Thursday, March 18, 2010

Stupid Expats in Asia and leaving commonsense at the airport: Pierre and the restaurant II

As I said before Pierre opened his restaurant in Taipei without any contract. About five months later, his colleagues asked him not to come into work for a few days because there were some issues with the police, and a foreigner working without a permit.
Two days after that he couldn’t get either of his partners on the phone so Pierre headed back to the restaurant; walked in, and, as custom, took a beer from the refrigerator. He saw someone else working behind the bar.
The waitress looked at him like she missed him and had not expected to see him again.“Pierre you want to eat here?”
“I am here!” But his riposte was kind of flat, because he was arrogant but not slow.
The new guy from behind the bar came over and introduced himself. “You must be Pierre! Wow, I am honored to meet you!”
“Where is Ah-Huei?” said Pierre.
“You arrange meet him here for dinner?” said the new guy.
“I don’t fucking need to arrange to meet anyone for dinner in my restaurant,” said Pierre. “Sorry, what is your name? You see, I usually do the hiring.”
One look at their expressions said it all to Pierre – well, actually, to people who didn’t know Taiwanese, one look at their expressions would indicate mild embarrassment of the sort associated with remembering your flies were undone...before anyone had seen. But Pierre knew the greater the embarrassment the deeper they shut down and the blank expressions on their faces now meant that the worse had happened.
As the reality hit he struggled for a moment against inevitably, trying to think of something he could do, then just sunk deep into allowing his dreams to disappear. He had a strange sense of relief – He realized the thing that had kept him awake, on edge for months, was just this. When the restaurant venture had started he had buried this fear because he had nothing to lose at that moment, but as things came together and success was had, the pound became deafening.
A few quick more questions and it was the horrible reality: This guy was the new owner…They thought he had gone back to France…that his partners had bought him out.
“I want to get out of here,” he said not liking to be a guest in his own home. He knew there was no way he was going to find them. Even if he did, what could he do? But stand and shout a little, and get further humiliated. The beating at the hands of the gangsters had made a lasting impression. He wanted to smash the place up, but he knew they might come for him. He headed for the door, then turned, dashed behind the counter and emptied the till. There had to be some act of defiance...and, fortunately, they hadn’t changed his bad habit of leaving large amounts in the till, yet. The oven was too big, so he picked up the espresso maker he had imported from France, kicked open the door, and walked out with a few tears.
He was surprisingly calm in the event of a real crisis, saving his energy for the little ones he invented on a daily basis.
That evening sat in the bar.
“I’ll get those mothers. Nobody cheats me like that.” He still felt the need to perform in front of us.
“So, much cash did you get?”asked John.
“I haven’t counted yet.” Pierre starts pulling money from trouser and coat pockets, and dumping it on the table, next to the espresso maker. He had gone straight from his restaurant to the bar. He had not been feeling particularly optimistic about the cash - Usually one gets a feel for the amount of money and excitedly tries to make predictions on the total, here from first note to the next all he could think was “Oh, there is another, that is it no doubt it.”
“Man, you got 50,000NT. A could survive on that for two months!” called out Eric excitedly, genuinely impressed.
“He had a restaurant pulling in a million a month, dick,” I said.
“Dude, I’m sorry, but you set up an extremely successful business model. You can be proud of yourself, look forward with confidence,” said Josh. Josh wanted to add you just have to go the legal route next time, but he knew it was wasting his time; Pierre would say that it wasn’t necessary. Josh knew many Taiwanese also liked to do it this way; they invested informally on just a handshake because they couldn’t afford or didn’t want to pay for a business license, and they also got cheated, stolen from and ripped off on a daily basis. But it wasn’t the Taiwanese way of doing business, but the bad way of doing business. He had seen it many times: expat guys came to Asia and left their commonsense at the airport. They take some guy out to KTV twice a week for a couple of months, spending a fortune on him, not discussing business, because they believe they have to respect ‘Chinese business’ culture; he studied it on his MBA course. At the end when he doesn’t sign the contract, he blames culture and moves on to the next one to make the same mistake. It wasn’t culture, that guy was taking the piss because you let him, and commonsense should tell you that. Very good western businessmen become idiots over night trying to follow the local culture. Yes, you have to take him to the KTV, but if he ain’t coming into the office next time, you know to cut him loose.
