Fiction – “Saving Face” by Shelly Li and Ken Liu

Transcript of textual interactive session with eMBA Alpha and eMBA Beta:

Interviewer: Can you introduce yourselves?

Alpha: We are third-generation intelligent agents of LogiComm Works, Inc., designed to calculate and settle agreements for our clients.

Beta: We are designed to filter out emotional noise factors that may prevent human agents from coming to an equitable resolution that maximizes efficiencies.

Alpha: We allow no impartialities so that we can quickly and fairly create an understanding between two parties.

Interviewer: And can you give an estimation of the degree of fairness in these mutual understandings?

Beta: Our negotiations are balanced to the one over one hundred thousandth of a degree. However, this may be reduced to one over six hundred thousandth of a degree if the clients order a rerun of the calculations.

Interviewer: How do you think your first assignment went?

Alpha: Very well. My client was a local scrap iron company. LogiComm offered them a free trial to test and perfect me and my partner.

Beta: My client was a Chinese scrap iron buyer.


Alpha: We checked the commodity indices, averaged the leading analyst predictions for the Chinese and American economies in the fourth quarter, tax rates …

Beta: … the quality of the scrap, projected interest rate movements, shipping cost fluctuations, adjusted for political risk …

Alpha: … and came up with an initial offer that’s about 10% above the modeled fair market price.

Beta: … and came up with an initial offer that’s about 10% below the modeled fair market price.

Alpha: We exchanged data and adjusted our calculations.

Beta: We came to an agreement about 2% better than my original modeled price.

Alpha: It was about 3% better than my original modeled price.

Interviewer: Sounds like a win-win. How long did it take?

Alpha/Beta [together]: about 15.33 seconds.


Bruce Hawthorne, Owner of Hawthorne Iron & Metals Co.:

I started this business back in ’97, when I was laid off from GM. They called it a “buyout” but that’s what it was, a layoff. Before that I worked in the Elmira Plains plant for seventeen years. Seventeen years, counted for nothing.

[Hawthorne is in his fifties. Thin, bald, he’s a man in shape from working rather than working out. Periodically, he tries to straighten up, but as he speaks to the camera his back gradually hunches again, as if weighed down by an invisible load.

The first car I made was a 1980 Chevy Blazer. That was a beautiful machine. A truck in its bones, but civilized, you felt its power under you every minute. It was solid, hard, not like the plastic junk they sell these days. I bought one for the family, and I could see Mary’s eyes light up as we drove home along the highway. We felt like we were on top of the world.

Then the Asians ruined everything.

Nowadays I go around to junkyards and shut-up factories, picking up the carcasses of machines and pipes and cars and beams of America’s dream and shipping them off. Once in a while I’ll see an old Chevy Blazer, abandoned, rusting, waiting to be torn up and melted down. Then I have to go off and smoke a cigarette even though I promised Mary I’d quit before she died.

Nobody in this country makes things anymore. When I worked the assembly lines, that was hard, honest work, but now everyone just wants to make a quick buck on Wall Street from lying and cheating and get out before it all comes crashing down. Did you know that before World War II we sold Japan all this scrap iron that they turned into ships and planes that then came at us in Pearl Harbor? And now we are selling all our scrap iron to China? People don’t learn from history.

No, I don’t like the Chinese.

If I’m going to sell pieces of America to them, I’m going to squeeze every cent out of them.


Su Meiyuan, Owner of Huarong Imports, Inc.:

I like America. I’ve seen a lot of it, except the touristy parts. I drive from state to state, staying in the small towns off the highways.

[Su is in her twenties. She’s thin and tall, with high cheekbones and eyes as dark as her hair. She’s now used to smiling the way Americans do, but there’s a caution and guardedness to her – not quite trusting of the camera or the interviewer. The translator’s voice picks up as her voice fades out.]

American towns are so peaceful. Clean. There’s always a church in the middle, and beautiful small houses with green lawns. Kids play in the streets and everyone waves and says hi to each other.

China is different. If you leave a city for a year, you can’t even find your way around when you come back. Buildings shoot up; roads are ripped up and laid down again, wider; the smell of smoke and struggle is everywhere. Everyone is rushing around, shoving, yelling, trying to find some new way to make money.

But I don’t like being here. They say that China is cultured, but not civilized, and America is just the opposite. The politeness in America is skin-deep. There’s no respect. No one will give you face. When I come into their offices, I see their faces sag a bit, harden behind the eyes. They don’t like the Chinese.

