What had George gotten me into? A speech in front of the entire school? What on earth did I have to say?
"Look, don't worry man, you'll do fine. Billy will translate everything into Chinese, you'll talk about travel, and you'll fill the two and a half hours before you know it."
"Two and a half fucking hours? Are you kidding me? Sure, I can carry on for a little while, but there is no way that I can entertain a school full of college kids for that long! What the hell is this shit?!"
You'll be fine; Billy's translation will kill half the time, and I will help you write the rest."
And by helping write the rest, George of course meant telling me tales of his smart and stupid students. We went through our now-daily routine of the Adam Q&A including the girlfriend/Chinese girls question, and then broke the classes into groups. One class wasn't playing ball, and George had had enough of them. In his frustration at their collective unwillingness to at least fuck around and pretend to write a sales pitch selling their friend, George stormed out of the class with me in tow.
We sat in the frigid hallway, a notepad in my hand and George sitting backwards on a wooden chair in front of me.
"Fuck man, I really don't think I can fill all that time."
"So this one time the kids were fucking around like this and I scared them so much by storming around that there were tears and apologies galore. I really do get fed up with the ones that don't care to learn. I mean, I suppose I get what I deserve, but..."
George wasn't going to be any help, so I started scribbling notes to myself, and lo, he was right, there was plenty to talk about. I thought.
It was a tourism school after all; I could tell them all about the travel industry, particularly what I had just picked up in Beijing.
By 10:00, class ended and it was time to head down to the lecture hall. We moved through a sea of Chinese youth, George smugly sporting his aviators and smiling and waving at the myriad who recognized and admired him. This time, I was beginning to get a little attention of my own; kids who I had "taught" remembered me and were smiling and waving at me too.
The lecture hall was large. Stadium seating extending up from a podium made of a few long tables and chalkboards. There were a lot of seats to fill, a few hundred at the very least, and I crossed my fingers, hoping for sparse attendance. But the kids kept coming and coming. They filled the seats and then the back of the room, and then the crowd extended down a couple of the aisles and flanked the room. I looked down at my short list of topics and gulped. I was fucked.
Billy, dressed in a crisp suit and coat still buttoned, sat to my left watching attentively as his students filed into the room. George sat to my right, suit and sneakers, aviators on, his best posture and a huge grin on his face as he surveyed the growing crowd. There was no doubt in the world that the only words rolling through his head were "I own the motherfucker."
And there I was, in the center, wearing the shoes and pants I bought in Jinan to make myself look a bit less like a backpacker, a button-down REI shirt, and of course a jacket because the room was several degrees below zero. Fahrenheit.
Billy kicked things off with a lengthy introduction in Mandarin. I knew to stand and nod when Billy nudged me, prompting a hearty round of applause. Well, at least the kids were alert and supportive.
So I began: "Hello, my name is Adam, and I am visiting from America!"
Billy followed with the translation. This was great; I'd have a good 30 seconds to decide every next sentence I was going to say! If only the real world worked this way, a sort of safety buffer to prevent my mouth from getting me into trouble...
George was right, with Billy translating, this would take time. I wound my way through explaining that I was visiting my best friend from many years ago, that I was in the midst of a trip that would take me through China, Myanmar, India and Bangladesh, and that I worked in the travel industry in America.
I explained that I worked for Expedia, which owned eLong.com, which some of the students were familiar with. I explained that I was a manager and that Expedia was the #1 travel agency in America (George had coached me that "manager" and #1 are important distinctions in China) and both comments earned me some cred. George felt it wasn't enough though. He interrupted and stood at the board, telling the room, that Expedia sells nearly $4 billion of travel every year. He began writing on the board.
$4,000,000,000. USD. The room erupted at that mind-bogglingly large number. As if a billion kwai weren't insane enough, that much in US Dollars was an order of magnitude more impressive. Cred established. George sat down and resumed his smug grin.
So I explained the internet travel space in America, how it had changed the way people bought travel, enabling each person to find lower prices and to do it with less effort. How internet travel allowed customers to find lower prices, through the emergence of the vacation packages business model which was pioneered by Expedia and a product that I worked on for my first years out of college.
It was incredibly fortuitous that I had visited eLong a few days previous because I could speak to the emergence of the Chinese internet travel industry.
"Today, China prosperity is spreading in your country! With this new wealth, there is a rapidly emerging middle class, consisting of people who for the first time are able to travel for leisure, rather than just for work or family affairs. And China is quickly becoming a technology leader, with more technologically savvy citizens, and finally an increase in computer usage across the country. China appears to be the next place for the internet travel business to blossom, and this is something as students of the industry you should be aware of.
"We face many challenges in trying to sell things on the internet in China though: in the West, we all use credit cards for purchasing over the internet, but the Chinese prefer to buy things with cash, and they don't yet trust the internet as a secure place for private information."
It was amazing, I was treading into some pretty advanced territory, Billy chugging along next to me, and the students apparently interested in what I was saying.
I transitioned my conversation into some areas that would be especially relevant to these students: how I found my job, how to write a good resume, the vast variety of educational backgrounds that are useful at an internet company, and how we at Expedia interviewed college students.
I was feeling good; and then I looked at my watch and realized I was running low on things to talk about, yet was 45 minutes into the speech. I had a lot of time left to fill.
"Billy, I am afraid this is about all I have!" I told him, concerned.
"No problem, we will have question and answer!"
Billy opened the floor, surely so that the hundreds of students could ask those all-important questions: do you have a girlfriend? Do you like Chinese girls?
Which, of course, they did. But they also asked some very intelligent questions, one girl in particular. She grilled me, inquiring about the impact of internet travel on the traditional travel agent, whether an internet company could offer personalized customer service, and whether the Chinese ever really would trust sending their personal information over the internet.
Notably thoughtful questions, I was impressed, and had answers. And George was right, with all of the translation, we filled the entire 2.5 hour slot. I was recipient to a standing ovation, and after the speech, Billy took me aside and handed me some gifts from him and the school. A fancy set of wooden chopsticks that said Shandong College of Hospitality and Tourism in Mandarin, and a fancy folder containing a color booklet touting the wonders of said school. And to think that I had a small part in their curriculum, I left with a good feeling; relieved that the gig had come off without a hitch, and content in my knowledge that no matter the valuable information to be imparted upon these young minds, everything took a back seat to whether or not I had a girlfriend and liked Chinese girls.
After completing my speech we filed out of the auditorium with the rest of the students. The next event for their day was a rehearsal for the grand opening ceremony that was to take place in a few days. All of the students were instructed to wear black suits and white shirts, even for the rehearsal, which they obediently did. The operation was run with military precision: outside the school, students lined up into queues that stretched off to the horizon, ostensibly in a prescribed order and organization.
The lines filed toward a brick plaza where the students quietly, orderly assembled in grid-like phalanxes facing a raised platform, apparently where the president of the school and other dignitaries would address the students.
Free from participating in the practice, George and I joked around with the kids as they marched toward the plaza, and then we hopped up onto the raised platform. There, for just a moment, we felt the power that Chairman Mao, Hitler, or any other dictator feels when addressing his minions. The students remained at attention until we taunted them, urging them to break out of their stoic stances. We jumped around and waved at the students, indicating we wanted them to wave back. They waved, and emitted a sound quite like the sound of thousands of chickens clucking at once.
We had to clear out of there before this sense of power went to our heads.