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.

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!

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

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

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