“It’s just the starting of the trend. But it surely feels good to get what I’ve been saying validated.” He then winked at me. “Know why I was late for lunch? I went to the bank and changed a lot more dollars into Renminbi.” He had already converted some before the rise of the Renminbi.
“The States are spending on credit from China. Now the Renminbi appreciates, it would make little sense for the Chinese government to continue buying US treasury bonds. And once China stops buying US treasury, the interest rate would go up and then no more consumer spending.”
Basically, he was predicting the collapse of the US economy and a continued rise of Renminbi. “That’s why I started learning Chinese two years ago. The future is here, man.” He continued on in an excitement that’s almost like agitation. “Within five years, I say, the Renminbi will go four to a dollar”, he said, implying a 50% drop in dollars’ value against the Chinese currency. “And when I get back home, I’ll ask to take over all distributions in China.”
My interpretation work turned out not as bad as I had feared. I wrote down a list of Chinese vocabulary and constantly referred to it. I laughed at some of speakers’ jokes but when I translated them, none of the Chinese audiences laughed. So I made a mental note not to attempt to translate jokes any longer.
When I got home, I made myself a cup of tea and read New York Times online. I read Paul Krugman’s op-ed “China Unpegs Itself”. Suddenly I realized that some paragraphs were very similar, almost verbatim, to what the young CEO had said to me this afternoon. I wondered if he had read the op-ed and decided then and there to move his assets to a Chinese bank and move to China to take charge of the parent company’s China business.
Then I made another mental note to myself – it’s time to brush up on my Chinese skills, now the New York Times has also agreed that the US economy depends on China. Maybe even going to a riverside every morning to memorize Chinese vocabulary, like what I used to do with English in high school.