The cost of translation

I am very happy that I speak some Chinese. Living in a Chinese Tier 3 City is not exactly easy for foreigners. Some things you get used to – like people staring at you or the constant spitting and so on. Other things are a bit harder to get used to, like some of the strange food dishes (such as donkey flesh stew – thank God, this is something you can avoid) or squat toilets (something you cannot avoid obviously). And then some times when you’re getting used to all the strangeness around you, you realize there’s a new surprise hitting you full on.

Trying to be self-sufficient, I am happy to have an amazing Korean washing machine that also acts as a tumble dryer. So after initially buying washing liquid and fabric softener I found a special “Disinfectant” in the supermarket shelf next to them.


It seemed absolutely clear that – since most things here are relatively dirty – adding some special extra-cleaning agent to your laundry would be the logical choice. The bottle was bit smaller than a regular fabric softener’s size. I figured it sure was a potent anti-bacterial potion and that I would not need liters of it.

Next time around when I got to wash my shirts, I tried out this new extra-cleaner. I had a few of my brand new imported shirts, some of my favorite t-shirts and some other stuff. After some 4 hours (the Korean washing machine is doing a very thorough job) I got my laundry out and all seemed normal at first.

Putting together the freshly washed laundry, I realized some strange shadow on one shirt. Switching on more lights to examine closer, I realized that there was a stain on my shirt. For some odd reason though, the stain was lighter than the rest of the light blue shirt.

How did that happen? Did I eat and spill something that aggressive, that it took out the colour of my clothes? Upon further examination, I realized that there were more of such stains, not only on that one shirt, but also on the rest of the laundry.

Again, I wondered how that could have happened. It slowly dawned on me that something must be wrong with the Korean machine. It took unusually long to wash anyway and, with all the weird melodies it played when switched on or off, or when it was finally done washing, something had to be broken. I was quite upset because this bad equipment had ruined some perfectly new and awesome shirts. A loss that wasn’t exactly inexpensive.

Only on the next day, when my anger had faded, did I think about this special sanitizer that I had used for the first time. Maybe this was not really “Disinfectant”? Could it have been some sort of bleach? And could it really have been translated so badly? It said “Disinfectant” at Walmart and the compartment where I put it in the washing machine said the same…


Hard to imagine but true – a colleague at work told me, after I showed him a picture of the bottle, that it was in fact bleach. Now, what do you do with some almost new but stain-bleached shirts? Well, you make the best of it, as always – especially in China. You bleach it more. So I washed them again, emptying almost half the bottle into the Korean machine.

And luck was on my side: it worked out perfectly. I now have probably the only white Hugo Boss shirt with light blue stitching. And the shirt looks awesome like that.