Years ago I lived in Shanghai for eight months, helping develop the next generation of my first company, Submedia’s, technology with our sub-licensee.
I knew the technology best, having invented it and with my physics background. They knew manufacturing. No one knew how to make cylindrical lenses to the tolerances we needed and an affordable price. So I worked in their factories with their engineers.
We often met after work in restaurants around big circular tables with a lazy Susan in the middle that you could spin to pick what food you wanted.
Only the secretary spoke both English and Chinese so she sat next to me. Dinners began with some of engineers talking to me through her, but as they drank more, translating took too long, they’d talk and joke to each other and I’d talk to her. They’d get boisterous sometimes.
Once, after they talked a while without me, they stopped talking and joking. One told me through the translator, “Look at this guy,” pointing at one of them. “Look at his ears. The way they’re shaped means that he comes from” some region of China.
He pointed at another guy and said, “Look at the roundness of his face. It means he comes from” another region of China.
He went around the table, pointed to different guys’ features and saying where they came from. They must have joked about other things because they laughed a lot.
Eventually he said, “Even though we all have different features, far enough back, we all come from the same ancestors. And they came from” wherever they came from.
The rest of them all nodded affirmatively, joking and laughing.
I thought about it and said, also through the translator, “You know, if you go even farther back, I also come from a common ancestor to all of you.”
They loved it. They laughed and agreed, happy I picked up on their fun.
I continued, “And that common ancestor was in Africa.”
Stone cold silence as the words exited the translator’s mouth. I’d never seen them stop laughing so suddenly.
Realizing I ought to say something to relieve the palpable tension, I continued, “And before then our ancestors were fish!”
They laughed again and joked.
Fish ancestors seemed to me preferable to them African, as best I could tell.
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