There are moments in life when the essential character of a place reveals itself with such force that it burns into your mind forever. It is not that the place exceeds expectations so much as it meets expectations with overwhelming precision. Such was the moment I bicycled to the beach on a black summer night and sat on the cool sand while the roar of the invisible ocean carried me away from my rotten teenage life. Such was the moment my breath caught short as I popped out of a side street in the Sixteenth Arrondissement and came upon the Champs Elysées for the first time in my life. Such was the moment I strolled through Grand Goave’s market in search of a Christmas gift machete for my son and Haiti’s brutal vitality rang strong. And such was the moment this week when the full force of the Chinese juggernaut hit me straight on.
I was in Nanjing, a city of seven million people along the Yangtze River, just another one of China’s giant cities that most Westerners know little about. It was 9:30 p.m., we were twelve hours into working on a presentation to give to the local developer, a group of Thai medical entrepreneurs, the Planning Board and the Mayor of Nanjing at some still to be determined time tomorrow. “You just have to be ready when you are called,” my affable host Sean told me around eight, when it was clear the night would be long but we could not leave until we were fully polished.
Our day had been rich in cross cultural confusions. Shine and Fishman, the two young guys with characteristically bizarre English nicknames who fetched me at the airport last night, arrived at the Nanjing Hilton at 9:00 a.m. sharp to ferry me to CTA’s architectural office, where I met Jessi, the translator, Sean, the boss and John, the guy Friday. Sean explained the project history to me; CTA had no healthcare experience and I was here to be the foreign expert. The first set of interviews was past, only two firms remained, but the deadline between interviews was so tight I had not seen the finished drawings before leaving Boston. I noticed some discrepancies. My comments were accepted with appreciative smiles and a minion scurried to a back room to implement the changes. Noting short of perfection would do for a presentation to the Mayor.
Around eleven I suggested we outline the presentation. No one had clarified how I fit into the big picture; whether I was part of the formal presentation or just there to answer questions. In the States interviews usually involve three to five people and we all facilitate some portion. “Organize it anyway you want,” Sean said, “and I will translate.” It took me a minute to digest that I not just an actor on this docket; I was the full playbill. Realizing I had to shape a formal presentation from information I just saw to be delivered within 24 hours, I suggested they give me an hour or two to write a draft a script and we could reconvene after lunch.
I wrote, fast; coordinated the drawings to my comments, ate the bowl of dumplings someone dropped off for me, and the bowl of beef shank soup. I finished my last page near 2:00 p.m., just as everyone drifted back. No time to proof. For the next three hours we dissected the draft and translated it into Chinese. How simple the world would be if we all spoke the same language. Sean nodded and agreed with everything I wrote. “What’s missing?” I asked when it appeared we would be finished before dinner. “I think you need to discuss the site in context of the new city government development and you need to address the hospital in Hong Kong that the Thai team thinks highly of, and you need to add more soft images.” Each item was valid, but also introduced completely new information to me. Sean’s criticisms were relevant, but the cultural tendency to hold them back after hours of polite acceptance struck me as inefficient. I began the rewrite, googled the Hong Kong model hospital, studied the city’s expansion plan while Sean went off to a business dinner with local politicos. Halfway through my work, Shine and Fishman announced we would all go out for dinner. I argued I wanted to finish the work and could eat in the office, until I understood I was being rude.
The restaurant was elegant; the fish ball soup luscious, the chrysanthemum stems sautéed with tofu delicious. I didn’t much care for the tiny grilled shrimp or the fish stew, but I loved the fish bellies, the beef with pea pods and the sweet spongy rice cakes. We returned to office considerably dulled by such a big dinner, and I slogged through the second draft. Sean reappeared and we began to translate and revise all over again. No one was in a rush, no one seemed the least surprised to be working well into the night. As the clock ticked we began to act more like a team. Sean suggested he and Jessi tackle the translation while Fishman and I revise the PowerPoint. I followed Fishman into the back room. It was then that the full force of China hit me.
At nine-thirty on a Wednesday night the drafting room was full of people staring at their computer monitors, every one of them inputting a different project, each one larger and more elaborate than the last. This architecture office in Nanjing is churning out buildings like a bakery churns out cakes, mixing the basic ingredients of stone and steel into a dozen batters and ornamenting them with differentiating sweets. No one looked like they were moving anytime soon, or had moved in hours. The City of Nanjing is bursting with cranes building apartment buildings in every direction, many of them drawn in this room. But I wondered why they bother building apartments at all since apparently no one ever leaves their office to actually go home.
