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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Chinese New Year - The Banquet

The stage is two feet high and the lights are hot. I’m in my casual brown suit, soaking wet with beer and holding an empty baby bottle. This is the first impression 1,200 of my co-workers have of me.

The company is hosting it’s annual banquet for Chinese New Year. The whole company eats, and drinks, and drinks, and drinks and puts on shows for four hours. There is nothing like this in the US. Employees here expect it. The Senior managers all must participate in some sort of skit. Some put on costumes that look like bastardized Saturday morning cartoon characters, some dance. There are two acts involving simply stunning women. Employees. Volunteers. One set does dance routines with bare midriffs and spandex and one show-casing traditional Chinese attire. They are huge hits with the crowd. My business spider-sense tingles…this is lawsuit territory in the US.

There are so many empty 755ml bottles on all the 135 tables. So many empty cases of beer as not to be believed. It’s hard to drop the business wariness and I’m a little on edge. Everyone is having a very good time. It’s easy to see the bonding happening. It’s an ocean of people. No spouses are present. There is so much special food, so unusual to my eyes...chicken feet, fish head, chicken presented with the head on the plate, cooked shrimp with head still attacheded. Someone explains that the moving parts are best.

I’m only able to understand bits of what the MC’s are saying, they are also employees. First skit is due up and it seems they are calling for volunteers. One of the seniors starts shouting my name. Um…What? Four hours before I was told I would have to make a short speech. I practiced two lines of Chinese for three hours. One hour before I was told the speech is off. My name is now being yelled from other tables, momentum builds and I am trapped, but also flattered. I start up to the stage and several others trickle out of the sea of people and line up under the hot lights. We are being video taped. Another senior takes pity, I think, and comes to stand next to me. I don’t understand what the MC’s are saying, but a tray comes up with baby bottles full of beer. Ah…crystal clear now. It’s a race to see who can finish the beer through the nipple first.

I have a few seconds to craft a strategy…venting will be important I think. San, Er, Yi…3, 2, 1…and I’m sucking to win! I realize I can squeeze the bottle for faster flow rate. I squeeze harder and the top bursts, soaking me. But it’s too late, I’m already out of the running.

Later, still sticky with beer, I float from table to table. From recognized face, to recognized face and the other seniors introduce me to their teams. The teams are happy, young and eager. My team will be like them. I hope I can reach them, train them, help them develop and be successful. Lead.

I say in spotty, recently learned mandarin "Wo yingwen shuo de hen hao, ke shi wo putonghua shuo de bu hao. Xin nian kuai le" ... I speak english very well, but I speak mandarin very badly. Happy New Year! I raise a very small glass and shout "kan pei!" We all drink together.

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