It seems like the plot of a very bad, racist old Rob Schneider comedy you'd stumble across on Netflix: A white guy has to go to China and pretend to be an important businessman, getting into a series of wacky adventures as he keeps nearly getting caught. But this dumb screwball comedy plot is an entire industry. Chinese companies will hire random white people to attend meetings, banquets, etc. to create the (false) impression that they have connections in the U.S. We talked to a guy, Donald, who had this stupid, stupid job.
If you are a somewhat competent-looking white person (note that you only need to look competent), you too can stumble into a job like this. Chinese businesses recruit from everywhere. Your job will be to simply attend meetings with local officials and act like you know what is going on. It doesn't matter if you don't speak the language or have any clue what business is being conducted. The goal is only to make the other attendees think you're a Western investor of some kind ... preferably one who is good at deflecting direct questions.
So there aren't a lot of qualifications to function as human window dressing. Says Donald: "One guy I worked with was in China for a wedding ... and was offered $500 to take the next morning and afternoon off and accompany a group of Chinese businessmen in Beijing to a meeting. That's how easy it was when this first started, when foreign investment in China boomed." It helps if you wear glasses and don't have a beard.
In Donald's case, he happened to be living in Japan in the early 2010s, and responded to an ad looking for reps to work in China, then realized exactly what they meant by that. "I was at a press conference with city officials once for a ball bearings company, and our contact had given me a short speech about trade. When I sat back down, our contact said to me, 'Good job,' but then he turned to the Chinese official next to him and said, 'We found a good foreigner' ... I asked him in the van on the way back, 'Why did you need me here today?' He said, 'Because with you, it makes them look like they're rich. That they have connections. That money can come in with Americans.'"
It also just makes a company look better in general -- it implies they have international reach, maybe higher standards of quality. It's kind of like if your friend told you his crazy business idea landed him a meeting with "investors from Silicon Valley." The phrase implies that real money is at play.
They'd even have Donald play up the "brash, loud American" bit, encouraging him to raise his voice and use a lot of hand gestures, bringing flair to a meeting that would be considered rude if it came from locals. One company was recovering from a fire, and the plan was for the Chinese leadership to show they were appropriately chastened in front of the staff. Then Donald's role was to do what only a supposedly wealthy, white investor could: "In that meeting, my Chinese 'co-workers' held the same ashamed sort of face, and me and a Canadian were like Tim Robbins pumping up this company. If foreign investors are still supportive after a small disaster, it shows the company has staying power, and that's what we were there for."
How much Donald and the other rent-a-foreigners would have to actually interact with Chinese attendees varied, but often, merely smiling and looking white wasn't enough. They'd need a fake name and backstory, which they would have to play up in conversations ... information they would often be given just minutes before. "Sometimes we were told before we left, 'You're an investor from Florida. This company makes silicone products. This is your name. Here are your business cards. Hand them out.' Other times, I would get an email with flight info and who to meet. That's it."
You might think that leaving all of that for the last minute sounds like a terrible idea and/or a comic relief bit in Ocean's 12. You'd be right. On one job, Donald had two hours to prepare on a car ride from the airport to the factory, learning a new identity and all sorts of facts and figures about the metal industry and U.S.-China trade. Oh, and to memorize a speech without cards.
"Inside, we all messed up. The speeches were all over the place. I got part of my name wrong -- I used my real last name by accident, and I had to pretend it was my middle name. We mistook some workers for bosses. One of us even bowed terribly in the Japanese style because he thought it was universal across Asia. He even asked about sumo wrestling [a distinctly Japanese thing] to THE MAYOR, which was bad, because our host had told us like ten times to not say anything unless spoken to."
And yet it worked. "We pulled it off. They were impressed. I knew enough of the language to know that the mayor and people from the factory were excited." It usually didn't matter what they said or did, as long as they said and did it as white people.
Donald's rent-a-foreigner appearances ranged from one-on-one meetings to giant gatherings. The bigger crowds were easier -- less mingling, more silently smiling on a stage.
"The biggest event I was at was this sort of announcement party in Chongqing ... it had to be around 500 people. Each one of us was announced onstage. Like I was 'Jack Parsons, the American representative from the American company Lincoln Industries, in San Francisco, America.' (And yes, 'America' was said three times.) And they cheered like we were somebody famous ... We took pictures with everyone."
