Accomplishing great things

When you live in a foreign country and don’t speak the local language it can be daunting to accomplish the more difficult tasks in life. Buying food and getting your laundry done isn’t hard, and anything that a typical tourist needs like camera repair or computer help is easy because those sort of stores speak at least a little English.

Something more complicated like getting work done your motorbike isn’t so easy. Sure, anyone can see if you have a flat tyre, and if your bike won’t start you don’t need to explain that because they’ll pull it apart and work it out themselves. But try and explain that you need your brakes adjusted, or that you suspect there’s a minor electric problem in your right indicator and you quickly come up against a wall. Not because it’s impossible to explain those things through sign language, because it is. The problem is that many stores just don’t want to deal with you. Even if you can speak a bit of Vietnamese… when you rock into the mechanical district and cannot point out the cause of the problem immediately, people often just wave you away dismissively. They just don’t want the hassle. Not just understanding what you want, but explaining the price and dealing with anything unforeseen that might come up. You only have to be burned by one angry, unhappy foreigner who just doesn’t understand that there was an extra problem that needed repair and you will avoid dealing with them.

So when I pulled into Ký Con street today to get a little work done, the first two stores I went to just turned me away. They had quite a bit of work lined up on the sidewalk outside so dealing with a foreigner who might take longer wasn’t worth their while. I could have tried to explain what I wanted, but when you’re dealing with mechanical people, it’s best to have them on side. So that ruled out my two regular cơ khí xe máy (motorbike mechanics) that I normally went to. I puttered down the street a bit further and looked a very quiet store with a young guy sitting on a chair looking bored. I pulled up on the street and looked at him and asked “xe máy ?” and he shrugged and pointed in front of him.

I wheeled it in and dropped the stand but left the ignition on. I flicked on the right indicator and said “gây này đả bể”. It’s probably a bizarre way to say it. I don’t know. “này” means “this one” while “gây này” means “caused by this one”, but when you’re trying to speak in a monosyllabic, tonal language, sometimes more is actually more. “đả bể” means broken. With a combination of this one, broken, and new I was easily able to explain that I wanted new brakes, a broken indicator fixed, a new mirror, and I was encouraged to get a new tyre, which after a moment’s hesitation I decided to do. The guy also suggested that I needed new bearings in the steering rod. Not having a clue about bikes I was unsure so I just asked “bao nhiêu”, and he told me that it was a bit under $6 so I shrugged and said “Ok”.

After a great job, I asked “rửa xe ?” to find out where I could get my bike washed, and he pointed around the corner. I thanked him and his wife or sister who kindly provided me with iced tea while I waited and headed off to get my bike washed. After that I found a nearby paint store since I was close to the hardware district and asked “Sơn mau đen ?” (black coloured paint), and while my pronunciation of the word paint was no doubt terrible, I was in a paint store and I’d explicitly said “black colour paint” rather than just “black paint” to make it more obvious what I meant. The guy found me one, I grabbed some brushes and some sandpaper and headed off home.

With a freshly washed, shiny new bike with a nice new imported tyre and new brakes and a cool tinted mirror I pulled up at home, put it on the stand and painted the chipped and faded bits on the brake handles and the back carry bar. The landlord came out to observe and had a chuckle. He seemed to think I was doing the right thing, but the back bar was a bit streaky. He suggested I spray it instead, and since he happens to run an art gallery, he produced a can of spray paint for me. I grabbed a nearby newspaper and proceeded to touch up my bike with a little black spray paint after a nice brushed undercoat.

Damn. That was a successful day. All the parts, labour, cleaning and paint cost me about $50 Australian and now my bike is in so much better shape and I know I will feel much safer riding around in the rain on fresh tyres with good brakes.

Feels good to accomplish challenging things.

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