The first thing you need to know about Hot Spring Leisure City is that there were no hot springs.
It was January, and each hotel room had a bathtub the size of a kiddie pool on the balcony filled with construction tubes that looked like a cross between pig intestines and telephone wire. I called down to say something about it, but no one at the hotel really gave a shit. The important thing was that there was a telephone in the bathroom and a TV with 41 channels, and that every one of the company’s 2000 rural employees could say that they, too, had visited the capital.
“I feel warmer just looking at that sandbar,” said a Sichuanese woman, fanning herself with the paper schedule.
“I can almost see myself in that reflective pond,” declared a stocky accountant from Hebei, peering into the cloudy water like a modern-day Narcissus.
The rainforest-themed lobby of Hot Spring Leisure City could have been a modern art exhibit entitled The World After Nature. The vines that wrapped their way up faux-marble columns were made of thin polyester, palm trees were forged from PVC, and the shallow pools of stagnant water bore as much resemblance to lakes as the empty basins upstairs to hot springs. But if I squinted hard enough, I could almost imagine it from the vantage of my awestruck colleagues, conjuring images I thought better suited to the palatial estates of Martha’s Vineyard than the sooty outskirts of Beijing.
On the first day, my entire department was called in for dress rehearsal with the company’s top brass, tasked with making sure the presentation cues were easy enough for the General Manager to follow without embarrassing himself on stage. My boss, meanwhile, content with my chief function in the organization – entertaining visiting foreigners more culturally ignorant than me – found little for me do at a company retreat consisting almost entirely of Chinese nationals.
So in between company presentations, I spent most of my time at Registration, a normal hotel room twin that moonlighted as a stockroom. Wei Wei from HR had the bad luck of drawing the room and was responsible for answering questions from clueless visitors about where to go next and what time meals were being served. After dinner, though, was when it really thinned out, so the two of us killed time smoking cigarettes and flipping through channels on TV.
“So what do you think of the emcee?” I asked him during one of the long commercial breaks.
“You mean that girl from marketing?”
“Who else?” I peppered back, as if I would have bothered to mention anyone else. Lina was hands-down the most attractive female employee at the company: jet-black hair that nearly reached her ass, a rail-thin waist, and a chest that was impossibly large for the rest of her body. As host, she squeezed herself into a black sequined dress that barely covered her upper thighs.
Wei Wei sat cross-legged on the bed, wearing the red polo shirt stitched with the company logo that was mandatory dress code for all employees for the weekend. He had a curious grin on his face and kept one hand on a packet of cigarettes that rarely left his side. During lunch breaks at work, he liked to ask me questions about America: “What are the girls like,” he would probe, his eyes growing large in his head. “And what do they like to do?”
“I can’t believe you’re talking about Lina again,” he said pointedly.
“I was just asking a question.”
“Her outfit’s nice,” Wei Wei offered, fiddling with the TV remote.
“Nice?” I shot back. “Is that all?”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, baring his teeth, “I think she’s beautiful. I mean, there’s no question she’s beautiful. It’s just that—”
“She’s easily the best looking girl at this entire retreat.”
“Look, it’s not that she’s not attractive, it’s just that we don’t really do that here.” He pawed at his shirt, pulling it back and forth like he was fanning a stove. “That’s your country, remember?” He sat up on the bed, propping himself with both arms.
“Chinese girls should be reserved,” he declared, as if he was quoting Confucius. “You look at Lina and everything is right there in plain sight.” He held up both hands in the air. “Where’s the mystery in that?”
Just then, there was a knock at the door. We vaulted off the beds and stubbed our cigarettes in the plastic ashtray on the table. Much to Wei Wei’s relief, in the doorway was Zhangbing, one of the other account managers, whose tall frame was only magnified by the paltry space in the room. The two of us shared a cubicle wall at work, but in the six months I’d been working there, he hadn’t spoken a single word to me.
“You’ll never believe this,” he said, staring straight ahead at Wei Wei, as if the two of them were already speaking in private. I couldn’t tell if Zhangbing didn’t like me or just thought better to ignore me, but Wei Wei laughed and made a shoving motion toward me with his chin, which I took as his cue for me to leave. Annoyed, I sucked my teeth in loud enough for them both to hear and snatched the packet of cigarettes from the table.
“Well if it’s no difference to you,” I said, turning back to face Wei Wei, “I guess you don’t mind if I go and ask her out then?” I paused in the doorway, pressing a fresh cigarette to my lips. “You know, see if she really is more like American girls.”
The next morning, all 2000 of us were in the parking lot for a group photo. I didn’t really grasp the scale of it until I saw everyone there at once. Aside from the two hundred or so at HQ, the vast majority at the company I didn’t even realize existed before. It was easy to spot the first-timers to Beijing, shivering in their too-thin parkas, but still using every opportunity to pull out their selfie sticks and pose.
It didn’t bother me too much being the only foreigner. Colleagues liked to ask me how I learned Mandarin, not knowing that I had spent the majority of my life living in China. And sure, there were plenty of people who turned and stared at me like I was the strangest thing they’d ever seen. But most, if they did notice me, just smiled or nodded their heads. That was the beauty of being an outsider – everybody already assumes they know exactly who you are.
