Thursday, February 19, 2004

The League does not often travel abroad. In fact, The League has been confined to the golden shores of North America for more than 28 years. Mrs. League has been just about everywhere, but her dreams of travel ended the day she hooked up with an RTF major with no chance of disposable income.

But one of the outside benefits of working at a university is that you meet people from all over the world who come in pursuit of the knowledge your particular institution has to offer.

And so it was that I was asked to drop off some translation equipment for 25-odd Chinese visitors last night. Essentially, the equipment consisted of one microphone and broadcast device (with a single on/off switch) and 22+ headsets and receivers (with a single on/ volume dial).

"And we need them there by 5:15," said the boss.
"So I can actually leave by 5:15? I haven't done that since before the holidays."
"(The Dean of something or other) will be there. Give them to her. She's translating for the Dean." Because Dean (we'll call her Lee) speaks Mandarin. I guess.
So I was walking out the door with co-worker Eric P., and suddenly I had a flashback to my tech-monkey job in Austin.
"Oh, God. She's going to get nervous when she sees all the black wire."
"You think?"
"I'm never getting out of there."
Apparently the business school was hosting a dinner for several visitors from a Chinese partner of Motorola, and this was a big dinner to honor their arrival or something. I know only a few things. Among these is the fact that I know next to nothing about Chinese language, culture or custom.
So I got there and laid out the devices on the windowsill so they could easily be picked up. Dean Lee was not yet there to drop any bombshells. I turned around, and all 5'1" of her was standing behind me.
"So you're going to stay and help with these?"
"Ah, no. I'm just here to drop them off."
"They look complicated. How do they work?"
"There's just one button. Very simple."
"They look very complicated. I think you should stay."
I watch as several trays of food come in, and I realize I'm running out of time to escape.
"There's just one switch. You'll be fine," I say reassuringly.
"So you're here in place of Jeff?"
And I realize that my boss was supposed to be here. THat he has DUPED me into taking the hit for him.
"I think you should stay."
"Oh." I say. "Okay."
I stand around for another minute, staring into space and trying to become one with the woodwork.
"You need to get a bartender in here" a woman is telling me.
"Excuse me?"
"You need to get a bartender in here. There's nobody to serve drinks."
"Look," I can here myself saying, and I realize I'm kind of pissed. "I don't work here. I work for Dean Lee."
You see, I've been a tech-monkey. I ran wire and cable and captured video all silently and without being noticed for many, many years. And as such, people always assume that you are a part of the great inner-workings of the building you're in. They always assume you can do things like, say, pull a bartender out of your ass. I have nothing against bartenders. At events like this, they're usually the only decent person in the room. But I was also wearing a shirt which read "School of Engineering" across it, so I'm not really sure why I was confused with the University Club staff.
The lady looked at me for a moment, and horror crept into her eyes.
Universities are incredibly stratified. She had just identified me with the serving folks, and I was part of the Dean's staff. Suddenly, despite my haggard and irritated persona so typical of the serving folk, I was a guy who could tell the Dean that this lady is an idiot. And that, my friends, can be incredibly awkward. A single misstep can effect the way in which you are able to engage whole units for years.
In that same instant i realized I was no longer part of the serving staff and endless sea of tech monkeys which keep the university running. I am THE MANAGER OF DISTANCE LEARNING, AND PITY BE TO THOSE WHO FALL IN MY PATH. But all of that posturing didn't mean that I didn't have to stick around.
At this point, all the Chinese businessmen filed in, and too late I remembered: Chinese businessmen have a very distinct ritual of handing out business cards. You face the receiver squarely, and with two hands and a bit of supplication, you present the card.
"I have no card," I whispered to the Dean.
"Ooooookkkaaaaaayyyy," she said between clenched teeth. Ah, career suicide! Dean Lee was now seeing me for a boob, sent to replace Jeff and having no business cards! Bloody hell, the Chinese businessmen could see this as a slight, or something, i guessed, and none of them knew that until ten minutes before I was to drop off the receivers and bolt. going home early to see my wife in daylight for the first time in a week.
I was presented with one card. Dean Lee quickly explained I had no cards to our visitor, and I assume disaster was averted.
"Sit down and have some dinner," said the Dean.
"I should probably stick by the equipment."
"Sit down," said the Dean.
Unsolicited, one of the Chinese businessmen brought me a Budweiser. Now, when working for the University, one does not drink, swear or pass gas before their superior. It's actually pretty strict in the rules about drinking, and frankly, I don't know Dean Lee well enough to guess whether or not she drinks. So I smiled, took the beer appreciatively, and wondered why the University Club's best beer is Budweiser.
After a moment, i realized I had just dodged a bullet. One, i had considered turning the beer down, but took it anyway. Two, upon taking beer, I had denied myself my usual inclination to drink straight from the bottle. I guess I spent too long in Texas. Anyway, everyone was pouring their beer into their wine glasses.
Now Dean Lee was explaining who i was. I nodded and waved at the folks at my table, not sure exactly what Dean Lee was telling them (since I wasn't clear on whether or not she knew my last name).
"Do you have any brochures?" asked Dean Lee.
"Any what?"
"Brochures or marketing materials?"
"I just..." it sounded so weak now. "I just came to drop off the headsets."
She turned to the Chinese Businessmen and explained I, in fact, had no materials to share with them.
"Go get some food," she said.
"I just ate before I left," which was true. Rachel had provided me with cold pizza (jalapeno and pineapple... mmmmm).
"Go get some food," she said again. Ah, if I were not to eat, these folks might take it the wrong way. Luckily they had grilled new potatos. Mmmmm....
We toasted each other alot (mostly in Mandarin), and we listened to a few short speeches.
"So I don't think we need the translation devices," Dean Lee said.
"I think I'll just translate for the Dean."
"Oh. Okay."
The speech made little, if no sense. Despite extensive travelleing in China, the Dean apparently doesn't realize that Chinese speech-making is NOT the same yuk-fest American speechmaking tends to be.
My department was even mentioned, but I was not pointed out as managing that department, which led me to believe I had done SOMETHING wrong. Or maybe not. You never know.
I ate some salad, listening intently to the conversation, trying to figure out if I knew any chinese. I do not.
Finally, at quarter to seven, Dean Lee said "I think you can go."
"Are you sure?"
The Chinese Businessmen looked at me sadly. I think they, too, wished to go. I think they thought that young american male promised more excitement for the evening than middle-aged dean lady. But I was also not really wanting to escort these guys around to a bunch of bars and strip clubs on a Wednesday night.
I had left my cell phone in my car (expecting to just drop off the receivers and leave), so jamie knew nothing of any of this.
"I was stuck in dinner with 25 chinese businessmen!"
"So you already ate?"
"Well, yes."
"Okay fine. See you when you get home."
I began to wonder if those guys would understand the value of a $20 in an American strip bar.

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