After the first few visits, they start to feel more in tune and experience the first stirrings of a fatal ambition: the secret hope of becoming the “Mr China” of their time, the Old China Hand with the inside track in the Middle Kingdom. ..
But, in the end, it’s an illusion.
The book is Mr. China, an account of trying to open China to Western business in the early 90’s. It’s a period piece, at the cusp of China’s opening to the West when tradition and Maoism still juxtaposed with ambition and capitalism. It’s also an expat tale, relating how Tim Clissold, Cambridge trained in physics and London apprenticed in finance, spent two lonely years studying Mandarin in Beijing before joining a private equity team eager to modernize the Chinese. His story captures both the difficulty of understanding a foreign society around him (but not really) and trying to bridge it back to his own countrymen (but not successfully). It highlights the challenges and contradictions of expatriate life; the difficulties of leveraging expatriate experiences.
When I left the Corporate Parent, I thought I had it all figured out: I understood the Dutch, how the system worked, how to live on my own. I was ready to bring overlooked Dutch expertise, underappreciated Dutch markets, to naïve US businesses. I was ready to be Mr. Netherlands.
I was wrong. Of course.
I understood, perhaps, 10% of what I needed to know to live in the Netherlands and to do business there. It was harder to create, finance, and build a business across cultures than I could have imagined. Today, three years later, I’m well up the curve but far from being an insider. I’ve made my way, found a niche, grown in the role but, humbler, I know the illusions.
Someone once asked me how long it took before I stopped feeling like an expat. “About two years,” I suggested. I can’t believe you get jaded that quickly! But two years was the time that it took to feel comfortable in, and part of, the neighborhood. After two years, I know where to find things, the words to describe what I want: the merchants and I smile and know one another. If I reflect a moment, I do still marvel at being part of it. If I step out of my neighborhood, I can still get lost and surprised. But today I do feel, generally, like I fit in.
And maybe becoming an insider in my own mind is as close to being Mr. Insider as any expat ever becomes.