Lost in Translation — II
In this second part, design guru Glynn Kerr recounts some more trials and tribulations of an itinerant motorcycle design consultant PHOTOGRAPHY: GLYNN KERR
The MaiN reasoN For the MaNY foreign trips I’ve had to undertake as a motorcycle design consultant is to interact with the design and engineering teams of whoever I happen to be working for at the time and, very often, to develop full-size clay models on site. Computers have helped international collaboration enormously, but the final sign-off, and sometimes much of the development, still requires an experienced human hand and eye. Conditions during clay modelling can be demanding and, as air-conditioning in the factories mostly exists to keep expensive computer equipment cool rather than the occupants, this convenience rarely extends to the model room. Temperatures are often around 100 degrees outside and the windows are kept open to allow the hot air from the clay ovens to escape. Anyone working in between gets slowly cooked.
On my many travels to India, one of the things I had to get used to very quickly was sudden power outages. At least once every day, sometimes more. In the factory, or in the better hotels, there would be a pause of half a minute or so before generators cut in and power would be restored. In the smaller restaurants, you just get used to eating in the dark.
Water is another resource that can be intermittent, and even in the larger hotels, the temperature of the hot pipes can vary by 80 degrees from one moment to the next. Step into the shower, adjust the temperature so it’s just right, and enjoy the warm spray for a few seconds. Then someone three floors up pulls a flush and the supply of cold water stops altogether. The first thing you know about it is when a scalding jet of steam hits you right between the shoulders. And I mean scalding. Then just at the point you finally manage to juggle the taps to turn down the temperature, the cold water supply is restored to normal, and your shower now becomes a freezing torrent. Most showers are spent cowering in the corner.
On the last visit, I’d just got fully shampooed-up (well, you don’t hold back when you’re not paying for the toiletries) when the water changed to something you could make decent tea with. Swinging from the towel rail like a baboon, I managed to nudge the tap to the right with my toe, only to have the water now turn a predictable freezing cold, leaving me dangling from the bracketry for a further minute or two. Then it slowed down to a pathetic dribble. I waited a while, but nothing happened. So with my driver due to appear in a few minutes, I decided to turn off the tap altogether and get on with the job of getting entirely lathered up. It was only at the point of standing in the bathtub covered from head to toe in soapsuds that a thought occurred to me. What happens if the water doesn’t come back on at all? What if there is, in fact, a major supply problem? I turned on the tap again, and was rewarded only by a hiss of steam and a low, farting sound from the pipes. It was at precisely this point that all the lights went out.
If you ever want to feel really stupid, try standing stark naked in a pitch dark room covered in bubbles, in the knowledge that your chauffeur is drumming his fingers on the steering wheel in the car park at that very moment, waiting for you to emerge. Life has taught me to think quickly, and to start from the bottom line and work up. That ended with the conclusion that I had two bottles of drinking water, which might just about do for a halfhearted rinse. These were, of course, kept in the fridge, so that was definitely going to be a last resort. What other liquids did I have in the room? A half-full bottle of scotch. The cold water quickly became the last-but-one resort, otherwise I’d be able to rinse my hair and flambé it at the same time.
It must have been 10 minutes before the lights flickered on again, which also gave hope for the water. Ignoring the initial dark brown colour, there was just enough dribble to get rinsed off, dried, and out to the car. The driver regarded me with a disdain befitting someone who had overslept. We arrived at work almost on time, thanks to his total disregard for life or limb and a preference for the horn over the brakes. Only a very meticulous observer might have spotted a little dried soap still matted into the hair.
In recent years, business trips to India have been replaced by trips to China, and it’s been interesting to compare the two. There are many similarities (large land mass, huge population density, widespread poverty, rapid industrial and economic growth...), although in contrast to India’s natural tendency towards frugality, the Chinese philosophy has been to throw
money, albeit mostly imaginary money, at the country to improve infrastructure seemingly overnight. The difference is immediately apparent on arrival, with huge modern airports and impressive road systems. Well, to a point. Even major roads sometimes come to an abrupt halt, and you find yourself bouncing along in the dirt for a few miles before the pavement suddenly and inexplicably returns.
