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THE PRESIDENT IN CHINA

Laughter in the Land of Confucius

June 29, 1998|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — It wasn't quite JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a jelly doughnut") blooper, but some Beijingers got a kick out of President Clinton's toast to his hosts Saturday night at the state banquet in the Great Hall of the People.

Quoting an "ancient Chinese proverb" (is there any other kind?), the president exhorted the U.S. and China to develop their friendship, and intoned: "Be not afraid of going slowly--be only afraid of standing still."

As with many such aphorisms, it's uncertain whether the proverb is of such old stock.

And nowadays, the maxim that Clinton cited isn't usually applied to such grand matters as affairs of state or the destinies of nations. Instead, "Be not afraid of going slowly--be only afraid of standing still" is a proverb often invoked by Beijing cabbies and driving instructors fighting this city's awful traffic.

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It's no secret that Clinton is a friendly, chatty guy who likes to work the crowd. Fortunately for him, the Chinese appear willing to be friendly and chatty right back.

In an independent telephone survey conducted in advance of the president's visit, the Beijing-based polling firm Horizon found that 65% of those questioned would greet Clinton amicably if they met him.

Out of 768 respondents, nearly one in four said they would flash the U.S. chief executive a smile. About 19% would go a step further by shouting, "Hello!" or "Mr. President, how are you?" while nearly the same number would merely wave in Clinton's direction.

The poll also found that about 15% would simply stop and stare if they saw Clinton, although it was unclear exactly what frame of mind might inspire such a reaction.

Only 3% of those surveyed said they would be brave enough to "run over to him and start talking." But extrapolated to the Chinese population of 1.2 billion, even that tiny proportion would present Clinton with 36 million people ready to engage him in conversation, which might be too much even for him.

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Let Clinton lock horns with the Chinese Communist leadership over human rights, or negotiate nuclear arms policies, or chat with 36 million people. Members of his entourage, including high-ranking U.S. officials, have better things to do.

Take Commerce Secretary Bill Daley. On Sunday, while Clinton attended church and plumped on behalf of religious freedom in China, Daley was a few miles away, marking an important milestone in both Chinese and U.S. business history: the opening of a new KFC outlet.

But it was no ordinary restaurant. "It's the 10,000th KFC worldwide," said Ayesha Qureshi, a publicist who was busy trying to round up reporters to cover the event and maybe grab a piece or two of Original Recipe.

Back in 1987, KFC was the first American fast-food restaurant to open an outlet in China, with a three-story restaurant on the south side of Tiananmen Square, right by the ancient Front Gate that marks the long approach to the Forbidden City. Now, KFC outlets, and McDonald's as well, are a common sight throughout the Chinese capital.

"As China's first fast-food restaurant, it not only provided Chinese consumers with a completely new source of enjoyment, but also benefited the development of China's fast-food industry by introducing advanced business management practice to China," a press release boasted.

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With hundreds of U.S. officials and journalists descending on China these past few days, some instruction in cross-cultural understanding was considered necessary. So the two governments have issued primers for their respective citizens to help each side figure out the other.

On a Beijing-backed Web site providing up-to-date coverage of the Sino-U.S. summit, Chinese browsers can learn how to deal with their loud, informal guests.

"Americans do not like silence," the Web site advises. "They talk confidently and loudly. Silence does not indicate approval. They are silent only when they disagree with you and think you have said something rude."

But woe to the innocent Chinese who encroaches on an American's personal space during a confident and loud conversation. "American people do not feel comfortable unless the person they are talking to keeps a 20-inch distance," the primer warns.

It also informs readers of the American penchant for dressing casually and for regularly changing jobs and moving.

For its part, the White House-issued reference book for members of the press provides equally helpful tips on hailing taxis and giving toasts at formal meals.

About cabs, the guide tells readers that foreigners are expected to round the fare up while locals usually round the fare down, as tipping is still largely a foreign custom here. "And of course, if there's no meter, or it's not running," the manual adds, "get out and hail a real taxi."

As for toasting, the guide issues a warning unnecessary back in the days of hard-bitten, hard-drinking journalism. "Beware the Chinese toast 'gan bei' [bottoms up], especially if you are drinking 'mao tais,' " it says.

Also included are simple words and phrases in Chinese, such as "Please help me," "toilet paper" and that old standby, "I am a journalist with the White House press, here in China for the visit of U.S. President Clinton. Can you please help me find . . .?" For that last mouthful, the reference book suggests that you flip to the entry in the primer and just point at the Chinese characters for a native to read.

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