After Mr. CEO had massacred my job and visa, I didn’t know how to negotiate with him. In my mind, he had become another Cao Cao — the barbarous warlord of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I’d imagined our meeting on January 22, 2003 again and again — how he shot me down into a timorous, tearful woman.
But this would be different. Just as the sensitive Liu Bei, the compassionate leader of the Kingdom of Shu in the Three Kingdoms, had his strategist, Zhuge Liang, so I had John, my Chinese boyfriend. John didn’t have the arresting appearance of a warrior — but he had an arresting sense of justice. This moved him to challenge the stone factories in his hometown. Now, he wanted to help me challenge my boss.
The night before, he turned my apartment into battle headquarters, where we developed a list of demands for Mr. CEO. If I was to go to Hong Kong for a visa renewal, we wanted Mr. CEO to pay. We expected a guarantee on my company apartment, to stay until the end of February, and my salary for January. And, finally, John added what might just be the most wishful demand of all — an apology. “I’ll accompany you tomorrow, as a witness,” John promised.
Tomorrow morning, John and I advanced into enemy territory — Mr. CEO’s office. I walked in and sat before his mahogany desk and luxurious black leather chair, as if staring down a warlord in his throne room. I had to concentrate hard to push through the fear that ensnared me like a trap net. My mind seemed to live from moment to moment — each word or thought, once spoken or imagined, was immediately forgotten, especially as Mr. CEO confronted us.
“You were wrong to go to the PSB,” Mr. CEO countered. “We already had preparations for your visa.”
Of course he was furious about the call from the PSB. He’d been fined and put on notice for his actions, losing face. Yet, with an expired visa and uncertainty, Mr. CEO forced us to strike. “But you didn’t say that the other day,” I protested. “You told me nothing. What else were we supposed to do?”
“You still did the wrong thing,” Mr. CEO asserted. “You don’t understand China.” I felt nauseous at his words — because part of me wondered just how true they were.
But John wasn’t swayed by Mr. CEO’s words, suit, or even office. “You don’t represent China. The way you do business — without respect to your workers — is not consistent with Chinese values. Your way is not the Chinese way.”
Mr. CEO, of course, would never agree. I froze in my seat, as John and Mr. CEO parried linguistically before me, with Mr. CEO smugly refusing to admit any wrong, defending his lost face. I still don’t remember every word spoken, with fear turning my mind into a empty vessel. Yet I recall this: Mr. CEO, shameless to the end, agreed to every demand (including a promise to extend my visa in Hangzhou, negating a trip to Hong Kong), except for the apology. And John didn’t stop until a firm agreement was reached.
John and I left Mr. CEO, our modern Cao Cao, knowing he still would continue to exploit his little kingdom of a Chinese Internet company. Still, we won our major demands. And, the experience bound us closer, like Liu Bei and his sworn brothers who helped him fight against Cao Cao. John was my sworn love, even in crisis. And, you might say, the couple that battles together, stays together.
Have you ever had to negotiate for your life in China — or another country?
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.