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Marco Werman: Oh, does it ever stop for Argentine President Cristina Fernandez? She’s in the midst of an apparent murder scandal in Buenos Aires, and early today during her state visit to Beijing, another fine mess. She goes to China to seek trade deals for Argentina for things like rice and petroleum exports, so what does she do? She posts a tweet mocking the way she says Chinese pronounce their r’s, as in “lice” and “petloreum.” We decided to ask Joanna Lee, a Chinese translator and an expert on Chinese culture, to weigh in on the incident that’s been raging, frankly, on social media. This has to be a pretty serious faux pas in China Joanna. What crosses your mind?
Joanna Lee: I always think to myself “Hey, you try and speak some Chinese without an accent, and please don’t ever get mixed up with the nine tones of Cantonese, how about that?”
Werman: Why would a head of state mock another country in such a tactless way during a presidential trip?
Lee: I really cannot even imagine what came through her mind when she posted it, but I did read, clearly, that she did post a very short apology after people in Argentina, her own constituents, created a huge uproar. Funnily enough, I was actually looking at how the Chinese were reporting it and it’s interesting, Chinese official media--nothing.
Werman: And the Chinese are reacting to these tweets with other posts on social media. What have they been saying?
Lee: Well, for example, some of them don’t think that it’s even any sort of racial discrimination, and various people say “Yes, please, Madam President, please, you try and speak some Chinese to us,” and then there are some people who I say are rather cocky in their response and are saying that Argentina isn’t a very big country.1
Werman: We’re surprised about this issue, confusing the r and the l, because Americans, shall we say, have evolved on this front. Is this really about Cristina Fernandez, who’s out of touch, or is all of Argentina kind of stuck somewhere in the 1940s?
Lee: I have no idea. It’s a little bit strange because, first of all, the mixing r’s and l’s, as well as many other types of linguistic problems of what I shall call various people, various countries, various nations, they all vary, so it just makes no sense that she’s picking out something like this now, which clearly seems to come from some kind of strange sitcom from the 1950s in America. So, that’s a little bit sad. That’s the first thing. But the second one is that she is tweeting in Spanish, and then this is reported in English media about that, and that’s really how it kind of blew up in the media world, so the idea of the rice and the petroleum, I guess it really, somewhere down the line, sounded like “lice” and “petloreum,” but it’s a little bit difficult to actually figure out what happened then and there. She apparently was attending a huge business conference with thousands of people.
Werman: It’s almost like she’s watched too many Charlie Chan movies. Is there any basis for the idea that native Chinese speakers have trouble pronouncing l’s and r’s?
Lee: Actually, not anymore. I have to say they have a thick accent, but then any country would have thick accents, but the r’s and the l’s have now actually since improved, shall we say. Think of, considering that we just have a huge Asian-American comedy sitcom, “Fresh Off The Boat,” just opened last night--they certainly didn’t mix any of that.
Werman: I saw it, I thought it was pretty good. So, next time Cristina Fernandez goes to China, do you have a short list of do’s and don’ts to be respectful to your host when you’re there?
Lee: Ah, please just follow, or at least be aware, of their sensitivities. Language is one, the other one is food. I travel a lot with a lot of foreign guests going into China, and the thing is even if they don’t like to eat something, be aware and acknowledge the feelings of your host who clearly do their very best to make sure that you have the best culinary experience. Just eat something, even if it’s just a bite. Eat it. And so, whenever one visits a foreign country, I’d say the first thing is don’t tweet.
Werman: The new first rule for everything I think. Joanna Lee, thanks very much for your thoughts.
Lee: Thank you.