When I was 25, I was an attorney in Taiwan for a week. Over 30 years later, it almost seems like my imagination, but the souvenir I found the other day offers some proof that it’s not all in my head.
In the early 80s, I worked in downtown Seattle office space housing several small businesses that shared a secretary/receptionist. I worked as a lobbyist for a small government relations firm, and one of our office neighbors was a Taiwanese man who had an import/export business. He and I got to know each other a little by hanging out in the hallway, heading to lunch once in a while, and exercising the general curiosity of neighbors sharing space over the course of months and years.
For some reason, one day he began to tell me about the trouble his affiliate in Taiwan was having with their former company president. The company had taken on a number of customers in the U.S. who weren’t paying, and the firm was beginning to have financial difficulties. One of the problems was that the former leader was not forthcoming with the information necessary to collect from the delinquent accounts. My friend, Chen, concluded his story by telling me that he needed an attorney to go to Taiwan with him and help out his affiliate. An American attorney. Preferably a woman, tall and blonde and young, a lot like me. In fact, exactly like me.
I stated the obvious fact that I was not an attorney. Chen noted that it would serve his purposes just fine to have someone fake it. I told him that it was illegal to pretend to be an attorney. His reply: “not in Taiwan.” I couldn’t argue that point, and by now I was somewhat intrigued by the prospect of an all-expenses-paid trip to a foreign country, and not in the company of my parents, so I began to ask him more questions.
Maybe it was his complete confidence in my ability to pull this off that convinced me. He assured me that the former company president would essentially be putty in my hands when I questioned him, and that I would really be helping this firm out.
It makes me smile, now, to think of how absurd the whole idea was, how unbelievable that a businessman from Taiwan would ask a 25 year old American office-mate to go to Taiwan with him to intimidate answers from a former company executive of a large export/import firm. And even more crazy, that I said yes, much to my father’s utter dismay and alarm. Dad was worried about all sorts of things that would never have crossed my mind, like being kidnapped and kept as a sex slave somewhere. He insisted that I make sure to keep my return ticket in my possession at all times. He accompanied me to the airport to make sure he got to meet Chen, who was old enough and normal enough to allay at least a few of Dad’s concerns. I am sure that helping me make the decision to go was my naiveté about the risks of traveling in a foreign culture with a man that I did not know all that well. In fact, my naiveté and general Pollyanna outlook on life have allowed me to do a lot of things that others have thought were stupid or crazy. I consider myself very lucky and privileged to have this trait.
Interestingly enough, the trip did indeed prove fruitful for the company that paid all my expenses and toured me around, whiskying and dining me in the process. During the first couple of days in the country, as I got through the jet lag and my body’s half-hearted attempts to reject the food and water, I was able to help craft Telex messages (the precursors to faxing for those too young to remember) to the English-speaking businesses that owed money to the firm. It was surprisingly easy to negotiate payment terms when one spoke the same language as the debtors, especially when I was able to convince the firm to offer payment plans and refuse to send more goods until some portion of the debt was paid.
Then the big day with the former president was set; he had been bullied into having the meeting with me, the American “attorney”. Here I was, at 25, intimidating a middle-aged Asian businessman, a former top-level executive even, just by walking into a fancy conference room with a yellow legal pad and a few completely innocuous questions on such subjects as where the company records were stored, and other simple things that I no longer remember. I just acted serious and polite and jotted down notes and the whole thing was over in far less than an hour. When all was said and done, and we had finished our travels and adventures and factory visits and gone home to Seattle, Chen let me know that the trip was successful beyond expectations. The former president was humbly forthcoming with necessary information after our meeting, and the American firms with whom I had helped negotiate terms had begun paying up, and I had a job in Taiwan anytime I wanted it.
I turned out to have a number of skills that were useful to a fake American lawyer in Taiwan, in addition to the obvious ones. There was my diplomacy at saying no as needed to kind and generous but, to me, less-than-appealing offers. Another was my taste for, and ability to process various amounts of alcohol, most notably whisky (a specialty in Taiwan, who knew?). There was a very friendly custom of reciprocity in the matter of buying someone a drink. It was somewhat expected that I would buy a round of drinks and offer the also customary “bottoms up” toast. But then the idea was that each individual would return my generosity by buying me a drink and “bottoming up”, which would have been fine had there not been ten of them and only one of me at the dinner in question. I can’t remember if I did anything more artful than simply plead for my health and lucidity to get out of that one, but I never drank so much at any of these lovely events that I put myself in greater danger of having some of my father’s fears come true.
I was not kidnapped and sold into slavery while in Taiwan, but I did receive a marriage proposal at lunch one day. We were somewhere in the central part of the country, in a smaller town where some of the machinery factories that made products for export were located. After visiting the factory, we all went to lunch. “All” included me (the sole woman, as always), my friend Chen, the factory owner, and another man from the company that was a guide and host of sorts during the whole trip. I was fortunate to be relatively proficient with chopsticks, which not only allowed me to eat with some measure of grace, but also seemed to increase my credibility on several fronts. The factory owner had a son around my age who needed a wife, and there was some joking that my ability to pick up a mushroom with chopsticks was a sign of suitability for marriage (although it would usually be the potential groom being assessed in this manner.) Apparently the conversation turned to other indicators of my suitability, with Chen answering for me that yes, I was single.
Now, I did not understand more than about three words of Chinese, spoken slowly, so I was at Chen’s mercy as my interpreter. At one point he told me what was going on, saying that there was a suggestion about having the son come in and pour tea for me so I could take a look at him. This was the way it was often done, in reverse of course, in the process of arranging marriages. I laughed, but then Chen offered to stand in for my father in giving permission for me to marry and I became suspicious that the joke could turn serious at any moment. There was even a bit of a sales job, with Chen and the potential groom’s father reminding me that the son would inherit the factory and was from a wealthy family, and I would have everything I wanted. Well, their interpretation of what I would want, but definitely not mine. So, I studiously did my best to let the whole idea remain as a joke, gracefully declining the very generous offer of a rich husband in Taiwan.
There were other adventures on the trip, although no further offers of marriage. There was an offer of a bedmate one evening, after a great deal of the aforementioned whisky and some cigarettes and late night talk. But that was also gently refused and all was well in the morning.
One of the loveliest diversions was a trip into the mountains to a hot springs resort somewhere in the country. It was a local tourist spot and packed with people. I never felt too crowded anywhere in the country, even in a sea of people, because I looked out over their heads – just about every last one of them. I felt like a big, albino giant most of the time, and was often treated as just such an oddity. I don’t know how many photos I posed for in that park, mostly with families, and how many tourist scrapbooks I am in to this day. It was fun for about the first three or four, and then I would have liked to hide. As the only place I could disappear was in my room, I spent a good part of my stay there. Fortunately, the hot spring water was piped into the rooms so I was able to soak in the privacy and relative comfort of my own bathtub, albeit with my knees up to my chest in the local-sized space.
When I read back over this story, the only thing that separates it from a fiction of my mind is the little green cardboard soap container from the Dragon Valley Hotel and hot springs sitting on my coffee table in front of me. It has been more than thirty years, so I can be forgiven for forgetting details and questioning the reality of it all. This story reminds me that art and life, fiction and non-fiction, are not so different after all.