Leslie Anne Jones


Leslie Anne Jones was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. Dark winters, big glaciers, neighborhood moose—all that stuff. She spent four years working in China and Taiwan, but presently lives in Brooklyn. Her fiction has appeared in Day One and Necessary Fiction. She is an MFA student at Rutgers University-Newark. On twitter: twitter.com/lesleslielie

Foreigner Manager

“Yes.. Mm, sorry-sorry . . . Yes, understand.” My coworker Wenwen is gripping the end of her ponytail like a safety handle as she speaks into her headset. I stop clicking through all the browser tabs of grad school programs and Internet news that I’ve opened, because I can tell she’s on one of those calls she’ll have to transfer to me any minute now. I pull my legs up and pretzel them. I tilt my head side to side until my neck cracks. I like to feel loose before I get on the phone.

Wenwen and I occupy the last two desks in a double column of work stations squeezed into our tunnel-like office. Besides us there are six other customer service agents, and on an average day each agent needs my “foreigner expertise” roughly twice. So in an eight-hour shift, my employment is justified fourteen times in three- or four-minute bursts. I sit in the desk nearest the window. Sometimes when the light is low I catch my own tired 24-year-old face in the glaze. I have my mother’s pointed, white-lady nose, but my father’s Chinese eyes, his dark brows and small mouth. Beyond the distraction of my reflection, the view extends into the smog-stained tower opposite ours, where more office workers sit at computers, like our twins from a parallel universe. I’ve never spoken to a one of them. I look over at Wenwen again. Finally, she pushes the mute button on her mouthpiece.

“What’s up?” I ask.

She shakes her head, “He’s talking very fast, I can’t say anything.”

“Okay, pass it over.”

I adjust my headset. “Dane Arnold” appears on the incoming call monitor and I click to connect. Wenwen slumps back and fans herself, relieved. This is why my salary is three times hers. The biggest jerks are best appeased by a fellow foreigner. Even so, it’s strange to be hardly out of college and make that much more than a woman four years older and seated across from you.

“Guangzhou Fine Food Delivery, this is Nicole. How can I help you?”

“It’s the orange chicken,” he says in a grating nasal plaint. Dane Arnold’s voice reminds me of a dying piece of office equipment. There’s too much garlic, he whines, and weird peppery things. He drones in paragraphs. It is impossible to get a word in edgewise.

We don’t even make the food. We’re just a delivery service that contracts with restaurants catering to Guangzhou’s ever-growing and kitchen-estranged expat populace.

“Seriously though,” he continues. “If you knew what this stuff was going to be like—why did you call it orange chicken? That’s false advertising. You can’t do it. Not even in China, you just can’t.”

I listen and listen until he runs out of steam, having repeated each point several times over, then I offer him an account credit and we hang up. I type his name into Google—I don’t do this with all of our complainers, just the insufferable ones—I like to see if there’s a profile post, a blog or article comment, some digital clue to the nature of their jerkiness. I can pull up a few details on most people, but Dane Arnold’s results are limited. All I learn is that he teaches at the Regal Eagle English Academy. There are pictures of him on the school’s website, in one he’s dressed up in star-spangled pants and a blue top hat, like Uncle Sam or something. His eyes have a buggy, amphibious jut and his chin is an afterthought. He looks to be about forty. I bet not even his students think he’s cool.


When I leave work, the sun is dipping behind the jumble of high-rises, but the air is still like soup and sweat trickles behind my knees. Guangzhou is suffocating this time of year. To combat the heat I have to remind myself that if I were in the U.S. I’d be pouring coffee with all the other humanities majors. My dad, who is from Taiwan, can’t understand why I—bearer of citizenship in not one but two countries with clean food, high living standards and comparatively transparent government—choose to live in mainland China. My mom, who is from Bakersfield, kind of gets it. I plan to go back to the States next year, if I get into school somewhere. I’m hoping to land on some grassy college campus to complete my master’s in China Studies. I’m mainly interested in the macroeconomic trends that preceded the Chinese Revolution of 1911. But for now I’m okay with being a food-service industry worker, at least here it’s a desk job.