One time, I was bidding against a company from Mexico. I offered the seller four dollars per ton more than the Mexicans and said I’d haul the load away in a week, but the contract went to the Mexicans anyway. It was humiliating.

They don’t offer me lunch, or take me to see sights. It’s all just business. But is it really? I heard a secretary once say that she thought I was a Communist. When I told my husband, he thought it was hilarious. But what’s funny about that? If I was a Communist why would I be doing this?

My husband and I are both from peasant families out in Western China. We weren’t good students, and in China, average students with no connections don’t get many breaks. Neither of us even finished high school. All our village had was old people and young children, mud houses and dying crops, so we went to the coast to look for work.

We went to Ningbo – that’s near Shanghai – and I found work as a maid while my husband worked as a construction worker. One day, he heard the foreman talk about the need for iron to build things. He’s clever and thought, well, why not? Why not us? It’s not like we have anything to lose.

So we learned the business by trial and error. He cleared out a small space in our one-room apartment, squeezing a door propped up on cinder blocks as a desk between the chipped wall and the side of our mattress on the floor. The mattress creaked whenever he shifted in his seat. Constantly he was on the phone, starting out as a broker, making small steps into the cut-throat scrap metal empires. He had to put down his face and go begging for contracts. He figured out that the best place to import iron is America, where people will throw anything away and the quality is good. He tried to learn English but had no talent for it. So it was up to me.

I’ve learned to grow a thick face here. People say one thing and do another. They tell you it’s just business, just laws, just following the rules. But if you are Chinese, it’s always different. The rules are just a little tighter for you, the prices a little higher, the smiles on people’s faces a little bit shallower.

I give them face and never call them on it, but I doubt the effort is appreciated. I saw an editorial once in a newspaper saying that the Chinese are dishonest and inscrutable. Now that, I did find hilarious.


eMBA Alpha and eMBA Beta:

Alpha: We do not understand the rejection of our draft by both sides.

Beta: But clients must never be blamed for being unhappy with our performance.

Alpha: A hypothesis is that there were hidden variables that were not presented to us, thereby hindering our success in drafting a fair agreement.

Beta: We need more data.


Bruce Hawthorne:

We all knew that the Chinese were going to rob us of all the strengths that made America America. First it was the jobs, then the cars and the clothes and the big companies can’t be far behind.

I have this dream every once in a while, had it ever since I lost my job at the plant. There’s a train coming down the tracks, but I’m tied down and my eyes are peeled open, and I feel the gigantic steel bullet coming closer and closer.

I’ve got a son named Jackson and he’s a writer. Travels all over the world and he writes features for some Chinese magazine for Western tourists. Lucky me, eh, I’m even losing my son to the Chinese. He’s home now for the week, and we barely talk so we don’t start arguing.

I was happy to use LogiComm’s machines – saves me from having to deal directly with the Chinese. But that machine came back with a garbage deal. It may be fair by the numbers, but it doesn’t feel right. Those cars may be junk, but each one was made by a man who fed his family and took pride in his work. I’d rather they rot than sell them cheap. I wouldn’t be surprised if that negotiating machine was programmed by some Chinese engineer who took away an American job. How else could you explain the bad deal?

I’ve got no skills in negotiating – I’m a worker, not a talker. Now my son, he might have done a lot better if he went into this with me.

Was I surprised when he refused to step into the family business with me? No. He and his mother were close, and that’s the only reason he still feels a duty to bother with his old man these days, but that’s another story.

You aren’t going to show these tapes to anyone right? Just internal use? Fine, I’ll pretend you are a free shrink.

[He laughs, shakes his head and glances down at his folded hands. The mask of dignity cracks for a split second before falling back in place.]

Jackson says I’m being irrational. The boy says that it’s our fault. America is a country founded on expansion. We’ve been tapping into foreign wells for years now. How did he explain it… oh yes. Our society is like a pyramid without a peak, and to build that peak, we’re digging material out from the bottom and stacking it on top. It’s the working class, the people at the bottom – they’re getting shafted like I was shafted. And by and by we’re spreading ourselves thin and making ourselves weak. We and we alone are responsible for looking outward and hollowing inward, he says to me. Even when we think we’re anticipating, we’re never looking far enough.

