The first thing you need to know about Hot Spring Leisure City is that there are no hot springs.
It is January, and each hotel room has an unfinished bathtub the size of a kiddie pool on the balcony. The one outside my window is filled with construction tubes that look like frozen pig intestines. I called down to complain about it, but the man behind the desk just offered me a blue tarp and some tie-downs, and no one else seemed to care. The important thing is that there is a telephone in the bathroom and a TV with 41 channels, and that every one of New World China Land’s two thousand regional employees can say that they, too, have visited the capital.
For three days out of the year, the company flies all its employees to a 2-star hotel in Beijing for an annual retreat. It’s my first time, and I could care less about it, but I can tell the regional sales staff have been looking forward to the retreat for months. This year, property sales are way down and a lot of gaudy high-rise units that have been vacant since September aren’t likely to be sold until the summer. Regional employees are on half-salary until enough residents move in, and this is the only paid time off they will get all year.
The rainforest themed lobby at the hotel is replete with polyester vines that wind up faux-marble columns and palm trees forged from PVC pipes. A crewman dressed in a tartan vest scoops up plastic wrappers with a butterfly net from a pool of stagnant water.
“I can almost see myself in that reflective pond,” declares Wei Wei, a stocky accountant from Hebei who is my assigned roommate for the long weekend. He has a cigarette fastened to his lips and is wearing the red polo shirt stitched with the company logo that is mandatory dress code.
“I feel warmer just looking at that sandbar,” a saleswoman next to him replies, pointing at the jetty of spray-painted concrete that surrounds the pond. She is wearing heavy blush and crimson eyeshadow that gives her face the permanent expression of a startled bird.
Wei Wei and the woman start gushing about the amenities of the hotel—the hot springs on the balcony, the make-shift bowling alley in the basement—each trying to one-up the other, like they’re out doing one of their pitches. I laugh, amused that two sales agents could be so easily impressed. The woman turns and gives me a look, and I can tell she recognizes my face from one of the glossy company advertisements I’ve done: me donning a pewter suit next to a Victorian chateau or holding a glass of wine outside a French veranda.
As the sole foreigner at New World China Land, it’s my job to transform mediocre properties into international destinations. There’s nothing like an American face on a sales brochure to evoke dreams of a Western life abroad, and foreigners have the uncanny ability to make an ordinary Chinese building look enviable. In the spring, we christened China’s first eco-park, a landmark property that boasted passive heating and net-zero energy. Neither of those things were true, of course, but at the opening, I appeared onstage as Thomas Milton, PhD, in a lab coat and goggles, honoring the estate with the first of many accreditations that I ran off the office printer.
None of our regional staff are aware of the ploy; they’re as ignorant of the pretext as the clients we sell to. In other words, they believe the properties to be the gleaming spectacles we promise. Even the retreat at Hot Spring Leisure City is its own kind of farce: a concession aimed at placating the company’s lowliest employees. And yet, if I squint hard enough, I can almost imagine it from their awestruck viewpoint, conjuring images better suited to the palatial estates of Martha’s Vineyard than the sooty outskirts of Beijing.
I spend most of the first night in my hotel room, smoking cigarettes and flipping through channels on TV. I relish the time to myself, but part of me thinks I should be downstairs in the lobby, tending to the flock of regional employees waiting for me to pose with them for photos. Where are you from? How long have you lived in China? I’ve never met a foreigner so handsome. Nali, nali, I’d say, indulging in the customary modesty, even if I secretly believed it. I’ve had hundreds of conversations that begin exactly that way, and still don’t tire of them.
My roommate Wei Wei is different. He’s lying spread-eagle in bed, seemingly oblivious to my presence, wearing the dull grimace of an older brother forced to babysit a dim sibling. I clear my throat, trying to exonerate him from his perceived charge.
“Bieguan wo,” I tell him, taking a long drag and directing it toward the closed window. Most people find it impressive that I speak Mandarin. But Wei Wei says nothing, just paws at his shirt like he’s fanning a stove, and directs his attention back to the TV.