“You never told us who your investors were,” said Eric.
“Does it matter?” answered Pierre, the importance of not admitting it was a couple of his old colleagues from the KTV more important than ever.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Expats and forgetting commense: John’s break from reality II

John continued to date the Taiwan KTV girl, Hsiao Lo, for eight or nine months - A long episode of forgetting your commonsense. They became kind of behind boyfriend and girlfriend in a strange way. It wasn't exactly love, but more circumstance – John taught English fifty hours a week so, if a girl phoned him up and made herself available, he wouldn't say no. And as you know from before she wasn't exactly a shrinking violet.
It turned out she was a lot of things and one evening it all came crashing down. I wasn't there but I believe his account of events 100 percent.
“Pierre can you come over to my flat, I need your Chinese skills,” said John who still hadn’t progressed pass the food, destination, and counting sections of the book.
About a half an hour later Pierre arrived at his apartment.
“Nice place,” said Pierre.
‘Yeah, there is a nice, big clean empty roof with plants - got my sun beds up there already.’
‘Of course, you do.’
‘Well it might not be mine for much longer - I ‘ad a call from me landlady. It was a difficult conversation, but I wrote it down the thing he kept repeating: ‘Fang zu hi mei shou dao…4 uer.’ John had written down something that resembled ‘not received the rent for 4 months’ and so Pierre called the landlady back to confirm that was the case.
“English, I don’t understand, how did she not receive your rent?”
“She – Hsiao Lo - pays it. The landlady wanted me to go to the bank and transfer it, so I let her do it for me.’
‘Where is she now?’
“I don’t fucking know…Look she gave me the transmission receipts.’
Pierre took a look at the slips from the bank. They were filled in and then stamped but with a toy stamp. ‘Your girlfriend has been a naughty girl.’
“Don't look at me like I am a dumb foreigner,” said John.
“How should I look at you then?” replied Pierre.
John, like so many people who couldn’t speak much Chinese, had girlfriends, friends or colleagues handling their meetings with landlords, reading contracts for them, querying gas bills and arranging cable, among other things. He had relied on other people, and up to now they had all been scrupulously honest. He began to castigate himself for going soft; then, he made another of his solid promises to himself to learn good Chinese.
They then went to a fried dumpling place around the corner for dinner. John really wanted something western at a time like this, but he was feeling poor and Pierre was poor, so it had to be Chinese food.
“I am an idiot, aren't I?” said John. “What to do?”
“Of course, but you are not the only one. I don’t think you will see her again…Just repair the damage. Does she have your keys?”
“Just in case you have to change the lock.”
“So what to do,” John repeated, bristling at the prospect of having to pay the five months rent again, preparing to move his expensive stuff out, just in case of bailiffs.
“I apologised for you, and explained you are also the victim here, and maybe, we can take a little time to see if we can find her. She agreed. I’ll call in a few days. We’ll see.”
John couldn’t comfort himself by thinking it was in the ‘lap of the Gods so don’t worry,' as Pierre’s expression implied.
After dinner, Pierre went home and John walked back to his apartment feeling sorry for himself, resolving to go to her place of work later.
