By December 2002, I had seen a lot of things at the Chinese Internet company in Hangzhou, where I worked. But spamming wasn’t one of them — until, in mid-December, when my supervisor, Mr. Fang, had a talk with me.
I was already worried when Mr. Fang asked me to follow him to the conference room. And, after I nervously slid into one the black chairs surrounding the solid black conference table, Mr. Fang did nothing to quell my fears.
“So, I was wondering if you could tell me about what activities you’ve been doing at work these days. Ideally, if you could tell me, down to the hour, that would be great.”
It was the kind of thing that “consultants” usually asked, before recommending an employee’s dismissal — except I was the employee, and Fang was no consultant, but my supervisor. “Is there a problem?”
Fang smiled — a meaningless workplace kind of smile that is either there to comfort others, or simply mask the unfathomable emotions within. Either way, I didn’t know where this was going, until Fang spoke the words. “Well, actually, we have a new task for you. International marketing.”
International marketing? The words threw me backwards, back all the way to my first months at the company, when I was crafting the English content for the company’s portal website. Back then, I’d lobbied hard for honest, practical and effective marketing, such as search engine optimization, or fresh, compelling content, or even e-mail newsletters. But Fang and Mr. CEO weren’t impressed — my ideas didn’t sync with their “website model.”
The company’s website was no model to me. They called it an information portal, but it was just a hi-tech billboard desperate for yet another advertiser to pay up for a cheap, blinking, fluorescent ad. The entire front page had become obscured by the bright pink and ultra green boxes that made it impossible to locate the real content — content that I had written, only to find it buried away in tiny navigation bars or hidden pages.
This time, however, international marketing meant more than just putting my words on a website.
“We’d like you to send out some bulk e-mails to important Western companies in the industry, telling them about us.” Fang had the same, ubiquitous smile, with his arms crossed.
“So, how exactly would I find these companies?”
“Oh, uh, you know, just search them online, and find some e-mail addresses.”
What? I couldn’t do this. I wouldn’t have my name attached to such a thing. I didn’t care what the company did. But as long as I did it, it’s my name, not just the company’s, that would suffer.
I had to stall him. So I tried a noncommittal response first. “Hmmm, I don’t know. The success rate for unsolicited e-mails advertising services is pretty low. I can tell you Americans don’t respond well to this kind of marketing.”
Fang’s smile didn’t budge, and neither did he. “It’s not so hard…really! Maybe I can bring in someone to introduce the international marketing to you?”
A few moments later, he returned with Helen, the sales rep I had roomed with during the Beijing conference, to persuade me. “Helen is our ‘in-house expert,'” Fang chuckled, motioning her to talk about her experience. Yet, in the course of our conversation, even Helen admitted she had received no response from her bulk e-mailings.
Fang wouldn’t let me go, instead approaching me like a parent coaxing a child out of their first-day-of-school jitters. “You don’t really have to sell anything. Just introduce our company, that’s all.”
Introduce what? I thought. The questionable buy and sell offers on the site? The fact that ads seemed to overshadow any useful content? The blatant drive for more revenue, without providing the user a quality experience? But I said nothing, still stunned by the entire meeting.
“You can just try to make friends with them.” Fang grinned at the gentle analogy, yet there was nothing gentle in the suggestion. I thought of the hundreds of well-intentioned Chinese who, in English corner or on the streets, begged to make friends with me. I didn’t want a faux friendship in my personal life — why would I want them at work?
But none of it was mine to want, but to do. Fang didn’t even need to tell me — I could feel it in his indefatigable, cheery expression (one that increasingly struck me as faux friendliness). Fang had passed his edict on to me, like a heavy steele etched with Chinese characters that I had to carry for the rest of my days on the job.
In the end, Fang never forced me to spam. After a week or two of my reluctant starts, he suggested I focus on my original job for the company — writing. Yet, Fang’s conversation vexed me long after I left the conference room.
Because, after all, it wasn’t really a conversation. It was the beginning of my fall in the company.
Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.