For ten years, I’ve done everything a foreigner can do in China. I managed a baijiu bar, taught English at a private kindergarten, ran my own guiding company for tourists. It hasn’t always been easy. I can’t count how many black-outs there’ve been on my street, or how much digouyou I’ve ingested, or how many VPNs I’ve burned through just to outpace the firewall. But there’s a certain recognition here I can’t get back home. After so long in China, life in America has begun to feel illusory. I pride myself on knowing the work-arounds, understanding which strings to pull to get things done.
Wei Wei and I settle wordlessly on a serialized drama on WWII and, during the commercial break, there’s an ad showing a long-haired Brit eating a bowl of instant noodles. How to turn an average foreigner into a celebrity? I know all too well. At New World China Land, I’ve impersonated doctors, athletes, business moguls, politicians. The money is good, and I try not to think about the implications. I’ve done photo shoots all across the country, playing foreigners more ordinary and culturally ignorant than myself.
“Fangbian mian,” I scoff, shaking my head. “Can you believe it?” But when I look over, Wei Wei is already passed out. The cigarette smoke lingers over us like a specter, leaving me in a cloud of my thoughts. I’ll admit it takes a certain kind of person who can make a living being a huckster and still look at himself in the mirror. I’ve sold enough slapdash assets with my face alone to weather a recession. Some would call it deceit, but at the end of the day, selling an illusion is what New World China Land does best.
The next morning, all two thousand of us gather in the parking lot for a group photo. I don’t really grasp the full scale of the operation until I see everyone there all at once. There is a miniature ski slope loaded up with fake snow next to the hotel but no lift, so people are trudging up and posing for photos at the top. You can spot the first timers to Beijing from the returnees: shivering while taking selfies in their too-thin parkas, trying vainly to keep their balance.
It’s not always glamorous being the only laowai. Sure, there are plenty of people who turn and stare, but just as many keep their distance. Try to play it cool. There are still parts of the country where a foreigner is the most exotic thing people have ever seen, and I know that part of my job is predicated on that fact. And yet, no one ever expects very much of you. Most people are too awestruck to make any contact at all. That is the reality of being an outsider: everybody already assumes they know your life story without asking.
There is a man with a bullhorn directing us to line up by number, and when he gives the word, we take our jackets off all at once. We’re arranged around him in a semicircle, and he barks orders at us from the platform of a rotating dolly: smile, sit up straighter, stop shaking. We’re all freezing in our identical shirts, trying not to laugh, and that’s when I feel it, this sort-of oneness. Instead of standing out, I wonder what it might feel like simply to blend in. I like to imagine after the photo is printed — with my face too small to pick out in the crowd — that even if we have nothing else in common, at least we were all a part of this.
“GOOD AFTERNOON,” the general manager bellows over the sound system, and I feel like I’ve been shocked with a cattle prod. We are seated in the industrial-grade auditorium, capacity twenty-five hundred. On stage, the general manager and four senior executives enact a rendition of “Little Apple,” a Chinese pop song in the style of Rebecca Black. They shuffle listlessly from left to right, like they’ve been fixed to marionette strings, or are being forced to dance under duress of a firing squad.
I look around, hoping to find someone who shares my cynicism, but the audience erupts in thunderous applause. The light operator cues the fog machine and sends spotlights of color across the stage. The stomach-churning refrain is right on cue: You are my little apple, I can’t love you more. I’m sitting alone in the back-right, in the section earmarked for HQ staff, where on all sides there are blocks of employees whooping and hollering from fifteen other provinces.
“How did you like my dancing?” the general manager asks over the audible din of the crowd. He doesn’t mention the low sales numbers or the half-salaries or the fact that the hotel doesn’t even have hot springs. “Now, let me tell you what a year we’ve had.”
Annoyed by the excess, I leave the auditorium and enter a large circular hallway just beyond the double doors. It’s sparsely adorned, with gray pockmarked walls that are separated from the outside by a pair of thin plastic curtains. Women are queuing to wait for the restroom while men send plumes of smoke into the badly ventilated corridor. It’s amazing how alone you can feel even when surrounded by people. I light a cigarette from my jacket pocket and rest against the tiled wall, the smell of urine mixing with the chilly condensation of my breath.
Back inside the auditorium, as the general manager wraps up his speech, I hear the Indiana Jones theme song blare over the stereo speakers and the event hostess takes the stage in a sequined dress that barely covers her upper thighs.
