Mao Tai Mathematics
The first time I was invited to a business dinner in China was 1978, still an era when commercial discussions were quite formal, often somewhat chilly in tenor, and usually held only over a conference table.
I had an American customer with me, who was a first-time visitor to Asia and China, and a senior executive with a large U.S. company.
On the way to the dinner, I emphasized two things to him.
First, that this banquet was an unusual gesture on the part of our hosts, who normally did not socialize with foreigners in those days.
Second, that banquet protocol usually involved three different types of alcohol – beer, wine, and Maotai – and that toasts were customary and frequent.
I prepped him to be prepared to toast to our hosts’ gracious hospitality, to everyone’s health, to the success of their enterprise, and to the friendship of the U.S. and Chinese people.
I warned him that Maotai has a much higher alcohol content than most liquors he was accustomed to drinking. He was not at all daunted by this advice, considering himself quite an accomplished drinker.
The banquet began, in the private room of a restaurant not far from the Trade Fair complex. Our hosts were relaxed and uninhibited. Conversation was wide-ranging and touched on family, culture, and business. This was refreshing, and unusual. The evening was off to a good start, and the food was delicious.
Toasts were exchanged between hosts and ourselves, conveying wishes of health, expanded commerce, improved US-China relations, friendship, etc.
As the Maotai toasting progressed, I could see my friend getting a bit tipsy. His comments became more spirited, philosophical and far-ranging. He was genuinely feeling like he was a part of history in the making, a pioneer in the early phases of US-China business relations, an informal ambassador of the American people and culture, on the cutting edge of a new era, etc.
He began to wax on lyrically about American society’s history as a melting pot of immigrants from all around the globe.
He spoke at length and with a certain degree of inspiration, but somewhere along the way I sensed that the multiple toasts of Maotai were beginning to impact his judgement.
We’d been through all the usual perfunctory toasts (thanks to the hosts, everyone’s health, friendship of our peoples, your success and that of your families, wonderful Chinese food, expanded cooperation between our companies, etc. ) and had long since moved onto any excuse for a toast which anyone seated at the table could think of.
Our banquet table became an island in a babbling brook of Maotai..
My customer friend spoke eloquently about the history of race relations in the U.S., saying that frankly, racial inequality was still widespread, despite progress since U.S. Civil Rights movement began. He said that blacks and other minorities still did not enjoy true equality, and that race relations remained a challenge in America.
Our hosts listened attentively and politely.
And then the cumulative impact of the toasts took over, and a hijacking of his common sense took place.
He rambled on to say that American blacks represented something like 15% of the total U.S. population, which was around 250 million at the time.
He then paused briefly, staring blankly while the calculator in his mind misfired, and said :
“Wait a minute…if American blacks number some 15% of 250 million…and you Chinese have more than a billion people. …that’s 15% of one billion…you must have a huge black problem here…”
The interpreter from the Chinese side, who was very competent in both English and Chinese, was so impressed by this observation that he very graciously chose not to translate it.
I engineered a change of topic in the discussion, and the memorable evening ended very amicably not long after that.
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