Those Subtle Orientals

East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet... minds.

The Washington Post told of Mr. Geithner's trip to China where he more or less begged the Chinese to keep buying Treasury bonds.  We all know that our deficits will lead to inflation and that we won't be able to reduce the deficit any time soon, particularly not with health care and cap-and-trade gathering steam along with auto bailouts and other minor costs here and there, but Mr. Geithner tried to flog our distressed Treasury bonds anyway.

The treasury secretary said he assured Chinese officials that the administration was determined to bring down deficits once the crisis has passed.

That's the same song-and-dance that he and Mr. Obama have been giving us ever since the stimulus bill was introduced, nothing new there.  What struck us as newsworthy was that Mr. Geithner was at pains to show off his knowledge of Chinese:

As a young student Geithner studied Japanese and Chinese, spending time abroad in Beijing to hone his language skills.

On this trip, the treasury secretary spoke a brief sentence in Chinese on two occasions - once on Monday at the end of a speech to students at Peking University and the second time Tuesday in an interview on Chinese state television.  The Chinese phrase translates to "We will make a joint effort in a concerted way."

The Subtleties of Asian Languages

We certainly hope that's what he said, although it's likely that the Chinese would know that's what he meant no matter what he actually said.  Chinese is a tonal language.  If you say a word with a rising tone, it means one thing; if you say it with a lowering tone, it has a completely different meaning.  Chinese who're used to talking to foreigners are able to figure out what's meant most of the time, but the results can be amusing.

Chinese and Japanese share many structural characteristics. My brother has a friend who worked as an adviser to a Japanese big shot.  If you mispronounce it only slightly, "adviser" becomes "anus"; he went around introducing himself as so-and-so's anus - which, of course, special advisers are often thought to be, but not generally by themselves.  It was months before an unusually blunt Japanese corrected him.

President Clinton tended to become confused by the subtleties of the Japanese language.  He once complained to Boris Yeltsin that "Japanese say yes when they mean no."  Indeed they do, and for good reason.

Consider the song, "Yes, we have no bananas."  If you have no bananas and someone asks, "Have you any bananas?" you'd say, "No, I have no bananas."

What would you say if asked, "You don't have any bananas, do you?"  Logically speaking, "No" means, "No, you are incorrect, I do have bananas," whereas "Yes" means, "Yes, you are correct, I have no bananas."

Japanese are consistent in answering inverted questions in the "Yes, we have no bananas" style; Americans aren't.

When my wife and I were first married, she'd ask questions like, "You haven't eaten, have you?"  Confusion ensued when I answered such questions in the Japanese manner, having got used to that way of thinking whilst growing up there.

I tried switching my answers around when I remembered I was dealing with a round-eye, but that only made things worse - "No, I do have bananas."  She finally threw in the towel and stopped asking such questions; not an entirely unwelcome outcome in a marriage, but unhelpful in the salons of diplomacy.

The second source of confusion between "Yes" and "No" is explained in a book Cultures and Societies in a Changing World on page 138.  Dr. Wendy Griswold explains that hai, the Japanese equivalent of yes, can mean that the speaker has heard you and is weighing a reply.  It can also mean that the speaker unfortunately cannot accommodate you; "yes" is not intended to be deceitful, merely polite.  A Japanese may also say "Yes, but there are difficulties" which could mean anything from "Well, maybe," to "Not a chance!"

Then there's vocabulary.  Shortly after we bought a house, I told my wife's mother we'd painted one of the bathrooms green.  When she visited, she asked my wife why we'd repainted the bathroom blue.  After some confusion, I explained that I wasn't color blind - my eyes were capable of distinguishing blue from green - but that I occasionally got the names mixed up.  My mother-in-law wondered what weird life-form her daughter had married.

Then when my wife studied Japanese, she found the word "aoi" which can be used to describe either the color of the sky or the color of the grass.  In other words, Japanese has one word that means either blue or green.

Of such cultural issues are confusions made - talking about a green economy certainly could make the Chinese feel blue.  Let's hear it for diversity!

The Post pointed out that the Chinese made no public comment after Mr. Geithner's visit.  It's possible that their views of the probable future value of their Treasury bonds can't be expressed politely in any language.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
A friend of mine told me that the Chinese word for horse if pronounced "ma." He went on to say that "am ti ni" means "the horse kicked you" which isn't a bad translation at all assuming it's true. He also said that Coca Cola originally meant "bite the wax tadpole," they worked hard to find another name which means "makes the mouth rejoice." Anyone know if this is so?
June 5, 2009 10:05 AM
According to Snopes, the Coca-Cola tadpole story is vaguely true, but very old, as the Coke folks developed and registered their "happy mouth" transliteration in 1928.

But I bet the Coke execs of the 1920s had no pretensions to understanding Chinese, and took great care to hire qualified experts. Geithner, on the other hand, as reported in the Post seems to pride himself as a bit of a Sinologist; I tend to doubt that he really is. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing...
June 5, 2009 10:49 AM
'Chinese' is not a language.
June 7, 2009 12:38 PM
Written Chinese is one language. Spoken Chinese is many dialects, true, which some argue are really separate languages - who knows, maybe that's technically true. But the Chinese themselves seem to mostly refer to them as different dialects of the same language. The basic point of confusion between Chinese and English is true regardless off the dialect used by Geithner and his hosts - most probably Mandarin I suppose.
June 8, 2009 8:03 AM
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