Two blocks from the office, I turn down an alley that goes most of the way to my apartment. It’s quieter than the main road, which is lined with shopping malls and glutted with traffic. I pick my way through broken pavement and past ramshackle buildings strung with laundry lines. People are starting to cook dinner, and the air smells like ginger and garlic.

Around the first corner, I come upon an old lady walking with a little boy, probably her grandson. She glares and shuffles him along the far wall. This behavior irritates but no longer baffles me. My half-white, half-Chinese face has the same racial signifiers as that of the Uyghur ethnicity. Uyghurs come from way up in northwest China, the part of the country that touches Kazakhstan. They don’t look Chinese at all, and they’re mostly Muslims. Chinese people think they’re all robbers and terrorists, and often enough I’m on the receiving end of this misdirected antipathy. “I’m American!” I want to say, but don’t, because it seems too complicated and kind of irrelevant.

The woman and her boy scurry away. I continue past the homes, hear the scrape of metal on wok from the kitchens. Just before the alley ends, the cracks in the pavement turn into black rivulets, thick little rivers of human hair. They flow together, creating a kind of hair-highway leading to the courtyard outside Mr. Zhou’s two-room house.

“Meiguo pengyou, ni hao!” Hello, American friend, his standard greeting.

Mr. Zhou is wearing a blazer despite the heat and smoking in his doorway. The long fuzzy pile of hair that runs along his exterior wall could be mistaken for a row of thick bushes were it not pitch black and flecked with cigarette butts and Q-tips.

Mr Zhou goes around the city buying the hair off salon floors. He sorts out the dirt and trash at home, then sells the hair in bulk to factories that use it to make some kind of protein used in food and pills and makeup. I passed his home many times before my curiosity finally forced me to ask about all the hair. The first time we spoke he told me that when he left his village and came to the city, finding work was difficult. The small jobs he did get were tiring and paid barely enough to live on. Then one day he ran into a classmate from middle school who'd also come to work in Guangzhou. The old friend told him about the hair business. Not many knew about it, and fewer wanted to do it. When Mr. Zhou first got started he used to itch all over his body when he lay in bed at night, but not so much anymore.

“Meimei!” he barks. A second later, his daughter runs outside in her school uniform, a red Young Pioneer scarf knotted around her neck. “Jiang yinwen!”

“Hello aunty, how are you today?” she asks.

“Doing good thanks. How about you?”

“I’m fine sanks.”

Mr. Zhou claps his hand on top of her head. “She’s very naughty.” He smiles. “But today she won the school English contest.” I congratulate them both. We say goodbye and I continue on to my apartment.


The next morning it pours on my way to work and my jeans are soaked in warm, polluted rain by the time I get to my desk. My pants are slow to dry and there’s a sour, thick odor that wafts up when I adjust in my chair. I wonder if Wenwen smells it. She would be too polite to say. I open up a Word doc and am deep into a draft of a statement of purpose explaining why I deserve to study the fiscal preemptors of the Xinhai Revolution when Wenwen taps the desk to get my attention. I minimize Word and see that she’s transferring Dane Arnold’s call to me. Again.

“This pizza crust has a fibrous mouthfeel.”

It’s as if Dane Arnold is trying to impress me with the sophistication of his complaints. By now he ought to recognize my voice, but we haven’t established familiarity. We are just two strangers connected by a wire, except I know his home and work address.

“I’m sorry to hear the mouthfeel was not to your satisfaction, but I’m not sure mouthfeel meets our standard for refunds.”


“Excuse me?”

He hangs up. Mouthfeel, mouthfeel, mouthfeel. I contemplate the tongue movements it takes to produce such a ridiculous word. An hour later, Judy calls me into her office. Judy is my boss. The only not-Chinese people she’d met before age 18 were a handful of English teachers, but now she’s getting really rich selling foreign food to foreigners.