Fishman and I revised the graphics within an hour; the man is a computer whiz. But when we returned Sean and Jessi were stuck. It took us another three hours to create the perfect translation. I had to deliver my words precisely so they would mirror Sean’s. I wondered if what I actually said at the presentation even mattered since the translation would eclipse its English origin.
By midnight the conference room table was littered with empty plastic water bottles, cold lettuce buns, cups of remnant green tea leaves and bottles of Tsing Tao, no one left except Shine. When I kidded him about going home early he reminded me that he was not going home but to the printers; our presentation was being hard bound into full color coffee table books to distribute to the audience tomorrow. If we got it to the printers by 1:00 a.m. they would have it back to us by nine in the morning.
Sometime after two we practiced our presentation. Needless to say it was flat and lethargic. Still, John had excellent suggestions for improvement. They took me back the hotel for a few hours’ sleep and a morning swim. We reconvened on Thursday at 10:00 a.m. Sean and Fishmen improved the images, Jessi and I rearranged the text order, we made a second practice run – the show felt good. Jessi and Sean even suggested some revisions to my English, making it sound more like the flowery English that Chinese prefer. We planned to run through once more before our 3:00 p.m. show time, until we got word the mayor moved the presentation up; we needed to be there right away.
In the United States the developer of a new condo building or residential subdivision often builds a show room, a place with a flashy model and a sales office. In Nanjing they are planning a huge expansion of the city complete with an Olympic quality sports complex, a major government center, curvilinear towers designed by the latest architectural darling Zaha Hadid, wide boulevards, thousands of apartment blocks and a hospital district. The Chinese equivalent of the sales center is a 20,000 square feet granite and glass building with a huge display lobby, extensive models, and meeting rooms. We waited in a spacious holding area until we were called.
Making a presentation to win an architectural commission is like doing stand-up comedy. You put yourself before an audience, usually people you don’t know, sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile; and have twenty or thirty minutes to differentiate yourself from the guys who came before the guys who will come after. You have to know your material cold because you have no energy to focus on what you are saying; all of your focus is directed toward understanding the folks in the room – who is listening, who is not, who are the important decision makers and who doesn’t matter.
There were at least fifteen people attending our presentation. I recognized right off the doctor from Thailand sitting opposite me. I made eye contact with him at every important clinical reference. Next to him was some functionary in a plaid shirt that was not paying attention. He chatted on his cell phone, leafed through our book, gestured an underling over and whispered in his ear. He was clearly important but I was not reaching him. Next to him was a guy both blank and mute, then a woman in a sari who paid rapt attention. Beyond her I could hardly discriminate among the long line of black suits, white shirts and solid ties that made up the lesser rank of attendees. If the mayor was there, I could not place him.
Sean told us there was no time limit for the interview; our rehearsals tracked at thirty minutes. Unfortunately, fifteen minutes in our translator Jessi nudged me to finish. We still had a lot to cover, but I could probably collapse it into five minutes. The problem was, how would Sean, following me in Chinese, understand my edits on the fly? I spoke faster, became more animated, I wanted to keep the audience in my hand as long as possible. Sean was confused by my shift in speed but intuited what was happening and picked up his pace as well. I managed to include his English suggestions and actually said, The views of nature from the patient rooms will inspire the patients’ to think about the power of life, with a straight face; a phrase I would never utter in the United States. We were allowed to finish before the interviewers cut us off.
Then the mute guy started in. Turns out he was a doctor as well. He scolded us for not understanding the hospital’s needs, for not having enough clinic space, blah, blah, blah. I smiled, thanked him for helping us better understand their program needs, explained how our design concept could be easily adapted to a higher proportion of outpatient to inpatient space and within a few minutes I could tell he had become an ally. The guy in the plaid shirt kept trying to shut us down, but there were more questions, which is always a good sign.
Finally we packed up and left. The group coming in behind us was clearly angry that we had claimed so much time. In the corridor I asked Sean how we did. He was very happy. Since I had no benchmark against which to measure, I decided to be happy as well.
My Chinese associates took the afternoon off, toured me through the incredible Zhonghua Gate and treated me to an early evening tea ceremony with many Chinese delicacies. Because we were all so tired I was spared having to sit through a formal dinner with endless rounds of sweet Chinese wine. I dropped into my bed at the Nanjing Hilton before ten.
Only one thing could make the trip a better success – I hope we get the job!
At the Zhonghua gate – Sean, me, Jessi and John
Really interesting Shorty — you are quite the world traveler now! What a great experience.