People in Beijing have been very friendly and polite with me, barring the occasional morose teenager, waitress or security guard who has been warned that all laowei (foreigners) are evil. I'd be willing to trade some of the friendliness and politeness for professionalism and directness.
Yesterday I arrived in an office where I go several days each week for a regularly scheduled meeting. After 20 minutes I was still the only one sitting in the conference room so I sent a text message to the meeting organizer to find out what was going on. He immediately called me to say that the meeting had been postponed because a couple of other people and I were going to some type of photo opportunity that involved cake. One of the marketing assistants was going to take us to the place together in about an hour. Someone was supposed to have called me. Oops. Oh well, I put on some lipstick and decided to make the best of the situation.
When the group was assembled, me and three foreign men, we were taken via subway to a building parking lot near the Hong Kong Macao Center Sofitel and then our keeper, S, called for someone to come and get us. She could only tell us that we were going somewhere to have our photo taken and didn't have any more information. That felt odd. When a thin young woman wearing a lot of make-up, form-fitting clothes and high heels arrived she spoke to S and then led us into the building via the back entrance and into a freight elevator. We walked out of the elevator into a sub-basement and were led along hallways smelling of overly sweet baked goods and lined with boxes to a room and told to go in. When I put my head into the room I realized that the room was filled with five or six young men sitting around talking and smoking, and enough cigarette smoke to make it difficult to see (or breathe). I backed out to let the others enter before me, thinking I'd stand in the doorway. S saw me back out and asked if I was bothered by the smoke; I just smiled. She told the others that the room was too smoky for me and our group was taken into a dingy conference room lit by bare lightbulbs.
I reiterated to S a statement that I'd made earlier: this whole situation feels really dodgy, sketchy, cagey, like there's something illegal going on, like drug-dealing or slave trading, and I don't like it. One of the men in my group said it reminded him of a situation in India a few years ago where some people tried to get him to run drugs and he ended up being kidnapped and his embassy (Great Britain) had to rescue him. Even the other men in my group were feeling uncomfortable with the situation. I told S that I wasn't going to let my photo be taken unless I had more information, I don't want to be seen as advocating something if I don't even know what is going on, and I was considering just leaving. The men voiced their agreement. The British man explained to S that foreigners like to be told what is going to happen, what the details are of a situation, before it happens; it makes us feel safe. S called our agent on her cell phone to confer in Mandarin and then handed the phone over to me. He explained that the people here were looking for someone to be in a photo opportunity regarding some type of cake. He apologized and admitted that yes, this was not a professional way to do things but unfortunately things in China, in Beijing, are not usually very professional (I've been here six weeks, I figured that out awhile ago). Ok, that wasn't very helpful but at least it was something and I knew that someone knew where we were. I let someone take a digital photo of me sitting in a chair.
Someone in the non-communicative group decided that it would be better if they took us to another location, so we were trundled back into the sunlight and put into taxis (me with one of my male colleagues and the thin assistant in makeup and high heels). She didn't speak very much English and my limited ability in Mandarin meant I could only ask her for her name. We ended up in a complex in south Beijing, near Fourth Ring Road off of Baiziwan Lu, and walked up a flight of stairs into an office with no lights to sit in an empty office lit only by natural light. When I asked S why it was so dark she asked someone else and was told that there was no electricity in the building that day. Then, the men and I were each taken one-by-one into another room for inspection. No more information was given, no introductions were made. S was told to tell me to take my sunglasses out of my hair so that people could see my hairstyle. It was obvious that she had no more information than I did, and if I asked any questions or didn't comply she would get in trouble. I put on a forced smile and took my sunglasses off, looking only at her and at a Chinese man who had also been in the first building and had seemed to be in charge previously. He looked at the floor. I put my sunglasses back on top of my head and gave the rest of the group my best "I'm being polite, but f*** you" smile before walking back out to the waiting room. I know I was being obnoxious and rude but I didn't feel safe or comfortable and I don't want to participate in anything that feels so very dodgy unless I have enough information to feel like I'm making an informed decision.
I have a pretty high threshold for odd and uncomfortable situations but this was ridiculous.