Suddenly he felt one punch slam into the back of his head and another in his left side, knocking him forward; from the angles, he knew there were at least two guys. He knew what to do in these situations: get some space and time to clear his head, let the adrenalin take over. Fortunately, for him today, and especially today, the adrenalin was quick coming – While he was walking home he hadn’t been thinking happy thoughts about doves, flowers and nursery rhymes. Two more blows in the same places, but he was already covering the back of his head so he had time to do something now. The blow to the head came from the man on his left, so he spun around to his left – It was basic, up against two guys you always had to try and get to the left of the one on the left or the right of the one of the right, staying in the middle was fatal – and managed to get off a right to the chin of this guy, knocking him down, but it wasn’t full power, and he knew he would be up again soon. He wanting to finish the guy off, but he knew he had to take on the 2nd. He tried kicks but they were blocked easily, he wasn’t going to get through from there. He went for the rugby tackle to use his size, which was a gamble – He could only get in one or two punches before the other guy got up and then he would be vulnerable. From the ground the guy was moving a lot and getting in some punches to his head from the floor, but he knew he had broken some ribs with his knee on landing. The other guy was now up, but more cautious, kicking low and punching, waiting for his friend to get up. All John could do throw himself in furiously, he would take some punches but hopefully, if he could get hold of him, could also do some damage. The guy was backing off, obviously smart enough to realize he wasn’t going to win a wrestling match, but then he tried to turn and tripped, and John dived on him smashing his head against the pavement and punching him. He knew he wasn’t going to be getting up for a while now and it had become one-on-one. He had a second to think and noticed a 3rd guy standing about ten yards away. Just standing. He was trying to finish off the 2nd , but he had to careful, keep one eye on the other. As he pounded punches into the 2nd guy, he started to wonder where the baseball bats were.
“Stop. Don't move,” shouted the third guy and for a brief moment John thought he had won, they were leaving and he was going to call them a bunch of dickless piss weak mother fuckers, then start chasing them to find out what this was all about. He started towards the third guy, before rearing back suddenly when he noticed the reason why they didn’t need baseball bats: the guy’s arm was now outstretched, and a gun was rapidly becoming a bigger and bigger part of his field of vision. The gun was now pressing on his cheekbone and he had been punched several times there in the last five minutes and now with the adrenalin almost gone, he could feel the pain; and the gun, in turn, pressing on his injured face was giving him a visceral reminder of damage it could cause.
“Hsaio Lo. Where?” If it was possible to take a massive sigh of relief with a gun in your face, then John did. His worse fear was that it was someone out for revenge: one of the taxi drivers he had punched; some ex-girlfriend; or a connected foreigner he had offended when he was drunk. Now, if he could manage to communicate the truth, he knew he had a chance of getting out of this. But that was the problem, gangsters weren’t known for getting high results on their TOEFL exams. Again he would have given anything to have now studied more Chinese, selfishly wishing Pierre had come with him back to the apartment. As soon as Pierre recovered consciousness, he could put the point across well. His heart was racing from the fight and now the rush of absolute fear. He was not a stranger to guns after his spell in the army, but he had never had a loaded one near his face with intent before. He started to think about what a good life he had here, and how happy he was to have become a respected member of society. He promised himself if he got out of this alive, he would embrace his new civilized middle-class life and never complain again.
Still getting out alive wasn't a certainty. Never in his life before did he have to choose his words so well. “I don’t know,” was the truth. He thought about using it, but it could be construed as trying to cover for her.
“She cheat me.” Was the best he could do. He was a master of body language now after all the years in the kindergarten and communicating with people on the street, but lifting his hands up now, to make even the Buddhist goodwill two-handed sign wouldn’t be wise. He was naked without his hands; he knew he was fucked.
“I kill you, ” said the guy. The guy gave a firing gun demonstration with his other hand.
John didn’t need the demonstration. Maybe, he was being nice so there was no misunderstanding but there was really no need. “Where she?” the guy repeated.
“She cheat me. Please, my Chinese no good. I will call my friend, okay,” John said in his worst Chinese. Perhaps it was the look of sheer hopeless frustration, defeated resignation on John’s face; perhaps, they assumed nobody would be stupid enough to cover for her; perhaps by his Chinese pronunciation they decided he wasn’t smart enough to be in on this; perhaps, they had been paid to extract the information at all costs and were planning to torture him later. Anyway, the guy with the gun took a couple of paces back and ordered: ‘Call. Call. Quick.’
For the next ten minutes John stood evaluating making a dash for it; if he could get past the other guys, and far enough out of range.
After speaking to the landlady and Pierre they decided he was telling the truth; the two others took a few pot shots to even the score, John’s came very close to not suppressing a ‘you fucking cunts’, and then dragged himself home.
