Following the directions on my phone I make my way to my assigned bus seat. There is a young brunette woman already sitting in the window seat when I arrive. She looks a few years younger than me with her hair done back in short ponytail and is wearing a pair of aviators and wireless, oversized pink earmuff headphones; it’s clear she completely oblivious to the outside world lost in her own Spotify playlist or some other auditory universe. This wouldn’t be any of my concern except her North Face backpack and jacket are sprawled in a tangled heap on my aisle bus seat.
“Excuse me,” I say, tapping her on the shoulder. “Do you mind?”
“Oh! Sorry!” she says, snapping out of her reverie. She hurriedly moves her stuff from my seat. “My bad, my bad,” she apologizes. I make her accent out to be English– closer to a proper Queen’s English than cockney or estuary.
“No worries,” I say as I take my seat. The bus lurches backwards; it appears like we are departing.
She eyes me over, giving me a second look. “Hey,” she says, “are you also staying at the Four Seasons downtown?”
I blink, surprised. “Yeah, I am. You are too?”
She smiles. “Indeed! My name’s Erin Morgan,” she says, giving a small wave. “I’m here on a contracting project for VenPulse. I saw you in the hotel dining area this morning.”
“Yeah, you’re a tall, lanky white guy with unruly red hair in a sea of short Asian people. And you’ve got a whole Malcolm Gladwell look going– it’s difficult to miss and not remember.”
I laugh. “Ha. I suppose so. I’m Dexter Fletcher,” I say. “I’m also here on a job.”
I search my mind to see if Erin’s company, VenPulse, rings any bells. It does not. It is common in China though for the CCP to set up its numerous contracting gigs through various shell companies and fronts. It’s a tangled web, but if you dig deep enough, just about everyone is only a few degrees of separation away from the communist regime. Behind the curtain, it’s the government ultimately footing the bill. This is the simple inevitable outcome that results when the state controls who’s in the business, who isn’t, who wins, and who loses.
“What specific line of work do you do at VenPulse?” I ask.
“Oh, a little bit of everything,” she replies nonchalantly. “Specifically, I work in security. But out here, I’ve found that they’ve been just about as interested in what I’d done previously. It’s a topic that’s arisen a lot, surprisingly.”
“Have you been out here long?”
“I’m six months in on an eight-month assignment,” she says. “So it’s been a decent chunk of time. Yourself?”
“Today’s my first full day,” I say. “I just got in last night.”
“Ah, a greenhorn,” Erin says smiling. “I bet you’re feeling you’ve really wandered through the looking glass.”
“It’s been a bit of an adjustment,” I admit. “Above everything else, I’ve been impressed with how swiftly everything has moved,” I say. “Just 72 hours ago, I was sitting in my apartment in Brooklyn. But since then, I was contacted online, tested via a virtual assessment, flown halfway around the world, and now I’m sitting here on a bus leaving Shanghai. It’s been a whirlwind of a ride.”
Erin chuckles. “You don’t need to tell me. Before this, I was with the NHS in the London office. It took me two months just to wait for my drug tests to clear so I could onboard at Norfolk. And then another month before they processed all of my paperwork so I could actually start.”
“So, what’s their secret?” I ask, genuinely curious. “How do they get everything done so quickly?”
Erin tilts her head to think for a moment before answering. Outside the bus window, the Shanghai cityscape has begun morphing into rolling fields with pastures full of sheep and cows. We’re just about to leave city limits and enter the countryside.
“I think one big advantage,” Erin finally says, after thinking a moment, “is that the Chinese were so far behind. The west did everything first. It’s like in Africa how the Ugandan government didn’t even bother setting up telephone poles and lines. They just went straight to satellite and cellular; everything was wireless from day one. When you’re last to the party, you can skip over all of the mistakes that everyone else ahead of you already made. It’s essentially like taking an exam for which you already know all of the answers. When you get it last, you get it best.”
“So what you’re saying makes sense for infrastructure,” I say. “Like, I can understand why their highways, hospitals, and mass transit systems are all so futuristic and advanced. Xi had the luxury of a blank slate to begin with and hasn’t been bogged down with legacy baggage. But does that apply to bureaucracy?”
“Sure it does,” says Erin. “Lemme tell you a story. Back home, in Fulham, we wanted to build a bicycle lane, right? Just a dumb extra lane next to the main road so us bicyclists wouldn’t be run over like second-class citizens. Oh my god, lemme tell you– getting that thing built was akin to moving heaven and earth. Being a young naïve twenty-something at the time, I’d volunteered to lead that project since I’d been attending university nearby and enjoyed bicycling. Biggest mistake of my life, I tell you. We had to get the Fulham town council onboard and then win over the neighborhoods that the lane would go through. And then the roadside businesses opposite the lane had an opinion, because of course they would. The entire project, sixteen measly blocks, took a year to approve and then another six months to build.” Erin shakes her head like she’s remembering a horrid memory. “It was awful. Absolutely awful. Everyone had a voice and everyone had an opinion. And so it took forever. You could’ve been forgiven for thinking we rebuilding Buckingham Palace or something. But no, it was a bicycle lane.“