“I want to make one very exciting announcement before dinner,” she says, in the upbeat tone of a 1950s TV housewife. She puts a finger to her crimson lips, and the operator cuts the music.
“You will all be pleased to learn that tomorrow we will hold our first-annual all-company lottery.” The silence in the audience is soon replaced with curious murmuring.
“At the conclusion of the final plenary session, there will be a drawing for one fabulous grand prize. Every employee is eligible to win,” she says, flashing a dazzling smile. Her gaze lingers over the room, seeming to take in all two thousand pairs of gleaming eyes at once, before landing on mine. Suddenly, all the gauntlets and obstructions start to make sense. I feel the lights in the room dim, the crowd around me fading to black. I want to write the whole thing off, but I want even more for her to lead me offstage, her soft voice in my ear: The lottery, this whole retreat: it was all just a ruse so that I could choose you.
At dinner, I sit opposite two women from finance, in the second-floor dining hall that boasts twinkling LED lights in the blue-painted ceiling to imitate stars. A camp stove and Coleman tent are set up in the corner of the room, and a non-functioning fireplace has been stuffed with three hefty cedar logs suitable for a holiday postcard.
“Isn’t this just incredible?” says one, peering over the spread of food in front of her.
“I still can’t believe that dance,” replies the other, wearing big glasses and a Mickey Mouse cap. “Who knew he had such grace? And the lottery later?” she leans in close. “This is my big break! I tell you I’ve been feeling lucky for weeks.”
I slop up a spoonful of cold rice porridge and watch it slide down the walls of my bowl. Don’t they know that the company couldn’t care less about them? The lottery feels as much like a delusion as everything else at Hot Spring Leisure City. Even if every person could win, the prize would never come close to making up for all the lost wages. I wonder how much more one of my photo shoots costs to produce than each of their temporary half-salaries.
All this money and the food still tastes like shit, I want to say, but no one at the table asks. It’s true: New World China Land has perfected its marketing lie so well that I can’t shake the other employees from the guise. I don’t bother trying to talk sense into them; I just need to make it to tomorrow.
After dinner, I head back up to my room. Wei Wei is already inside watching TV and drinking a Blue Lion from a case on the floor. There is a fresh pack of Zhongnanhai on the lip of the table, so I dig into the pack and light a cigarette too. On TV is another melodrama about WWII that looks nearly identical to the one from the previous night. In it, a young boy in army fatigues is arguing with his father about not wanting to fight in the war.
I’m well aware of China’s romanticizing of its wartime past, a sham not too dissimilar from the false veneer perpetrated at Hot Spring Leisure City. More than that, I’m in no mood for another dismal evening with Wei Wei quietly sulking around the room, so I turn toward him, pointing at the TV in front of us.
“China must really eat this stuff up,” I say in Mandarin, sitting at the foot of the bed. The boy’s father is standing over him, a hand on his shoulder, extolling the filial duties of serving one’s country and needing to defeat the Japanese.
“You don’t understand,” Wei Wei says, in a low drawl that sounds faraway. At first, I assume I misheard him or that it was a noise from somewhere else, but then he pipes up again: “China would be stronger if not for them.”
I turn my attention back to the TV to see what he’s referring to. There is a foreigner on screen, playing the role of a clueless sympathizer to the Chinese Nationalists. His lines are so deluded and disparaging that they’re hard to listen to, spoken only to serve the narrow interests of the producers. The depiction is so absurd it would be impossible to be believed. And yet, whenever I see another foreigner, the same thought stops me dead in my tracks. I suddenly think about all the people I’ve impersonated for the company and wonder what, if anything, it all amounts to.
“We’re stronger on our own,” Wei Wei continues, still not bothering to look at me. “The best part about China is its paiwai.” He flicks his cigarette, dumping a heap of ash onto the carpet.
He’s talking about his disdain for foreigners as plainly as if I weren’t sitting right in front of him. His behavior seemed merely apathetic before but now it feels personal. Everyone knows I’m the only foreigner at New World China Land; without me, we wouldn’t even be able to afford the retreat. I could care less about Wei Wei’s opinions on the war, but his comments seemed to be attacking me directly.
