Monday, April 24, 2006

Comrade Hu is on first base

Back in the dim ages of 1982-3, the Mandarin was a baby banker living in Hong Kong. One of his projects on that tour was to organize and help present a bilingual two-day seminar in Peking on energy project finance lending for the China National Offshore Oil Company ("CNOOC" or "see-nook") and the Bank of China Second Credit Department - their project lending unit. The Treasurer of CNOOC was Mr. Xu 徐 and the head of the Second Credit Department was Mr. Hu 胡. Let's call my boss Bruce (that was his name).

Bruce was based in Chicago, and had never been to China. So one of the Mandarin's tasks was to brief Bruce on protocol for Chinese-style meetings, and to give him capsule bios of the senior Chinese-side officials. Like many Americans, Bruce was having trouble with the pronunciation of Chinese names. It took the Mandarin quite a while to get him to pronounce Mr. Xu's name correctly (more or less "syoo" - not "zoo"). Mr. Hu's name is pronounced as it looks ("who"), but correctly pronounced in the Mandarin second tone with a rising inflection, as if one is asking, "Who?" Bruce and I decided that he would nail it if he thought of Mr. Hu as Mr. Who?

Naturally, a variation of the Abbott and Costello bit "Who's on first?" ensued.

The Mandarin thought at the time it would have been even funnier if Bruce's surname had been Shea -- it wasn't -- because the Mandarin word for "Who?" is shei 誰, pronounced exactly as the Anglo-Irish surname Shea, in the same tone - "Shea?" So while we were doing the Hu = who? drill, the Chinese side in Peking would have been going through something like this:

A: 他是誰? [Ta shi shei? "Who is he?"]

B: 對. 他是 "Shea." [Dui. Ta shi Shea. "Correct. He is Shea."]

A: 那是我的問題 - 他是誰? [Na shi wode wenti - ta shi shei? "That 's my question, who is he?"]

B: 我已經告訴你, 他是 "Shea." [Wo yijing gaosu ni, ta shi Shea. "I already told you, he is Shea."]

and on and on and on....

In the end, at the big welcoming banquet in Peking, when the Mandarin brought Bruce up to meet Mr. Hu, saying, "Bruce, I would like to introduce you to...," Bruce interrupted with a huge smile on his face, "Mr. Who? I've really been looking forward to meeting you!"

This nostalgia attack was triggered when the Mandarin recently happened by a web page with an updating of the "Who's on first?" bit - this time featuring Shrub ("George") and his new Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, discussing various world leaders, beginning with another Mr. Who? - China's current President, Hu Jintao 胡錦濤.

Josh: Sir, as you know, this week you're being paid a visit by the leader of China.

George: Great. Lay it on me.

Josh: Hu is the new leader of China.

George: That's what I want to know.

Josh: That's what I'm telling you.

George: That's what I'm asking you. Who is the new leader of China?

Josh: Yes.

George: I mean the fellow's name.

Josh: Hu.

George: The guy in China.

Josh: Hu.

Click here for the whole bit.

And if the co-author of the linked page is the same James Sherman who was a much younger baby banker working for Bruce in Chicago back then, hey there Jamie.

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