“Just got call from some customer saying something about our rude customer service—

“Me? That guy?” I start telling her about Dane, but she rubs her temples and checks email on her phone and I know this is just the kind of small-potatoes crap she’s not interested in.

“Let cry baby have his candy,” she says. “We still making money, so don’t worry about that. Better to have the happy customer.”

“Did you credit his account already?”

She nods.

“Okay, sorry,” I return to my computer and tap his name into the search bar. I dabble in keywords: “AND asshole” “AND psycho” “AND divorce.” Nothing pops. “AND mugshot,” is also fruitless. It’s strange. He’s the only one of our annoying customers where I can’t even peg where he’s from. Everyone else has at least a tiny digital footprint—a prep sports article in a community newspaper, a signature on an online petition, a mention in some relative’s obituary. Dane is the only one without origin.

When I pass Mr. Zhou’s on the way home, he is tossing sacks of hair into the bed of a truck like hay bales. It must be delivery day. When he sees me he waves hello and lights a cigarette, asks how my work is going. I tell him bad customers are making it hard.

“Ah, I understand,” he says. “I also have some immoral customers. They try to cheat me, and say my hair weighs less than it does. This is why I have bought my own scale!”

“My customers just call me names.”

“Ai-ya,” he clucks.


The rainy season persists and wet weather makes our customers crankier. They want their food hotter and faster. They want bigger portions of bread. Dane Arnold just wants everything free and too often, at least once a week it seems, he gets it. Every time he calls, I look him up, never finding anything more than I did the first time.

On a Wednesday, the rain pelts thick and fast and acts like a curtain, shrouding my view of the officer workers in the building across the street. Dane calls and recoups the full price of a “slimy” Cobb salad, and I finally have a watershed moment in my search-engine manhunt. I’m surprised it took this long, but it suddenly seems obvious after so many weeks of not-infrequent sifting through the back pages of Google results: Dane Arnold must be a pseudonym. Hence his only results have to do with his English-teacher job.

This is not a far-fetched conclusion: A lot of people come to Asia to hide. A month ago, China Daily had a story about an English teacher who was arrested when he was discovered to be a wanted pedophile from Canada.

I drum my fingers on the desk to get Wenwen’s attention.

“What if Dane Arnold isn’t his real name?”


“It could be a fake name! How come I can’t find him on the Internet?”

“Fake name?”

“Yeah, Dane Arnold!”


I leave her alone and start in on the Interpol site, clicking through thumbnails of thugs and killers. My search takes detours through the newspaper articles about their crimes. I bleed away the afternoon in the sordid details, but Dane doesn’t surface, which is fine, my expectations for success are low. When it’s almost five o’clock, I switch to the FBI’s most wanted website. I kill another forty-five minutes on kidnappers before clicking over to white-collar crime.

“Holy shit!”

I look around the room, but the expletive hasn’t penetrated any of my coworkers’ headsets. I pull up the pictures of Dane Arnold teaching on the Regal Eagle’s school blog, then I click between that and the FBI page. Top photo, lefthand corner. His hair was a different color, but the bulbous eyes and dough-ball chin are unmistakable. Dane Arnold is Steven Banks and he is wanted for mortgage fraud.

I go to the tip form. In my note, I include a link to the Regal Eagle’s website. The page takes all of thirty seconds to complete and I get an automated “thank you!” at the end.

Wenwen stands up. She yawns and picks up her lunch container.

“Wenwen, I was right!” It takes several minutes to explain my discovery because I don’t know the Chinese word for mortgage and she doesn’t know the English one.

“Oh wow, bad man,” she says when I finish. “China have a lot of people like this.”

“You mean bad foreigners?”

“No! Bad Chinese man!” she laughs and makes for the door.


