The Pearl River in Guangzhou
Note: This post was written a few days ago, but was unable to be posted from China.
The Nantian market district in Guangzhou, China is a sprawling complex of factory wholesale shops selling anything and everything you might need to set up a restaurant, café, bakery, or hotel. Commercial ovens, dishwashers, refrigerators, and mixers line walls in gleaming rows of stainless steel, chef uniforms of every shape, size, and design hang on racks, and whole stores are devoted to napkins, insulated to-go cups, and paper bags manufactured by the millions in nearby factories. Down the lane a Cantonese family eagerly ushers me in and pours tiny, saucer-like cups of black tea as they show me their 10,000 varieties of ceramic plates, bowls, and mugs. Two rows over, silver-shaded lights and chandeliers hang like stalactites from the ceiling.
On the other end of the massive megacity of “GZ” I walk the aisles of One Link, a 14-story, multi-section colossus retail mall where vendors sell everything from action figures to taxidermied moose-heads, coffee shop wall art to fake flowers. We are here looking for what our Indian restaurant consultants call “artifacts,” meaning the sort of cosmetic art or extras you might find on restaurant walls across the world. In this place, everything is “Made in China,” and China has made everything.
Guangzhou is one of China’s five National Central Cities, a key trading hub and port, and home to the Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China. I’ve been here for the past week on a trip to purchase and ship kitchen equipment and furniture for 8th Day Café. Every day we, our Indian restaurant consultants Sudip and Lalit, an I, take a taxi from our hotel, whizzing through the concrete canyons and souring skyscrapers of GZ and head to the industrial district where the maelstrom of languages and numbers begins its churning .
Lalit and Sudip speak a rapid-fire blend of Hindi and Bangla to each other. The Chinese wholesale dealers speak either their regional Cantonese or the national Mandarin dialect. Sachin, our Nepali translator and shipping agent, switches flawlessly between Hindi, English, Cantonese, and Mandarin, translating questions, answers, and ideas between me, Lalit, Sudip, and the Chinese wholesale dealers. In negotiations we make liberal use of sketches, hand gestures, and calculators. The Indians alternate between marveling at China’s economic and inventive genius and muttering unflattering racial blanket statements and profanities. By the end of it all, we had ordered nearly all the building blocks for the freedom bakery.
A business trip to a Chinese megacity isn’t something I anticipated would be in my job description as the communications guy fighting to free sex workers in a poor Indian red light district. But then, so much of what we do is unexpected.
Somehow, in my imagination, every day in Kolkata involved danger, adventure, threatening looks from scowling pimps with eye patches, hair-raising near death experiences on an hourly basis, and probably flashy chase scenes over the rooftops of the city. The reality has been much tamer and in many ways more trying for a restless soul like myself. In that dream world the actual development of the business somehow just happened in the margins, a subtext to the daily labor on the front lines. In reality, up to this point, building the business is something that takes up nearly every waking moment of every day.
Our goal is securing the physical, economic, and spiritual freedom of women trapped in Kolkata’s sex trade, and our method is by building a sustainable business in order to give them another option. The day to day reality of making that happen is decidedly less action-packed than undercover operations and kicking down doors, but no less busy or exhausting. Over the last months Team 6:8 has been working like mad to get 8th Day Café & Bakery off the ground. That’s involved launching fundraising campaigns, planning and testing an a varied and delicious menu, navigating the labyrinth of Indian licensing and bureaucratic red tape, writing employee manuals, policies, marketing strategies, and product descriptions, walking the streets of the Gach to recruit and build relationships with the women, hiring our first two Indian staff members, catering events for the U.S. Consulate, and countless other tasks to numerous to mention.
We are building a business in a foreign country. That business is a tool for the kingdom, for something bigger than ourselves. That bigger picture is something that I at least have to remind myself of constantly so that it doesn’t get lost in all the steps it takes to get there.
Tonight, my work in Guangzhou finished, I make my way to the Zebra Café in Taojin. As often happens to me in these scenarios, I end up in conversation with the most interesting people in the restaurant: discussing renewable energy with the Australian owner and a Danish inventor who has been travelling on and off for work in China for 35 years. As he goes to leave the inventor flips a switch on his carryon luggage and folds it out into what appears to be a scooter. “One of my inventions,” he says with a smile. “It comes in handy when you travel!” And off he scoots into the night. These little experiences are what makes the international life fun. The unexpected things.
Tomorrow I return to India, back in a country where Facebook and Google aren’t blocked by an authoritarian government and I speak at least a fraction of the local language. Back from a week of comparing the quality of chairs and food processors to a week of building social media pages for the cafe and preparing English lessons for our first employees. In another week and a half I will be witnessing the first day of a new life of freedom from exploitation for a group of women who have been beaten and forgotten by their own society, but remembered and cherished by God. And that is what all the planning, the research, the strategies, the negotiations, the hard-but-unglamorous work has all been for. And this is only the beginning.