Despite the high quality of most roads, the standard of driving hasn’t improved at the same pace. Drivers will go the wrong way on the freeway or access ramps if it saves them a few yards on their journey, which can be entertaining. This is another phenomenon China shares with India, along with a reluctance to use the lower gears. Drivers start off in third gear. Anyone with the slightest understanding of engineering has to feel pity for what that puts the crankshaft through, the effects of which will test the integrity of any passenger’s dental work. Just as the revs finally struggle past the stall barrier, and the knocking is on the point of subsiding, he will change up into fourth — or, maybe, straight into fifth. This often happens as he’s overtaking, with a large truck heading right towards us. Most astonishing is his expression, which shows he clearly can’t understand why the car isn’t accelerating. There is a 50 per cent chance that at this very point, he’s going the wrong way on a one-way street or, more likely, the wrong way up a divided freeway. He will even turn back through 270 degrees to go the wrong way up a slip-road, with interesting consequences when, as often happens, we meet something come the other way. But somehow it all happens without drama. In the US, you’d be in jail. In Mexico, you’d be shot. But here, it’s all just part of life, and they all work around it. The important thing is that everyone expends the minimum amount of effort in, or concern over, whatever they do.
Walking is leisurely, too — almost careless. People will have conversations in the middle of the road or, if they have nothing better to do, just stand there staring at you. There’s no urgency to get out of your way, even if cars can’t pass by. Only after consistent honking will someone reluctantly shuffle a few inches to the side. The one exception is a minor emergency or any other situation that requires an outward display of urgency. The subject will then, for a brief period only, speed up their leg movements. However, they will simultaneously shorten their step, so the rate of forward progress is identical to what it was before — just involving a lot more energy. It’s a fascinating process to witness once you understand the mechanics. It would be interesting to know how they perceive the solitary Caucasian in their midst — if they’ve even noticed him.
One of the biggest differences from working in India, where the food is one of the things I look forward to (once you’re accustomed to eating curry three times a day), is that regular Chinese food is entirely inedible — at least to a westerner. I demand to know what the Chinese do with their meat. Do they underfeed their animals to the point that they’re just skin and bone? Do they export all the good stuff? Or are there some really special covert restaurants reserved just for the wealthy locals that serve only the finest lean meat and fish, leaving the rest of us with the residue?
However appetising the dishes may sound, they are never quite what you expect. In most cases, the meat/fish part is mostly bone, and often just the heads. Having your dinner watch you eat it will turn most westerners into vegetarians pretty quickly. So despite dinners in the hotel being on the company, discovering a McDonalds only a block away has helped sway a descent into junk food when in China.
The translations on the menus are usually more entertaining than the actual food. For example, my hotel offers “Shampoo Sweet & Sour Meat”, “Fortune Dried Oysters Steamed Testicular”, and “Coarse grains boiled liao and glue”. The “Don’t different fruit vinegar bone” sounds intriguing, and I’m almost curious enough to try the “Head pumping spend shrimp”. But not quite. On the first and last occasion I did eat there, I chose what seemed like the safest and least bizarresounding option of crispy spare ribs with garlic. I suppose the experience could have been worse, although I would suggest changing the description to “greasy bone with small amounts of inedible pink twangy stuff with garlic in yet more grease”. Or, allowing for Chinese translation standards, “Bone pig small condom why”. But despite everything, it did posses that elusive attribute of flavour, and at least the garlic part rang true.
It’s been a while since my last long-distance trip as a designer, and I haven’t missed the 40-hour journeys door-to-door, the heat, the pollution, the humidity and the occasional street riot. But it’s been quite a journey, in more ways than one, and I’ve found most people to be extremely friendly and accepting of the strange Englishman invading their culture. To have been given the opportunity to experience all this as an insider, rather than just a tourist, has been a huge privilege.
Clay development in China — six guys in a room the size of my kitchen, 95 degrees, 90 per cent humidity — plus a clay oven running 24/7
Even down-scale Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport is a pretty impressive place to arrive
Reception office at a Chinese steel works. If everyone congregates on the left of the building, does is slide down the hill?
If it works in China, it works!
I’ve been caught up in the occasional riot but, fortunately, buses, not foreigners, have mostly been the targets
Chinese menu translations are more entertaining than the actual food