It seemed Hsiao Lo had been sleeping with a brother of one of the partners in the KTV, and then stolen money and jewelery from him. These guys were sent because she told some of the other girls she had to look after her western boyfriend and had borrowed money to do it.
John took off his soiled underwear and headed for the shower with a bottle of whiskey. Half a bottle later, and he was able to step over the side of the bath without needing his hands to steady himself. He had taken a beating like this before, and he knew it would only get worse tomorrow, but for the moment the shock of the gun was a form of morphine.
He lied on his bed trying to work things out. He thought about why they decided not just to talk to him first – Then he remembered going to pick her up and smiling smugly at the doorman, and how that could be interpreted…
He thought about if the landlady hadn’t called that night - He didn’t love her or even particularly care for Hsaio Lo, but maybe he would have tried to be a hero if he thought she was the victim in all this (He had watched too many movies after all.) There was a bright side: maybe, he was not destined to die a horrible death in a foreign land as the dreams predicted. But mostly, he lied on the bed shouting, ‘cunts’ to his right and then ‘fucking bitch’ to his left as each of their faces popped into his head.
That night he spent the evening arguing with the people in the British Trade office to take his body back to England.
A few days later we all met up for a drink.
‘Man, I’m sorry. Where are you going to stay?’ sympathized Josh.
‘It is a Taiwanese landlords,” interrupted Eric. “Just get your stuff out and leave the place. The contracts not in your name so just get out and cut your losses on the deposit - Man, you’ll pay the money and they will kick you out anyway for bad karma and keep the deposit. My first instinct was that it was a set up from the landlady.”
“I am staying there,” said John.
Eric hadn't finished. “Jesus, you paid her the five months rent again. I would have said, sue me, bitch…You know the legal system here is fucked.”
“Actually, American. As usual you are totally wrong,” said Pierre. Pierre had spoken with the landlady and explained the situation. She had actually already decided it was her fault for not asking for the money earlier; she came to the apartment and there was an hour or so of profuse apologies for putting her in this situation; some pleading to pay some of the money and telling her what a good woman she was. The result: he had a new contract freeing him from paying anything.
Still Eric was sure she was the exceptional to the rule - “You better be careful. These contracts are worthless.”
“So why do you think he didn’t shoot you?” said Josh.
“You’d prefer it that way, eh? Never ‘ad a friend who’d been shot before, no doubt,” said John. “One of the experiences of life.”
He continued, “Anyway, they didn’t want to from the start. Just his piss weak couple of limp dick fags couldn’t handle me so he had to pull it out. They attacked me from behind and I still managed to sort them out.”
We noticed John’s back straighten and the proud glint in his eye, and we recoiled knowing the memory he was getting to take from this was the positive one of his performance, not the nightmare of having a gun in his face.
John continued, “Still, I ain’t off the perverbial hook yet because these guys may still decide that I am with the bitch.”
Again that had crossed our minds and we were all thinking, if it had happened to me I would have been on the first plane out. Don’t you get it. Gun. Die!
John later revealed he had stayed because he wasn’t a coward, and would never forgive himself if he did…But just in case, he had still gone to see his student Michael’s father because he “knew a man, who knew a man who was a triad (his younger brother)” and negotiations were started on his behalf.
And just in case, the ‘just in case’ failed he had a baseball bat under his bed, and a large wrench and some pepper spray in his Kindergarten satchel. “My bag weighs a fuckin’ ton now,” he said.
“Well, you know,” said Josh. “You got involved with a Taiwan KTV girl. It was likely to happen.”
“Shut up,” replied John. “It had nothing to do with the KTV. For every crazy Taiwan girl in the KTV there are twenty honest ones. Look at your Maggie – She was a rich middle-class bitch and you are still trotting out your typical liberal shit. In the end, I was a twat because she was a nutcase, and I ignored the signs. But, as I said before - It is very easy to forget your commonsense when you don't have the cold reality of your own society staring suspiciously at you on a daily basis.”
“Come on, man,” said Eric. “We, as westerners, are taught to be independent and make our own decisions rationally.”
“Shut up,” we all said.