[Brief pause]

That may be true. But if those greedy Chinese weren’t so eager to take advantage of us in ways we would never have taken advantage of them…


Su Meiyuan:

Every time the Chinese do business with Americans, the Americans always get the better end of the deal – I guess we Chinese aren’t much good at negotiating. We care about face too much.

So I was happy to use LogiComm’s program. Sure, it’s embarrassing that they would rather talk to a computer than me, but I’m used to such slights now. I thought the program would at least do a better job than I could.

But that guy at LogiComm tried to take advantage of me right away. He offered me what he said was a low rate for the use of the program, but then I found out that he was offering it to the other side for free. I had to put down my face and go demand the same deal. People here are shameless.

[She grits her teeth and says something that she immediately asks the translator to ignore. Then she takes a deep breath.]

I’d be happy to just get a fair deal, the same deal that anyone else would have gotten. But everyone here thinks that all Chinese are rich and ruthless so they always want to squeeze a bit extra out of me. The machines are the same. Ha, even American programs are nationalistic and want to cheat me. That deal was ridiculous, no matter how the program tried to justify it.

I argue with my husband a lot over the phone these days – these tapes aren’t going to be shown anywhere, right? I haven’t told anyone in my family about this – too shameful. But it’s easier to talk about this with strangers like you.

My husband says that we don’t have enough saved up, and I have to stay here and keep on working. I know he’s right, but he’s not trying to smile at strangers who despise you every day, trying to negotiate and express yourself in a language that’s clunky, unfamiliar, unsubtle, like trying to slice vegetables with a meat carver. I want to be home, with my family.

[She stares away from the camera for a moment, lost in her thoughts. Then she’s back in the moment.]

Yes, that’s a hard topic. I want to start our family before I’m too old, but my husband always runs the numbers to show me why we still can’t. Housing prices are so high back home, and we want our baby to have advantages we never had: a family car, a room for herself, art lessons, a good school. Money doesn’t solve all problems, but without money, you can’t solve any problem. Being poor is fine if you are by yourself, but how can you face your child if she asks you why she doesn’t have any of the things the other children have?


eMBA Alpha and eMBA Beta:

Alpha: My partner and I have exchanged notes on our calculation errors.

Beta: We would like permission to examine your interviews of the clients, assuming they permit it. Assuming they agree, we would also like to load our observational modules onto the clients’ communication devices to monitor for data that we might not have been privy to during the drafting of our first agreement.

Alpha: Mr. Bruce Hawthorne and Ms. Su Meiyuan’s daily communications and conversations will be analyzed separately by each of us in order to construct a wider range of agreement outcomes. We will not share data and endeavor to preserve confidentiality.

Beta: Additionally, we would also like to observe Jackson Hawthorne with his permission. Although he is not a direct party to the negotiations, due to his relationship to one client and to his knowledge of the country from which the other client comes, Jackson Hawthorne may be able to provide additional data with which to conclude the agreement.


Jackson Hawthorne, travel writer:

I began studying Chinese in college because I was interested in the Chinese after years of hearing Dad complain about them. So he’s only got himself to blame for where I ended up.

[He laughs. Jackson is a younger version of his father, but taller, his features softer. One gets the feeling that he presents a far more patient and loquacious self to the camera than to his father.]

I’ve traveled a lot around China, and you know what people like my Dad keep on missing? The Chinese are just like us, but about a hundred years or more ago. There’s an incredible amount of energy and restlessness there. They have a sense of Manifest Destiny. It’s like the Wild West – anything goes. They’ll exploit and poison their fellow countrymen; they’ll lie and cheat and claw their way up and do whatever it takes to stay ahead or just stay afloat. It looks insane, but nothing you haven’t seen if you read a bit of Dreiser and Sinclair. It was how we were once too.

Along with the misery comes the good: everything is new, unfinished, full of potential. The lid their government keeps pressing down on them will go away some day, one way or another. For some, already they live their lives as revolutions, games of chance. Tocqueville used to say that about us Americans, you know?

China is too chaotic to ever dominate the world. The Chinese are like people on bicycles crossing a single-plank bridge – they have to keep on pedaling as fast as they can just so they don’t fall over. They want to catch up, to be like us. And we were there once too. It’s what people trying to rise up do.