“And what about New World China Land?” I shoot back. “Do you really think you’d all be better off on your own?” Wei Wei shrugs his shoulders and stares back at the TV, but I don’t let him get away that easily. I let him have it. “This company would be nothing if not for me.”
“You?” Wei Wei asks, staring at me with amusement.
Suddenly, there’s a loud explosion on TV, and the young boy dressed in army fatigues is swallowed up in a cloud of dense smoke. Wei Wei takes another sip of his beer and sinks back down on the bed. I search for something more to say, but the words are ringing in my head.
“Don’t you know how worthless these properties are?” I demand, irate. Wei Wei sits cross-legged on the bed, a thin smile forcing through his lips.
“I know the properties as well as you do,” he says, exhaling a thin stream of smoke at the ceiling. “I know all about this retreat and why we’re all here.” He reaches down and grabs another can of beer.
“Well then can’t you see that the company is playing you at its own game?” I ask, almost shouting. Wei Wei shakes his head, waving his hand in the air.
“You don’t understand,” he says again. “To everyone here, you are the game.” He lowers his chin into his beer. “You’re as phony as this entire retreat. Any other foreigner could replace you.”
The auditorium the next morning is at capacity, and the excitement is palpable, as if Oprah herself was about to start handing out free cars. Before the winner of the lottery is announced, there’s a performance by a group of 40-year-old men from Inner Mongolia wearing silk tunics and dancing to Shania Twain. I’m ready for it all to be over, but the audience is still clapping and shouting as if anything is truly possible. The music reaches a crescendo, and everyone is seated at the edge of their chairs, watching as the beautiful hostess hauls out the opaque white box that holds their destiny.
The box is drawn no fewer than four times. The first draw is a no-show, the second, a member of senior management who wisely asks for a redraw. On the third draw, the white slip is muddled, and she can’t make out the numbers. The dream of anticipation lingers in the air for what feels like forever. But inevitably, the moment comes when it is clear to nearly everyone in the crowd that the number on the chosen slip won’t be theirs.
When the number is finally called, there is a shriek from the audience. The winner stops in the aisle, and ushers have to haul the gigantic Swedish air purifier to her seat. Somewhere near the tiled wall of the corridor, the sound of a hocked loogie reverberates in the auditorium. Rows of middle-aged men, with lit cigarettes dangling from their lips, start shifting in their seats. And then, a low-pitched chorus of grumbling begins in the back of the room as the dejected crowd surges toward the exits.
“Tomorrow will be even brighter,” the hostess implores, as the company logo shines against a golden sun on the projector behind her. “Thank you very much for coming, and we hope to see you all again next year!”
The crowd of employees outside is nearly as thick as the smog. Everyone is hauling their luggage, getting ready to go back to whatever godforsaken place they came from. Within minutes, I could become any foreigner; no one would recognize me if I tried. I feel my stomach lurch thinking about my complicity in the deliberate architecture. It’s as if we spend so long believing a fallacy that we start to perpetuate it ourselves.
I look up again at the hulking artifice of Hot Spring Leisure City, the gray concrete hull wrapping everything in its muted hue. The parking lot piled high with artificial snow. The dismal floor smudged with cigarette ash. I remember standing shoulder-to-shoulder during the group photo and, for a minute, I sense a different kind of oneness: the collective feeling of being had.
Wordlessly, I light a cigarette and someone else follows suit. Pretty soon there is a group of us gathered outside the building in silence, amidst the dumpsters, waiting for the buses to arrive, and I start to wonder what it is I’m going back to. It’s been years since I first arrived in China, and I can hardly imagine what my life would be like if I left. The alternative seems just as bad. How long would it take to claim legitimacy in China? I could spend my whole life here and never find out.
It isn’t long before a man approaches me. He’s smiling and his voice is raised, hoping that befriending a foreigner is its own consolation.
“Too bad about the lottery,” he says in Mandarin, shaking his head. He rests both hands on the crook of his suitcase. “Ni laizi nali?”
I turn back to look at him, smoke escaping through my lips. I scrunch up both shoulders and shake my head from side to side. And then, in my best English, reply: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”