You say potatoe

If you ever start to feel you are mastering the local language, all you need to do is take a trip to the local hardware store to bring you back to reality.

Recently I was beginning to feel some sense of achievement. I was talking more easily with the locals, I was following a bit of what was going in the meetings, never an easy task when 10 people are shouting at the same time. Last week, I even watched the first few minutes of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon before I realized I’d forgotten to turn on the subtitles. But today I went to B&Q.

I don’t usually frequent western shops, they are expensive, crowded, and never have anything I want. However, when it comes to buying hardware, they are probably the best choice because they stock foreign brands. Anyone who has ever purchased a screwdriver set from the 99p bin will know what I’m talking about. They are fine for removing the screw on the back of a battery operated alarm clock, but attempting anything more ambitious is likely to result in catastrophic equipment failure.

Another thing I like about the B&Q in Wuchang is it is never crowded, I always find visiting the store a very calming experience; there are always more employees than customers. The staff always gather at the end of an aisle and engage in conversation in lowered voices; they remind me more of librarians, except librarians don’t wear heavy duty aprons and they usually know where the books are located. I’ve never encountered a member of staff at this branch who managed anything more than waving me in the general direction, and even then they were often wrong. I once went in to buy some screws and was told they didn’t sell screws. When I finally found them, they were randomly placed on the shelves with imperial and metric mixed together.

The first thing I wanted to buy was a drill bit, that was easy enough, but I was drilling bathroom tile and needed a carbide tipped head. It was only when I was in front of the drill bits (again, randomly ordered) that I realized I didn’t know how to say carbide.
“I want to drill bathroom tile” I said.
“Yes” he said “these are the drill bits”
“No” I countered “I want to drill very, er, hard thing, hard bathroom tile”
He looked at me blankly
I was visited by a moment’s inspiration
“carbon chemical thing headed drill bit?” I offered
“oh yes” he said. “we have those”
I felt like punching the air and doing a somersault
“where are they?” I asked
“I don’t know”
he left me to scan the extensive display to find what I needed.

Next I needed electrical masking tape. There was a time when I used to look stuff up before I left the house, but no one could understand what I was saying and it was too much effort; so started winging it and see what I could dig up from my limited vocabulary on the spur of the moment. “jiāodài” is adhesive tape, but that could mean anything from sellotape to packing tape. I tried to qualify things by adding “it’s black and you use it for wrapping wires”

I’d been wanting to buy cable ties for a while so that was good, even though they were white. I still don’t know how to ask for them, but at least I know where they are.

I knew the last item was going to be a bitch. I couldn’t even begin to think how to ask for a solenoid valve. I figured “magnet valve” would get things going in the right direction but the look on the woman’s face indicated I had suggested something rather obscene. “Electric flow switch” got me directed to the light switches. “electricity goes off, switch goes off” got me to the relays but “electricity goes on magnet stops current” finally got me to the solenoids. I asked them how to say it in mandarin. “luóxiànguǎn” well, “xian” was line and “guǎn” was pipe, but what the hell was luó? “net?”, “mule?”, “gong?”
“the thing with the shell”
Oh, that luó.
“snail line pipe”

When I got back home, I called the missus who is currently in the USA, and who speaks fluently.
“how do you say solenoid in mandarin””
“what’s a solenoid?”


2 Responses to “You say potatoe”

  1. Pseu Says:

    Lovely piece, Cyanide Bunny.

    I have similar problems, speaking English at Homebase. Usually as I know what I need, but don’t know a name for it.

  2. cyanide bunny Says:

    i was back in Texas this summer for the first time in three years, i was having trouble understand the accent.

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