In that appearance, he only had to fake his way through a brief conversation with someone from the Danish government who happened to be there. ("Turned out to be a nice conversation about Copenhagen and the U.S. for two minutes.") But it's quite different when it's a small meeting and you're expected to actually explain things. Donald always had to keep it generic and bank on his translator to put the right words in his mouth.
"So to the question, 'How much investment can you guarantee?' I would say, 'We plan to invest a good sum of money.' Then the host, who knew exactly what to say but couldn't, translated my words to the company line."
Knowing that, some of the other phony businessmen would take the opportunity to entertain themselves. "I know of one guy who bragged about going through a meeting saying things like, 'My favorite breakfast includes an egg McMuffin and hashbrowns' to the question 'What will growth be like in the next five years?'" It didn't matter -- the translator just says what the crowd needs to hear, and everyone nods their approval.
"This executive asked about new markets, and I totally blanked on the answer, so I said, 'New markets can be everywhere you want to be.' Like that Visa ad. My host looked confused and instead rattled off places like 'Vancouver.' And the executives seemed fine with it."
Donald has come close to exposure a number of times. He was able to list incident after incident from peers that ranged from "cultural insensitivity" to "How are they not in prison?" One rent-a-foreigner asked at a gathering of local officials if Mao Zedong was coming (he's been dead since the Ford Administration). Others praised China's democratic government (it ... isn't).
"There was an American coming from San Francisco we met at the airport in Beijing. He said he had 'loaded up' on Chinese to impress everyone ... they always appreciated a few words of Mandarin. It was the average mayor meet and greet, but we all also had to give a few sentences in a speech. He had lines he translated the night before without checking with our host. He said them correctly -- in Taiwanese."
If you didn't know, China and Taiwan have a complicated history. The Republic of China was started by the capitalists who got pushed out by Mao Zedong, and there has been ill will and near-war between the mainland and the island ever since. "The room was silent after he said his piece, and he was smiling and everything, not even knowing he did anything wrong."
This sort of thing is bound to happen, though, considering how often these guys are forced to just wing it. Fake Westerners have had to do everything from pretend to play instruments to pretend to be celebrities. Donald had to do an Australian accent on one occasion (which, according to a Australian colleague of his, was godawful), and has also had to fill in his own background when he wasn't given one. On one occasion, he was only given the name of a company and where it was based, but was asked questions about himself. He had nothing ... except the fact that he had recently read a Kurt Cobain biography.
"So I was like, 'I'm from Seattle and I like playing music in my spare time. The guitar.' That was the first thing that came into my mind. I remember I had his high school's name at the ready in case they asked that."
His closest call came with a local reporter, justifiably suspicious of an American investor with a sketchy background from a company he'd never heard of. This reporter not only knew English, but also knew about the industry Donald was pretending to be a part of. After Donald was asked a particularly difficult question, "My host started saying something, but the reporter looked me dead in the eyes and said, 'No, from him.' This went way past social niceties, and I could see in his eyes that he knew I was bullshit."
This was at the meeting about ball bearings we mentioned earlier, so Donald went off-script and "started talking about how ball bearings usage in the U.S. could reflect China's growing need." He knew some stuff about ball bearings from having worked on cars, and rambled about that for a bit. When another American waved him over, Donald took the opportunity to escape, and he managed to duck the reporter for the rest of the night with his hosts' help.
"I don't know how that all played out in the end ... my host said in the van back to the hotel, 'He was satisfied, I think,' but that's it."
Since the heyday in the early 2000s, there has been a sharp decline in rent-a-foreigner jobs, at least partly because it's a little easier now to pull out a smartphone and find out that Johnny Fakename isn't a real superstar in the international ball bearings scene. Today the practice is largely only used to show support for struggling businesses in smaller, more remote cities. Donald said it's like the movie This Is Spinal Tap, in which the band plays at smaller and smaller venues as their popularity declines.
"My last job there was in late 2015, and this company asked me to go to this city called Cangzhou. At the press conference, I was one of five white people there, and the sole thing we did was take a picture with people from the city. That was it. No meeting local officials, no short speech. Not even shaking hands. We were alive cutouts."
Evan V. Symon is a writer, interview finder and journalist for the Personal Experiences section at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience you'd like to see up here? Then hit us up in the forums.
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