When the photographer finally gave the word, everyone took off their jackets all at once. He had us arranged in a semicircle with him at the center and was barking orders from the platform of a rotating dolly – “smile,” “sit up straighter,” “stop shaking.” It was then that I could feel it – this sort-of oneness. I imagined after the photo was printed, with all of us in our identical outfits, that anyone scanning the crowd would hardly see me as being the slightest bit different.
“GOOD AFTERNOON,” the General Manager bellowed over the industrial-grade sound system. I felt like somebody had clobbered me in the gut, but every senior manager chose to address us in exactly the same way. We were seated in the auditorium of Hot Spring Leisure City, capacity 2500. On stage, the General Manager and a handful of the other senior management were doing a rendition of “Little Apple,” a popular Chinese pop song in the musical tradition of Rebecca Black. On stage, they shuffled listlessly from left to right, like they’d been fixed to marionette strings, or were being forced to dance under duress of firing squad.
No one seemed to share my griping; the audience erupted in feverous applause. The light operator perched up near the ceiling rafters was sending spotlights of color across the stage. The stomach-churning refrain was right on cue: You are my little apple, I can’t love you more. Perhaps the only redeeming factor for me was Lina, who even donning the boxy company polo shirt made it look alluring. I was sitting in the back-right, in the section earmarked for HQ staff, where on all sides there were blocks of employees from fifteen other provinces.
“So, how did you like my dancing?” the General Manager asked over the audible din of the crowd, like Bono at an AIDS rally. Again, more applause and shouting poured out. “Now, let me tell you what a year we’ve had.”
The lights dimmed and the presentation appeared across a billowing white screen. Outside of the auditorium were doors that led to a large circular hallway. Queues of women stood to wait for the restroom while men were sending plumes of smoke into the badly ventilated corridor. Near the bathroom, I lit a cigarette from my jacket pocket and leaned against the tiled wall, the smell of urine mixing with the chilly condensation of my breath.
About five minutes into the presentation, a man leaned over to me. Like most of the men there, he had on black slacks with a belt buckled high at the navel, but he seemed eager to talk to me, like a dog eyeing a stick.
“I’m from Lintao, Gansu province,” the man proclaimed, with the strong hint of a country accent. I nodded tacitly before accepting an enthusiastic handshake.
“First time to Beijing?” I asked, even though I could plainly tell the answer.
“You speak Chinese!” he exclaimed, pointing wildly and waving over one of his colleagues.
“Where are you from?” the second man asked, almost more curious than the first.
“Here,” I replied, pointing down at the cement floor smudged with cigarette ash.
“It must be good to be a laowai in Beijing,” the first man said, mouth agape. “Life must be very good. Living in a rich city, and as a foreigner...” his voice trailed off. “You must be like a famous person!”
“Sure,” I said half-heartedly before quickly waving them both off, not wanting to have to sign any autographs.
Inside the auditorium, as the General Manager was wrapping up his presentation and delivering his finishing remarks, the theme song to Indiana Jones blared over the stereo speakers and Lina rejoined the stage.
“I just wanted to make one very exciting announcement before dinner,” she said, in the upbeat tone of a 1950s TV housewife. She put a finger to her thick, scarlet lips, and the operator cut the music. “You will all be pleased to learn that tomorrow we will hold our first-annual all-company lottery.”
The silence in the audience was soon replaced with curious mumbling.
“That’s right. At the conclusion of the final plenary session, there will be a drawing for one fabulous grand prize.” Her gaze lingered over the room, seeming to take in all 2000 gleaming pairs of eyes at once. Initially I wanted to write the whole thing off. But I wanted even more to imagine Lina in her black dress, whispering softly in my ear: It was all just a cover so that I could choose you.
“All employees are eligible to win,” she said, flashing a radiant smile. “Good luck to all!” And with that, she returned the mic to its stand and led the charge of feverish guests out of the auditorium.
At dinner, I sat opposite two women from branding, in the second floor dining hall that boasted twinkling LED lights in the blue-painted ceiling to imitate stars. A camp stove and Coleman tent were set up in the corner of the room, and a non-functioning fireplace had been stuffed with three hefty cedar logs suitable for a holiday postcard.
“Isn’t this just incredible?” said one, peering over the spread of food in front of her.
“I still can’t believe that dance,” said the other, wearing big glasses and a Mickey Mouse cap. “Who knew he had such grace? And the lottery later?” she leaned in close. “I tell you I’ve been feeling lucky for weeks.”
I slopped up a spoonful of cold rice porridge and watched it slide down the walls of my bowl.
“Ten thousand bucks and the food still tastes like shit,” I muttered to no one in particular, chewing on a piece of stale pork bun. Just then, I felt a hand on the back of the neck.
“So, did you talk to her?” Wei Wei asked, a telltale smirk spreading across his face.
“Who, Lina?” I asked dumbly. “Of course not. What did you think, I was going to do it here?” I said, backtracking. “She’s been hosting on stage the whole day. When did you expect me to say something?”