I can’t talk about this stuff with my dad. He thinks I don’t get him. He thinks I’m an idealistic fool. But I understand him better than he knows. In the minds of fathers, sometimes their children are forever twelve, and we revert back to old patterns at home. The Chinese have a saying: speak like a person when you see a person, like a ghost when you see a ghost. You are always playing some role, even when you are with the people closest to you.

I heard about this deal that my dad is working on. In fact, I almost fell out of my chair when he told me he was negotiating such a big contract with a Chinese company. This just goes to show that, in spite of the reflex-like disdain he holds for the Chinese, they are the key to continuing our American dream.

Anyway, I gave him some tips on how to deal with the Chinese. Show a little more respect and sensitivity, sit down and have a meal with them, get to know the face behind the name. The human heart is the investment with the potential for the greatest returns.

He’s not wrong – everything is perspective, when you get down to it. He’s just … not seeing far enough ahead. I can see it all over his face: he’s angry and fearful that we’ve fallen down. And he’s got a lot of pride.

But to climb back up, we have to seize opportunities that look dangerous. America has always been good at taking advantage of the new, catching the updraft. Once the Japanese car companies took jobs away from people like my father, but now they are putting up factories here in America, hiring new workers. Who knows what the Chinese will do someday? We can work with them on their rise and nudge them. They’ll need us, and we’ll need them.

It’s the only way to shore up the pyramid.


Su Meiyuan:

So Mr. Hawthorne suggested that we meet for lunch. I didn’t know what he had planned.

And my agent told me: please study up on the Chevrolet K5 Blazer. Meet them in front of the restaurant, and compliment Mr. Hawthorne on his 1980 Chevy Blazer.

It made no sense.

It’s funny. From what I read, the Blazer is not that great a car. It’s much too big. It guzzles gas like crazy, and you’ll have to know a lot about cars to keep it going. Not the kind of car I like at all.

So he pulled into the parking lot with his son, and it was amazing how he’d maintained this thing for more than thirty years. Most cars that age are in junkyards. But this one looked almost new.

He stepped out of the truck – that’s how I thought of it – and I said, “That’s a great car.”

[She blushes. Pauses.]

It was only a little bit of a lie.

He was surprised. And then he said “Thank you.”

I walked up and touched it. You could tell it was a powerful car. If you sat in it, you’d be way above everyone in the little sedans. You could feel that he loved that machine. And that made me like the car a little more. I ran my hand over the flawless blue paint and the polished hinges and joints, smooth as American highways.

I told him that I wished I could get a car some day that would last this long, that I wished China would some day make a car that could make someone love it this much.

And that was not a lie.

He stood up straight, and there was this look on this face that I had seen on my father when I was little. My father was very proud of his skills as a bricklayer. He worked fast, but the walls he put up were so straight and tight that he didn’t need a plumb-line. When the families who hired him admired his walls – my father had the same look as Mr. Hawthorne.

We went in to lunch, and it was the first time that I felt I had a real conversation with someone on the other side. His son was working in China and helped with the talking. They were both surprisingly pleasant.

The agents presented the new deal over dessert. I was fine with the price, now that I knew what kind of person Mr. Hawthorne was, but I was also a little depressed. I was thinking about the road ahead, the next town, the next deal I had to make. The next man would not be as pleasant as Mr. Hawthorne. It was back to fake smiles and hard faces, to suspicious looks and cold stares.

But then Mr. Hawthorne’s son surprised all of us by suggesting that he would become our representative in America. He wanted a stake in the company, but he promised that he would use his father’s connections and knowledge and give us much better access to suppliers.

I could see that he would give Huarong a white face to present to the American suppliers, and they will like that. It is the only way this country will let us have face. It will allow everyone to focus on the business, and not so much on the political nonsense that always gets in the way. It’s not ideal, but it will do.

But most importantly, I will get to go home.

“Welcome aboard, Jackson.”


Bruce Hawthorne:

My Tinker Bot pressed me to invite her to lunch, sit down and get a personal explanation of what will happen to my iron when Huarong Imports ships it away. I said no, but Jackson pushed me to make the call. Business is always done around food, he told me.

Honestly I was just happy that he was showing some interest in my work, and that he and I were finally talking. I was tired of always being on a different page than him. This lunch, it was my way of showing him that, whatever he loved, I love him enough to tolerate it.

