'Chinese boss offered me $20,000 to write to Angelina Jolie'

Eden Collinsworth, author of I Stand Corrected, on the unique challenges of working in contemporary China.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 17 Sep 2014

I Stand Corrected by Eden Collinsworth

Doubleday/Random House, £18.99

What inspired you to write this book?

I’d spent 30 years going in and out of mainland China on business and had borne witness to its profound transformation. Despite the nation’s growing status as a world economy, it was achingly apparent to me that Chinese businessmen were still uncomfortable in the company of their Western counterparts. That prompted me to write a Western etiquette guide for Chinese businessmen. To my complete shock, it quickly became a Chinese bestseller. I Stand Corrected tells the story of the year I spent living in Dongzhimen, Beijing, writing that book and the madcap adventures that unfolded. It’s fundamentally a memoir but it branches into travel and business.

Why is it called I Stand Corrected?

I grappled with the title. I’m no expert on China – I still cannot speak the language, it’s like a train wreck every time I try. In Mandarin, the old character for the word black has a sub-character in it for the word white. Living in China, I was definitely the sub-character! I was the one standing to be corrected.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you during your time in China?

A Chinese friend of mine, a financier, had flown over from New York to meet a client; a major Chinese cell phone company. She asked me to join their lunch meeting. The conversation unfurled in Chinese so I sat, silent and smiling, until the president of the telecoms firm directed a question at me. As I had lived in Los Angeles for a while, he wanted to know if I knew Angelina Jolie. Although I vaguely knew the producer of one of her earlier movies, no - I didn’t know the actress. Nevertheless, the president wanted me to write to my producer friend and ask him if Angelina Jolie would represent their new smartphone. And, wait for it: he would pay me $20,000 to write the letter. I was stunned. It was an absurd request but my friend pointed out that this was all about guanxi – relationships, connections and, ultimately, dignity based on status and prestige. Any form of refusal in China costs face. I wrote the letter – and split the ‘winnings’ with my friend. That was definitely the funniest experience.

What three tips would you give a Westerner doing business in China for the first time?

1. Inevitably it will involve a meal and you won’t recognise half the people sitting around the table. Business will not be discussed. If you attempt to bring it up, it’s a sign of disrespect.
2. Understand the mechanics of a Chinese meal. The host will show you deference by allowing you the last bite of the most coveted part of the meal. In my case, I was served Tibetan caterpillars in broth, each one costing the equivalent of $100. Had I not eaten every single one, it would have been a great insult.
3. If you’re coming into China with a service or a product that can be replicated, you’d better start thinking about your exit strategy.

What’s next for you?

My next book is about the paradox of morals. Take the one-child policy in China: from a Western perspective, it’s a breach of personal freedom; from a Chinese perspective, it was absolutely necessary and it’s what saved the economy. The book is tentatively called ‘Behaving Badly’. The proposal has been optioned by Renegade pictures with the intention of doing a three-part BBC series.

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