Wei Wei leaned over me, a chicken leg poised in his right hand like an executioner’s sword.
“I figured you were too chicken shit to ask her,” he said, loud enough for the rest of the table to hear. I grabbed him by the hand and walked him over to the edge of the room, where two hiking poles and a pair of boots were propped unceremoniously against a white wall.
“You may not believe me,” I said, trying my best to level with him. “But I swear to you I’ll do it.”
After dinner, I headed back upstairs. Wei Wei invited me to his room again, but this time when I went in, he and Zhangbing were sitting around the two twin beds watching TV and sharing a case of Blue Lion. Wei Wei handed me a beer and cleared a space for me by the foot of the bed. On TV was a serialized drama about the Japanese War of Aggression that looked identical to the one I had seen on TV the previous night.
Both of them were smoking Zhong Nan Hai, so I dug into the open pack that was sitting on the lip of the table and lit up too. I didn’t try to hide my annoyance with Zhangbing being in the room, but I also didn’t want to give Wei Wei the satisfaction, so I cracked open my beer and focused my attention on the TV. A young boy in army fatigues was complaining about not wanting to fight in the war. Meanwhile, the boy’s father stood with a hand on his shoulder, lecturing on the filial duties of serving one’s country and defeating the Japanese.
“China must really eat this stuff up,” I said, exhaling a thin stream of smoke at the ceiling.
“You don’t understand,” Zhangbing said, in a low drawl that at first I couldn’t imagine coming from him. I figured Zhangbing was saying something to Wei Wei, so I ignored it, but then he piped up again.
“The best part about China is its paiwai,” he added, with a stern nod. It was the equivalent of saying that the best part about America was its xenophobia.
“So you really think,” I said, newly defensive, “that China could have won the war without us?” I pointed in the direction of the TV. Wei Wei stretched his legs down the length of the bed, and nearly kicked me off of it with his feet.
“I just know that we don’t need anybody else telling us what to do,” Zhangbing countered, sinking his chin into his beer.
Suddenly, there was a loud explosion on TV, and the young boy dressed in army fatigues was swallowed up in a cloud of dense smoke. Zhangbing took another sip of his beer and sunk back down on the bed.
“All I’m saying is that there are things you need to know about China that no one is gonna teach you.”
“That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to tell him,” Wei Wei said, like he was scolding an indolent child. “Take that girl Lina for example.”
“What about her?” I asked, my ears perking up.
“You know, there’s a saying in China for girls like her.” Zhangbing flicked his cigarette, dumping a heap of ash onto the carpet.
“Hostesses, entertainers, girls that present awards. There’s the power, for one, and then the money, of course,” he said, in starts and fits. “What I mean to say is—”
“What exactly are you getting at?” Weiwei asked, jabbing him in the ribs.
“Suffice it to say,” Zhangbing said, “you don’t stand a chance—”
“You’re probably just jealous,” I interrupted, angrier than I intended. He waved his hand in the air, as if my fifteen years in China could be repudiated in a single stroke.
“You don’t understand,” Zhangbing repeated, indignant. “Lina’s sleeping with the General Manager and you seriously think she would be interested in you?”
By the time Lina announced the winner on the third day, there was a shriek from the audience, like a seal had just been impaled by a harpoon. The auditorium was at capacity, and the excitement in the room was palpable, like Oprah was getting ready to hand out free cars. The music had reached a crescendo, and all the employees were perched at the edge of their chairs, trying to peer into the opaque white box that held their destiny.
The General Manager stepped on stage and, as the lights dimmed, thrust his hand into the box that contained all 2000 of us numbered on slips of paper. It was then, as he drew the slip and handed it to Lina, his eyes like two dark swallows subsuming hers, that I knew the number would never be mine.
The rest unfolded as you might expect. The ecstatic winner fainted in the aisle, and ushers had to carry the gigantic Swedish air purifier to her seat. Somewhere near the tiled wall of the corridor, the sound of a hocked loogie reverberated in the auditorium. Rows of middle-aged men, with lit cigarettes dangling from their lips, shifted in their seats. And then, a low-pitched chorus of grumbling began in the back of the room as the dejected crowd surged toward the exits.
“Tomorrow will be even brighter,” Lina said, as the company logo shone against a golden sun on the projector behind her. “Thank you very much for coming, and we hope to see you all again next year!”
The crowd of employees outside was nearly as thick as the smog. Everyone was hauling their luggage, getting ready to go back to whatever godforsaken place they had come from. I looked up again at the hulking exterior of Hot Spring Leisure City, at the gray concrete hull that wrapped everything in its muted hue. I remembered the group photo of everyone together and for a minute I felt a different kind of belonging, the collective grievance of being let down.
Wordlessly, I lit a cigarette and someone else followed suit. Pretty soon there was a group of us gathered out there in silence, waiting for the buses to arrive. It wasn’t long before a man approached me. His eyes were piercing, like he had been searching my face for an answer.
“What did you think,” he asked, after a considerable time, “of all of this?”
I turned back to look at him, smoke escaping through my lips. I scrunched up both shoulders and shook my head from side to side. And then, in my best English, replied: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”