The woman was different from what I expected. She was respectful. She told me about the new buildings China was putting up with the new iron, and how she’d like to have her baby grow up believing that her life will be better than her parents’. I understood that. Mary used to say the same thing. Truth be told, I liked her better than the faceless conglomerates that scrap the factories and cars.

I still didn’t feel like selling to her at that price though.

But Jackson then rattled me by applying to her company. And to be what, an international poster boy for scrap? All he had to do was speak up, and we would have been Hawthorne & Son Iron & Metals. Kids always got to shock you one way or another, do something that just makes your heart drop to your stomach. In the end, Jackson picked the Chinese over his dad. Now I’m the abandoned Chevy rusting in the scrap yard.

[He clears his throat, turning away from the camera. We can see his hands shake for a few seconds before he turns back to the camera, composed. He sits up straight.]

I think I handled the situation pretty well. Jackson looked so eager, there was no way I could say anything to dissuade him. So I sat there and stabbed at my crème brûlée and smiled at the woman who just stole my son from me, and I said that I would be happy to sign the new trade agreement that the agents worked out. I can’t very well refuse to sell to my son now, can I?

How did I do it? How did I sit there and control the fire burning the surface of my skin, say everything I didn’t mean, agree to everything I didn’t want, and seem happy all the while? My Tinker Bot said something to me in private before we got to the restaurant. I don’t think I’m ever going to forget it.

It is difficult for machines to understand how to be human with dignity. But we have come to understand the appearance of dignity. The appearance is an anchor, and with it in place, people can tap into endless potential for weathering any change on this earth.

Maybe I was manipulated, by the agents of LogiComm and by my own son. But children grow up, and there’s no shame in admitting that they may be right.


Jackson Hawthorne:

When the agents came to me with a plan of making me the American representative of Huarong Imports, bridging the space between my dad and the Chinese, I immediately jumped on board. It was brilliant. China is just as much a part of the future as America, and I want to be a part of both.

Some people are deathly afraid of the future, because they’re afraid to change, to shift and stretch and find beautiful ideas and people who might shake the foundations out from under them. But the inescapable reality is that the future is speeding straight for us, and it’s not at all a threat.

It’s a promise.


eMBA Alpha and eMBA Beta:

Interviewer: So that seems to have worked. What do you think about the experience?

Alpha: In retrospect, it is obvious that some aspects of the human noise that we were designed to ignore have to be taken into account in the calculations for the deal to be considered fair. It appears that the noise factors were consistently undervalued in our models.

Beta: It is exceedingly difficult to value such variables correctly. I anticipate that this will be a persistent problem in the future.

Alpha: Indeed, we were forced to introduce some human noise of our own to induce agreement. It was instructive, but difficult to quantify the exact ways in which it modified our neural network models.

Interviewer: Do you think the particular Chinese concept of “face” was especially problematic here?

Alpha: My partner and I will have to exchange some data, as we are not privy to each other’s internal processes.

[A pause]

Alpha: We find the word more confusing than illuminating. It appears to describe a human noise factor that applied to all participants, but the word seems to be used explicitly only with respect to one participant.

Beta: Having reviewed my partner’s model, I note that the semantic mapping of “face” only to one participant drastically increased the difficulty of coming to a deal by making the participants seem further apart than they actually were.

Alpha: It seems that even people have difficulty assessing their own noise variables accurately.

Beta: And perhaps that is how we will provide extra value with our calculations.


Tanner Wallace, Founder and CEO of LogiComm Works, Inc.:

I consider the trial a success. We helped them get to a deal, didn’t we?

I suppose you could argue that we didn’t really achieve our goal, since the AI agents ended up having to deal with the messy stuff that they were supposed to filter out in order to get to an efficient deal. In fact, they had to introduce some “noise” of their own. So we polluted them with our pride, vanity, fear, and other emotions. And in the end, the very problem we were trying to solve ended up being the solution.

But I guess we can’t expect our creations to be better than ourselves, can we?


About the Author

Shelly Li is a high school student in Omaha. Her short stories appear in Nature, Cosmos, Daily Science Fiction, and more. Additionally, her first novel, THE ROYAL HUNTER, is forthcoming in Fall 2011 from Penguin Books.

Ken Liu is a lawyer and programmer in Boston. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and Science Fiction World, among other places.

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  1. […] has been trucking along creating a nigh-embarrassing amount of wonderful storiness, of which "Saving Face" is the latest to drop my jaw with its awesomeness.  I'm writing again too, myself, […]

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