Breakfast the next morning is a sizzling platter of crispy maple bacon, sautéed scrambled eggs, and a generous dollop of hollandaise sauce on the side. The coffee is steaming and rich, a dark Colombian roast that instills life into anything it touches, myself included. I may have sold my soul to be here, but at this very moment, it feels so incredibly worth it. Never underestimate what man will do on an empty stomach. And never doubt what man can accomplish on a full one.
I’m starting in on my second plate (the waiter is extraordinarily attentive and constantly placing food in front of me; the moment I finish one plate, another will materialize as if from thin air) when a young Chinese woman sits down at my table across from me. She has shoulder-length black hair that is dyed with streaks of auburn and is wearing a dark blue business suit with giant golden hoop earrings. It is clear from her demeanor and the way she sits that she knows exactly who I am.
“Mr. Dexter Fletcher?” says the woman.
“In the flesh and blood,” I say.
“My name is Charlotte Xu,” she says crisply, “I understand you arrived here in Shanghai last night.”
“That I did,” I say and I take a drink of my coffee.
She eyes the three empty sides of bacon, two English biscuits, and fruit bowl that I’ve put away. “I hope you are enjoying your accommodations. We do hope they are sufficient.”
“They are quite sufficient,” I say. I polish off the rest of the bacon and then turn to give her my full attention. “How can I help you today, Ms. Xu?”
She pulls a manila folder from her briefcase which she’d brought with her.
“We’ve gathered from our assessment, Mr. Fletcher, that you possess a certain set of skills which we consider useful. If used properly, we think you would be able to help contribute to our project here on the mainland.”
“But before continuing, I suppose, let me ask you this,” says Charlotte. “How have you found your visit to Shanghai so far?”
“Well, truth be told,” I say carefully, “I’ve only seen the airport and this hotel ’til now. But if they’re any indication, Shanghai has struck me to be far more modern and shiny than I think I’d expected. Using one’s mobile for literally everything –identification to boarding pass to payment to hotel key– is quite impressive, if somewhat concerning.”
Charlotte smiles. “Westerners are often both impressed and somewhat weary with the ubiquity of our technology.” She makes a small wave at the surroundings. “The truth is, everything that you see here, Mr. Fletcher, the gleaming steel and glass, the modern furnishings and appointments– it is all veneer, a shiny gloss that obscures a far uglier and disordered reality.”
I nod. What Charlotte is telling me isn’t exactly a secret. Back in the west, not a week would pass without some American newspaper or media outlet running a breathless article or op-ed about grotesque human right abuses in China. Whether it be suppression of the Uighur minorities in the western provinces or the forced detention and reeducation camps in Tibetan south, there was always some new atrocity apparently occurring within China’s borders.