President Obama's ability to exchange basic Indonesian pleasantries may render him more bi-courteous than bilingual, but New York's new junior senator appears to have significantly more proficiency in another Asian language: Mandarin Chinese. David Chen of the New York Times reports:
She had them at “Ni hao ma.”
When Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand grabbed the microphone at the Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown two weeks ago, she blurted, “Ni hao ma, zenma yang?” in Mandarin, or “Hello, how’s it going?” Later that day, after wrapping up a meeting with local leaders at a senior center, she walked by a few card tables and said, “Hao bu hao?” or “Are you doing O.K.?”
It is customary for politicians eager to connect with ethnic voters to butcher a few words in Spanish, Chinese or other foreign tongues. But Ms. Gillibrand is no ordinary politician when it comes to linguistic and cultural comfort: as an Asian studies major at Dartmouth, she studied for six months in China and Taiwan, becoming proficient enough to absorb stories in Chinese newspapers, and later spent four months in Hong Kong as a corporate lawyer.
Ms. Gillibrand’s Chinese is rusty now. But she tells her 5-year-old son, “man man yi diar,” or “slow down a little,” and calls chopsticks “kuaizi,” out of habit. And she can still converse for a few minutes, as evidenced when a reporter from a New York City-based Chinese-language newspaper trying to learn her Chinese name unexpectedly found an enthusiastic Ms. Gillibrand on the line.
“She definitely understood what I was saying, and she had good pronunciation,” said the reporter, Yan Tai, who writes for The World Journal. “Actually, I was very impressed.”
Ms. Gillibrand gravitated toward Chinese in college, she said, because she had never been to Asia and she loved the artistry of Chinese characters. Her Chinese name, Lu Tian Na, reflected a routine transliteration of her name. Tian Na (heaven and beautiful, respectively) represents Tina, which she was known as growing up, and the surname Lu (which means land) was thought to be a close match to her maiden name, Rutnik, and adds poetry and meaning to her Chinese name.
Ms. Gillibrand has forgotten many of the 2,000 characters she once memorized. But she still comfortably wields the q’s, z’s and x’s of the Pinyin romanization system when e-mailing friends or acquaintances.
She talked briefly in Mandarin with this reporter, too, but said that she wants to brush up, and hopes her older son, Theo, now 5, pursues Chinese in school so they can converse. But she can occasionally surprise: a few years ago, Mr. Hendon [a fellow Dartmouth student] said that he bumped into Ms. Gillibrand on the street in New York, and she greeted him with “Han Sai Si!” — his Chinese name at Dartmouth.
[Update: Some earlier reporting on this can be found at the Capitol Confidential blog of the Albany Times-Union.]