Chinese leader President Hu Jintao made a historic trip to the United States this week to meet with President Obama and members of Congress. On Wednesday, Obama and Hu held a joint press conference that developed unintentionally into an Abbott and Costello routine. For whatever reason translators were not made available who could provide almost simultaneous translations of both presidents statements as well as answers to reporters questions. One would think that if the United Nations could do it, so could the White House. Instead, President Obama was surprised when after giving an opening statement for what seemed like ten minutes, a Chinese translator gave an equally long harangue to the straight-faced Hu. A couple of minutes into the translator’s talk, Obama cut in and apologized to the newsmen present that he had no idea that this was going to be the protocol.
When Hu spoke, Obama looked askance and tapped his ear, making a motion that he was clueless as to what was being said but to his credit showed patience to wait as did the rest of the audience to finally find out its meaning. And when a reported asked Hu why he seemed to be evading answering a specific question, Hu replied that he didn’t even know it was being asked of him.
I can imagine a reporter in the back of the room turning to another and asking, “Who’s speaking?” and the other fellow replying, “exactly”. Which reminds me of the time I first came face to face with a live Asian when I was a teenager in the mid 1960’s. Until then, the only ones I had noticed were Charley Chan and his number one son in the old movies shown on television as well as Fuji, the cook and erstwhile captive on McHale’s Navy.
In 1966 then-Mayor Richard J. Daley decided to put lights in the alleys. He figured that this would cut down crime at a time neighborhoods were changing along with a mini urban social revolution taking place all over metropolitan areas in the country. We lived in Austin, a far west Chicago neighborhood that bordered on the areas of social unrest. He did a favor for teenage boys like me who wanted to play football and other sports until as late as 9:30pm or when our parents went to their back yards and yelled for us to come in.
One time a small group of us were playing tag football in the now lit up alley. We noticed a Japanese fellow walk past as he smilingly greeted us with a hello in broken English. Being curious and not understanding the rules of politeness, we asked him where he lived. He pointed to the apartment building with the big back courtyard at the far west end of the alley that stood along Central Avenue. Again, not displaying any modicum of courtesy, we asked him why he lived in this neighborhood especially since we knew- as the poet said- that times were achanging and that our beloved homeground would eventually become a battleground. He explained that he was going to medical school and that it was convenient to live in Austin due to its relative proximity to the school as well as to other areas of the city using public transportation.
We then asked him which school he was attending to which he replied, “royowa”. His answer made no sense after repeating it even three times. Finally, in exasperation, he shouted, “I’ll spell it. You know- eray, oh, why, oh, eray, ah- royawa!” It finally dawned on me and I said, “Oh, you mean ‘Loyola'” and he replied, “that’s what I said.” It was at that point that I realized why we won the war in the Pacific in the 1940’s. The Japanese couldn’t pronounce the names of our cities so they gave up trying. Could you imagine a discussion in the war room, “Ok, we go now and bomb Phoenix and Albuequerque.” It wasn’t gonna happen, I tell ya.
I grew up at a time when the expression “Made in Japan” meant inferior quality and China meant we had important guests coming over for dinner so Ma was taking out her best dishes. Somehow, fifty years later, the Japanese are schooling us in quality control while we beg for the scraps off the Chinese economic pie. Remember, though, that this is called progress.