Sunday, February 27, 2011

Report #18

Hong Liang came to work for OPEN shortly after Stardy was fired. Both interns have made appearances in Reports from Beijing; most recently Hong Liang was a guinea pig for my first podcast interview. Unlike Stardy, whose charm and confidence made for fast friends, Hong Liang was slow to emerge from his shell. At first he was quiet, very serious, and I only knew him as the guy that picked out all the peanuts from the salad at our evening dinners. His English wasn’t very good, actually the worst in the office. During his first three weeks he was hunkered down over a model with the overbearing supervision of Li Hu. He was modeling Li Hu’s personal house that had already been built. This was just fluff to have in the office, an object to photograph for the website, and therefore had to be perfect. And three weeks later it was. Hong Liang was then freed up and ready to be put on another project; that’s when I got him.

We had a weird project come into the office for a large development in Ordos, Mongolia called 20+10, code named for twenty architects to build twenty buildings in 2010. They had an impressive line up of a well know architects. OPEN was asked to participate later, which is like being the unpopular kid that gets invited to the party to fill in space. We were given a tortured site, severely eroded from years of rain and hastily routed drainage from the adjacent highway. Li Hu saw this and was enamored by the “nature”. It was a gorge to be sure, and he wanted to preserve it. This wasn’t a real project for us, no money in it up front. The developer was the Ordos government itself, and they wanted to create enough hype to attract private investors. So this thing was kind of joke, which is how I got put in charge.

In architecture school you’re taught to work iteratively. You make a sketch, build a model, sketch the model, draw in the computer, make a diagram, and on and on. It’s like the way a cow chews cud. The process is supposed to refine the design. In my situation, Li Hu delivers a vague sketch and we start chewing cud. The first few days were a little bumpy. I didn’t really know how to deal with Hong Liang.

We quickly moved into the model making stage, which was like a vacation in the office, and easily my most enjoyable time thus far. It was one of those rare moments when you think wow I’m actually getting paid for this (albeit not very much). Hong Liang and I cranked out model after model. It was easy to communicate with him over such basic tasks like ‘make this drawing into a model’ as opposed to trying to simplify the instructions to make a collage in the computer that has the look and feel of ‘nature’…

After awhile Hong Liang came out of his shell and his funny sense of humor emerged out of a very limited vocabulary. It was fun working with him, and I was sad to him return to school just before the Chinese New Year. He had made a lot of friends in the office, and before he left we urged him to make a facebook account so we could stay in touch. And that’s when he asked me to name him.

Hong Liang wanted an American name for his facebook account. I tried to persuade him to keep his Chinese name.

“Hong Liang, you don’t want an American name. Your name is good. It sounds weird when I meet a Chinese person and they say, ‘hellro, I’m Paul’. It seems fake.”

He wasn’t convinced.

I have also gone through the naming process, but stood my ground and held onto my American name, which sounds like ‘Marc-uhh’ in Chinese. Ying was the biggest proponent in the campaign to give me a Chinese name.

“But Marc-uhh doesn’t really mean anything.” She protested.
“Neither does Marc.”
“It doesn’t?” She seemed disappointed. Chinese names are notorious for translating into warrior like poems, like ‘Strong Horse Lucky Tiger’, things like that.
“No Ying, my name is just Marc. I was named after a metal recycler, I guess.”
“What? What does that mean.”
“My mom’s friend. He spelled his name with a C.”
“But in Chinese Marc-uhh means like a marker, or a mark on the wall.”
“Yeah, it’s the same in English.” I think Ying felt embarrassed after that, and I am to this day known in the office as Marc-uhh, or sometimes Mar-gong, which means ‘architect marc’…not really a warrior or anything.

Usually when you name a person it’s at the beginning and the name bears an optimism of who the person will become. It’s hard to say whether or not a person lives up to their name, but often enough there seems to be some correlation, I think. My first instinct was to find a name that bore some resemblance to the sound of ‘Hong Liang’, and I wrote down Homer, and Javier for some reason. Then I thought whom does he look like, who is his character? Simon. No, maybe an Alex. I read off my list of names none of which he liked, except for Alex, but he couldn’t really pronounce it.

“Arrex”? He asked.
“No, Alllllex, la, la, llllllllaaa, Alex.” I tried correcting.
“Arex” he said confidently.

I imagined him introducing himself to people, using his American name, and the problems that would ensue. It’s like when you meet someone with an unusual name in a noisy bar, and it takes several exchanges before you get it right. That should be avoided if possible.

Mengyi shouted out “Toby!”
“Yes!” I said in agreement. She hit the nail on the head. Hong Liang is a Toby, through and through. He seemed to like it, and he could say it fairly well.

We took him out dinner as a going away celebration before the Chinese New Year and before I left for the states. We went to his favorite restaurant ,which he always talked about being ‘sooo delishurrrrse’, and it usually came up during his criticism of the food Ying orders for the office dinners….because ‘that food is not so delishurrrrse’.

A couple weeks later I got a friend request from (Toby) Hong Liang Shen.