Toba Beta wrote, “Reunion reveals friendship potential that haven’t yet been emerged in the past.” When I searched on the Internet for “quotes about reunions” I hoped Google would return an author I had read or at least one whom was famous. This missive, however, seemed somehow fitting, if even accidentally so, or so I justified. And so an unfamiliar muse sets the tone for a tale as arbitrary as that which spawns childhood friendships in the first place: the happenchance of circumstance and a sustained daily presence of each other’s company throughout one’s most formative years. From a late Bayside, Queens summer in 1977 to as an unlikely reuniting 35 years later one winter in Liaoning Province, China.
Dr. Cui was struck with over-zealous, bordering on feigned, marvel upon first hearing I was Jewish. His near-jubilation seemed about as genuine as his own self-proclaimed devotion to the Christian faith, or even the very doctoral degree that comprised his name itself. His chosen English name, a gratuitous yet common practice amongst Chinese, he proudly professed was “Moses.”
Over the two years plus that followed, we spent enough time together to be able to get to know each other, or at least have the opportunity to do so, which I suppose isn’t the same thing. Like so many instantly wealthy Chinese, the combination of sudden and extreme money and power had rendered Moses overly guarded and comically arrogant. This unfortunate amalgam was bolstered by his Chinese education and cultural upbringing, which achieves in its citizens a general lack of interest in the world, and therefore little more than a surface knowledge of it, apart from a near-compulsion to validate stereotypes about, say, India or Africa, and compare and compartmentalize cultures like the Chinese versus the Japanese. Like so many nouveau riche Chinese, little seemed to genuinely enthuse Moses apart from the identification and quantification of luxury material items, i.e., the prices of Louis Vuitton luggage, the newest BMW convertible and Ferragamo ties. The result of such uni-dimensional vapidity has rendered most of China’s elite to boring, juvenile narcissists.
So, I was naturally reluctant when Moses proposed two “successful” Jewish friends of mine make the time to fly to China and deliver a lecture series on on the “the Secrets of Jews in Business” to Christian EMBA “students.” I was hesitant for several reasons, not the least of which was how fake the entire thing was. It was futile that I tried to make it abundantly clear how my friends and I were mere secular Jews. And I also had deep reservations that his purported Christian business leaders were little more than brain-washees into a faith about which no one had the foggiest clue.
I was also genuinely and justifiably skeptical that such a trip could even be pulled off in the first place and was never convinced (even while it occurred) that plans would be carried out as promised. In living nearly 12 years in China, I had experienced so much big talk with absolutely no follow through that I had come to reasonably expect discussion of doing literally anything to basically be meaningless. Someone I had once met best summed up working with Chinese: “they think one thing, say something else, and do a third thing entirely.” I had explained to Moses that professional Americans, in general, and especially busy/successful people, took pride and invested their reputations in committing to plans and then sticking to them. This would take some demonstrating, however, and over the course of the next year I arranged two trips for him, his friends and daughter to the US, which included prepaying international and domestic flights, Amtrak tickets, appointments for him and his daughter to tour various boarding schools, prepaid hotels, and Broadway tickets. This gained me in Moses’ eyes, and rightfully so, that I did not bullshit about what I said I would do. And I was eventually instrumental in his daughter’s attending a reputable prep school in Virginia. So, Moses had now forced himself to reciprocate in his own hair-brained plan less he endure the shame in the knowledge that he had been upstaged by a foreigner.
But I was also loath to the whole idea on simple grounds of prejudice. While it is arguably true that Jews have been successful given their relative numbers, I also didn’t feel the need to propagate such a platitude. It just so happens I am on the right side of convention at this juncture in time, but I am under no illusions that stereotyping, even when to positive ends, is the very seed that has been unfavorably sewn against Jews and all others whom have been persecuted. But at the same time, the idealist in me felt I could use the lectures to address this notion of positive racism and point out the dangers of stereotyping regardless of how favorable the preconceived notions were. But another side of me felt that this was also just a rationalization for wanting to go through with the trip.
Lastly, I was aware that my friends and I would have to spend ample time with Moses and his Christian cronies, a fact which genuinely concerned me given that were committing to 10-days on the road together. I was not sure there wouldn’t be a clash of cultures, and that in all of their seemingly well-intentioned hospitality and generous gestures that the Chinese wouldn’t somehow manage to overstep boundaries and completely fuck everything up.