It was my first day of my second semester teaching Presentation Skills and Business Writing at the Beijing International MBA Program at Peking University, the top business school program in China.
Before I could ask my class of 30 students to stand up and introduce themselves, I needed to model making my own introduction first. I knew from previous experience that my ambitious Chinese students – all of whom were senior managers in multinational corporations – were looking to hear some impressive credentials from me. While in the United States, I might have downplayed some of my qualifications and achievements and let my written bio do the talking, in China, I needed to deliver a CV that sounded like it had been written in a collaboration between my kvelling mother and God himself.
So I ran through my history: winning a national championship in presentation skills when I was a high school student in New York (which got me a hearty round of applause, 22 years after the fact); attending the University of Michigan and Columbia University (and while nobody cared about the Big 10, my Ivy League education got some nice oohs and ahhs); and a client roster including such global companies as American Express, Microsoft, Pfizer, Sony and Toyota (which were all met with smiles of recognition and head nods).
Then, I put a picture of me and my husband Michael on the screen, and they grinned seeing this first glimpse into my personal life. But when I followed this with a picture of my 10 year old twins, Jacob and Sophie, the entire room erupted in excited chaos.
“You have a Dragon and Phoenix!” one woman, Cindy, exclaimed, giving the Chinese symbolic description for fraternal boy and girl twins. While there are now a few ways around China’s single child policy (including having significant money, power, or being willing to forgo your child’s Chinese citizenship,) for most people living in modern urban cities on the mainland, the rule applies, and rules their lives. In their society, the only real way to have more than one child is to have multiples, and the only way to have a son and a daughter is to do what I did: give birth to a Dragon and Phoenix.
Giving birth to a Dragon and a Phoenix is considered an auspicious sign, a harbinger of great luck (poo poo poo). And the class clearly had determined that my “luck” credential was the most impressive of all. But before I could go on, I had to call on another woman, Hai, whose hand had been raised politely for a while, and was now impatiently pumping it into the air to get my attention. Her question shocked me, as she asked in complete innocence and awe: “How did you make them?” I wasn’t quite sure I was hearing what I thought I was hearing. “What exactly do you mean by that?” I asked.
She explained, “I mean, I have heard of twin girls or twin boys. But I have never seen a twin boy and twin girl. What did you do to make them?”
She was, indeed, asking what I feared she was asking. “It seems that this is a technical question, yes?” I clarified, with my cheeks turning uncharacteristically red, and the rest of her classmates laughing heartily – not at her, but in eager anticipation of what I might say in response. But I decided that this was a perfect learning opportunity – not just about the birds and the bees, but to teach my Presentation Skills students how to handle tricky questions when they arise.
“So, class,” I began. “There are lots of ways to handle a question like this. The answer to this question is clearly very important to Hai, right?” They nodded. “And now the whole audience is watching me – the speaker – to see how I deal with this, correct?” They continued to nod and smile. “So I could just answer it, or…” I said in a friendly, teasing tone, “or I could tell this group that it’s not really relevant to the topic of Presentation Skills or Business Writing, and I consider it to be an off-topic question for another time.”
“Don’t do that!” shouted Gus, a tall gentleman in the back of the room. The students giggled.
“Or…” I continued, “I could ask someone in the audience to answer Hai’s question instead of me. Surely some of you know the answer, right?” With that, the laughter turned into a roar.
“But in this case, I am still establishing my credibility with you, and building rapport with you. I am a new speaker to you, and I want to show you that you can trust me, that you can ask me any question and I can handle any question well, and that I am in control of this presentation. Isn’t that what we all want our audiences to feel about us – whether we are presenting to a client, the CEO, or the Board of Directors?”
“Yes!” The class shouted.
“Good! So, I will be the one to answer Hai’s question. Hai…” I began quietly, as the class fell completely silent. “There are two parts of the process to making a Dragon and a Phoenix. The first part of the process is the same exact process for making girl twins, boy twins, or even just one baby. You know that process, right?” Hai nodded, smiling, with a flush in her cheeks. “And the second part is that you just have to be incredibly, deeply, and unbelievably blessed.”
Hai grinned. The class applauded. And with that, I counted my many, many blessings, and the class went on.