Your phone starts to ring. It’s 9:46 PM on a Thursday night, but you aren’t getting a booty call. Instead, it’s your Baidu delivery guy calling because he couldn’t get into your office building. You pick up your food from downstairs. It’s a well-wrapped salmon avocado sandwich, and you are only willing to pay for it because of your 50 RMB OT meal allowance. Sitting alone by the giant French window in the pantry, you overlook the glorious view of Beijing’s CBD, and wonder how you ended up like this.
It all started three years ago when a friend from a group chat shared a job opportunity at a global PR agency. You were an English teacher at that time, partying at Kokomo and picking up Chinese girls. You thought it would be great to work in a global firm, dress in a suit like a douche, and go to business meetings. So you applied. Despite your lack of experience in PR, you still got the job as a copywriter because of your English skills.
“Well, there’s still some benefit as a foreigner,” you thought. The package wasn’t great, but you were happy because you were tired of being a dipshit, and you finally had a business card with a swanky title and geometric corporate logo.
The job was unexpectedly easy. All you did was polish translations for your Chinese colleagues. But you were happy because you were asked to participate in various high level projects – new business pitch proposals, corporate communications plans, CEO byline articles, and social media roadmaps. Your calendar was filled up with brainstorm meetings, although you didn’t understand a thing they were discussing, except for a few strategically placed English words from some zhuangbi colleagues trying to impress the boss. But even so, you carefully saved each and every polished document in a personal folder aptly named “My PR Portfolio”. You felt like a professional.
Things started to go bad after the honeymoon period. Even after a year spent as a copywriter, you weren’t given any real copywriting work. Instead, you were only tasked with polishing your colleagues’ crap. In fact, you found your English getting worse as you picked up more and more Chinglish. Even the corporate comms decks got old, as you realized your team simply copied and pasted the same format for every client. You tried to talk to your supervisor, but he kept telling you that you were not experienced enough and didn’t understand the China market. It seemed that your white privilege wasn’t doing you any good anymore.
“I need to improve my Chinese so I can get real work,” you told yourself. You started to make friends with your Chinese colleagues and talk to them in Chinese. You even started talking to the office Ayi, but you always ended up embarrassing yourself because you couldn’t figure out her dialect. Other than that, your colleagues were quite friendly. “It’s getting better,” you thought.
After three months of going native, you gave up. You figured out that your Chinese colleagues couldn’t hold a real conversation, and that discussions could never progress beyond the usual questions.
“Where are you from?”
“How long have you been in China?”
“Do you like Chinese girls?”
Some of the girls at the office were clearly hitting on you, but the last thing you wanted was an office affair. What you really wanted an office bro, but all the guys in your team were openly gay. They teased you incessantly and repeatedly asked you if you were sure about your sexuality. A white, heterosexual male, you felt like a minority for the first time in your life.
You did make a few friends though. They had all studied abroad before and you began to bond with them over drinks at the local brewery after work.
You told them how much you were jealous of them because they could do the exciting PR work reserved for locals, such as new product launches, KOL co-ops, and crisis management. But they laughed out loud, and you couldn’t figure out why.
“Everything we do is meaningless,” you recall one of them saying. “All the positive media coverage is just crap that nobody reads. And the fancy event recap reports are just a way for the client PR manager to please her boss in order to save her own ass.”
“The same goes for media relations,” the other said in agreement. “It’s bullshit. We kiss the media’s ass and we do it well. We bribe them with money, gifts, and free travel packages. And don’t get me started on the fake respect. You try keeping a straight face as you call some no-name editor ‘Laoshi’ while wishing them a happy Mid-Autumn Festival. I’d rather just give them the finger and tell them that no one reads their shitty op-eds.”
“Well then what about the new business pitches?” you countered. “Those are exciting, aren’t they? A few agencies gathering together and competing against each other based on creativity and strategy…it’s like Mad Men!”
“Too young, too naive,” your friend said. “It’s all Guanxi. We’re giving the PR director of our largest client 10% returns every quarter. That’s the only reason why we’ve been able to keep the client for 5 years. And the new biz we got last week? Don’t make me laugh. The marketing manager is our boss’ husband.”
“Keep this to yourself,” the other added, grinning. “PR in China is just a big bubble with sugar coating, but none of us want to prick a hole in it. It’s not because we’re ignorant to the reality, but because we can’t do anything about it. Besides, keeping things the way they are at least guarantees us a job.”
Snapping back to reality, you think about what your friends said. You convince yourself to keep the bubble as it is, despite knowing that your own bubble has already popped. Even now, you are staying up late working for a project pitch you know you won’t win because the client has already promised to give the contract to his cousin. You suddenly feel a rush of nostalgia. You look back and see yourself getting wasted in Propaganda five years ago. You were an exchange student. You were happy. What happened?
You walk back to your seat and start to work on the deck. As you delete every unnecessary “the” and fix the spacing after every punctuation mark, you start to wonder when this is going to end. You take a look at the time. It’s already 10:45. Damn it, you think, you are going to miss the last subway home. The company won’t reimburse you if you submit a Fapiao from Uber, but as you start to think about taking a normal cab, with its smells and the boring conversation with the driver, your head starts to hurt again.
“Maybe I should go work for a startup,” you think. “They work in hutongs and that’s pretty cool I guess.”
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