Over the following weeks, it becomes very difficult not to tell Dane that I know. He pisses and moans, and I listen and hold in my knowledge. I send off my grad school applications, hoping the tone of my writing doesn’t sound too desperate to leave China to study China. After that's done, I have all the time in the world to read up on the details of his crime: Steven Banks convinced people who were scared about their homes going into foreclosure to put their houses in his name, then he took out equity loans against them to fund his “lavish lifestyle,” the papers say. They say he bought caviar tastings and wines of rare vintage, that he’d throw dinner parties at Michelin-starred restaurants. I guess that explains his trouble with our Cobb salads and orange chicken.

The delivery business is doing better than ever. To celebrate record profits, Judy treats the whole office to a Saturday trip to Hong Kong to eat dim sum and see a movie that’s not showing on the mainland.

It’s an hour-long train ride to the border, and when we board the carriage and Wenwen starts to sit down next to me, a woman seated across the way frowns and shakes her head, she motions for Wenwen to move away from me and sit by her instead. It’s the Uyghur thing again, I’m sure she thinks I’m about to steal my coworker’s wallet.

“She’s American,” Wenwen tells the woman.

“Oh! Sorry, sorry!” the woman says in English. For the rest of the ride she tries too hard to make friends. I ignore her and look out the window.

The train cuts through the brown haze that obscures the factories on both horizons. Not much of a view, but it’s the reason we’re all here. This is the global epicenter of low-end manufacturing. Everyone I have ever met has touched something that came out of this industrial corridor, probably many things, probably multiple times every day. From where I sit, the factories just look like giant, faceless boxes. I wonder which are the ones that buy Mr. Zhou’s hair.

When we get back to Guangzhou, it’s not raining for once and I decide to walk home from the station instead of taking a cab. I start down the alley for the first time in over a month. As I approach Mr. Zhou’s I see the hairy tributaries in the pavement, but now they lead to a patch of stony rubble where his house should be. I turn around in a circle, looking in every direction, like maybe I’ll find him standing nearby to explain the situation, even though his home is gone.

“Hey!’ I say to an onion pancake seller at the mouth of the alley. I point at the rock pile. “What’s going on here?”

“Building a new building,” he says.

“Where’s Mr. Zhou?”

“Moved away.”


“Don’t know.”

We didn’t really know each other, Mr. Zhou and I. Casual friends, I guess. I’ve never mustered much anger over any of the other bull-dozed communities in the city. This time only matters because I can still picture him and his daughter standing in their doorway.


The next morning grad school rejections bomb my email inbox as if in coordinated attack. No. No. No. And a Yes without funding. Which may as well be a No in light of my undergraduate debt. I guess I will just be tracking the cycles of economic history from my desk by the window. When I look out I see they’ve added more cubicles to the office across the street. Evidence of forward progress. Noted.

I haven’t had even ten minutes to marinate in my defeat when Judy calls me into her office.

“Here, for you.” She pushes a cup of corn soup from KFC across her desk.

“Thanks.” I put the plastic rim to my lips.

“We’re growing very fast. Need more foreigners to do the customer service. You will train them. You will be my foreigner manager!”

I set down my soup. Things are happening quickly. The first thought to forms is: Every time God closes the door on grad school, he opens up a window to middle management. I don’t know what to feel, so for the second time in under a minute I say, “thanks.”

Judy tells me to take a day to think about an appropriate salary. I shut the door to her office, edge past my coworkers and drop back down at my desk. I feel like I have freshly-poured concrete in my stomach. I want to string these developments into a logical chain of events but it doesn’t compute: I spent lots of time during work crafting my grad school applications. I didn’t get in, instead I got promoted. The rubble pile in the alley forms a crown over my thoughts. I wonder where Mr. Zhou moved. I know that soon the rocks and hair will disappear too.

“Nicole,” Wenwen says. She’s pinching the microphone on her headset. “It’s Dane Arnold.”

“I don’t want to talk to him,” I snap.

“Oh.” Her shoulders droop and she looked embarrassed, which is not fair: My salary is going up because of all the Danes of Guangzhou.

“I’m sorry, I’m just in a bad mood—I’ll take it.”

I put on my headset and wait for the call to transfer. It’s been two months since I filed my FBI tip and so far no one has come rushing to save us from Dane/Steven’s home-stealing and petulance. The no-show on swift justice doesn’t really surprise. Economic crime isn’t really a priority these days. My earphones buzz and Dane Arnold’s name pops up on my computer.

“You call these shoestring fries?! More like an under-cooked hash brown patty, I mean seriously what the hell?”

I want to say. What? I want to say everything, to shout about it, to tell him off for being annoying and evil, to call his sins by name, but instead I say, “Gee, so sorry about that, how about we get you a credit for one of our dinner combos?” Because I’m fed up and I want to have a conversation. A real one. And it ought to happen in person.


After work I take the subway and get off at Keyun Road. I walk past all the motorcycle shops, pirated DVD sellers and tea stands until I see the gleaming entrance, double doors frosted with the silhouette of an eagle’s head.

I arrive as a group of little boys are filing in for evening classes. They carry shiny book bags with plastic wings sewn on the sides. Through the door, I can see them walk into classrooms where they’ll probably waste the evening memorizing long tracts of conversation and chanting sentence patterns. I wonder if I should go in or not. This starts to feel foolish and possibly dangerous, and I’m not sure what to say anyway.

“Ni hao, xiaojie.”

The Chinese greeting blared from behind me comes in an atonal American accent. “Are you here about the teaching vacancy?” he asks when I turn. “Wo shi zheli de hiring manager.”

He’s shorter and chubbier than the photos let on, and I can’t tell if Dane/Steven is trying to ingratiate or alienate me with his garbled Chinese.

“Um, yeah. I’m here about that,” I say. I am unpracticed at confrontation.

“This is hen hao de xuexiao. Our school is very selective, the most prestigious in the city. Tell me, do you have any teaching experience?”


“Ah, too bad. Maybe you can try Leopard Academy or A++ School, I hear they take anyone.”

“Right, thanks”—he reaches for the door, my chance to do something is about to slip behind that faceless eagle head, before he can step inside I spit it out—“I know you’re Steven Banks.”

“What?” His milk-mush face churns from confusion to fright.

I can’t think of an insult to trump the naming of his true self, so I just elaborate. “Yeah, you’re wanted for mortgage fraud.”

“Fuck you, you don’t know anything about me.”

I shrug, but he doesn’t see because he turns around and strides away instead of going into the school. He rounds the corner and zips out of sight—never looking back. I imagine within the hour he'll burst into his apartment, throw open his suitcases, grab his clothes by the handful. I wonder where in the world he’ll peddle his dubious teaching skills next. Vietnam? Laos? Or maybe deeper into China, one of the backwater provinces—somewhere that our delivery service hasn’t penetrated. Yet.

I head back toward the subway. On the way, I stop by a fruit stand to reward myself with something sweet. Pawing through a box of mangoes, I look up to see a mother and daughter, the elder whispers to the younger, “Watch your purse,” loud enough for me to hear it. They squeeze their bags against their armpits and try not to look at me.

The shopkeeper is turned away, attention focused on his TV, which is playing some period drama. Those movies are always about the revolution. I glare back at the two women and pick up a spiky durian, always a pungent fruit, this varietal smells exactly like hot garbage. I heft it in my palm over the mouth of my purse and drop it inside, it makes a muffled thud when it lands on the fabric bottom. The mother gasps. The daughter’s eyebrows shoot up. The shopkeeper never turns, still transfixed by soldiers dragging a bright red flag through gun smoke. I draw a menacing finger across my neck and the two women hurry away. And I can’t decide whether or not to pay for this fruit I don’t even want.

This story was inspired by things I learned, heard, and experienced when I worked as a city magazine editor in China. I never uncovered any of the FBI's most wanted, but I did meet a man who collected hair for a living. Happily, he was in no danger of losing his home.