Ni Hao. My Name Is Gillibrand, but Lu Will Do.
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Sun Feb 15 15:44:42 UTC 2009
Ni Hao. My Name Is Gillibrand, but Lu Will Do.
Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times
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."
Now a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ms. Gillibrand
has come a long way from her days in China and Taiwan as Lu Tian Na,
an exuberant adventurer who sucked down toad venom to counteract
poisonous crabs from Beidaihe beach (about 180 miles east of Beijing),
and who rode helmetless on a motorcycle in polluted Taipei. But those
experiences deepened her appreciation for different cultures, Ms.
Gillibrand said in an interview, and helped to shape her views on
relations between the United States and China.
Ms. Gillibrand's background has piqued interest among the fast-growing
Chinese-American community in New York. And winning over
Asian-Americans, who make up 6.7 percent of the state's population,
could provide an edge in 2010, when a special election will be held
for the remaining two years of the Senate seat. That could prove
helpful given that Ms. Gillibrand, a centrist Democrat, has drawn fire
for her views on immigration.
"It's encouraging for us to know that she has the background," said
Virginia M. Kee, a founding member of the Chinese-American Planning
Council. "Her message was, 'I'm listening to you,' and I feel that she
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
As a member (and eventually captain) of the squash team at Dartmouth,
Ms. Gillibrand would practice writing countless Chinese characters
during van rides to matches.
"She was more enthusiastic than average; she really stood out that
way," said Seth Hendon, a student at Dartmouth who taught her at a
language drill class. "She really wanted to learn."
During her studies abroad in 1986, first in Beijing, then in Taichung,
Taiwan, Ms. Gillibrand, then a junior, sampled everything from congee
to dried cuttlefish and stinky tofu. She used a slide projector to
show images of people and places she photographed, talked constantly
to ordinary Chinese, took up tai chi and navigated her bicycle through
Beijing's thoroughfares and narrow alleys.
By the time she returned to Dartmouth, Ms. Gillibrand could comprehend
television news and newspaper articles, according to two classmates,
Eve Stacey and Dana Beard, who accompanied Ms. Gillibrand overseas.
"I know it was a life-changing experience for me, and I suspect it was
the same for Tina," said Ms. Beard. "It opened our minds."
Ms. Gillibrand agreed.
"Our relationship with China is extraordinarily complicated, and when
you do understand the culture better, having that appreciation means
you can hopefully find compromises," she said.
She said that the United States should be a "candle for the world,"
and that "so much of our foreign policy and national security depends
She also suggested that she would be pragmatic in dealing with China's
human rights record. She recalled trekking in Tibet, and noticing a
5-year-old boy who had little choice, because of his family's economic
predicament, but to work alongside his father, carting stones in a
"When we talk about child labor laws, I have a recognition of how far
other places have to go," she said.
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
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 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.
Since Gov. David A. Paterson tapped her to replace Hillary Rodham
Clinton, who stepped down to become secretary of state, Ms. Gillibrand
has introduced herself to people beyond her upstate district,
including Latino and Asian groups.
Those constituencies could be crucial in a primary or general election
next year. The number of registered Chinese-American voters in New
York City jumped to 112,000 in 2007, or 3 percent of the city's 3.7
million voters. That is a 36 percent increase since 2001, and one of
the biggest surges among ethnic voters, according to John H.
Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the City
University of New York Graduate Center.
It also does not hurt that Ms. Gillibrand is apparently the only
member of Congress with some proficiency in Mandarin, other than
Representative David Wu, an Oregon Democrat who was born in Taiwan.
At the Chinatown parade down Mott Street on Feb. 1, Ms. Gillibrand was
flanked by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose district includes
Chinatown, and Councilman John C. Liu, who represents Flushing. Mr.
Liu, who immigrated from Taiwan as a child, rarely speaks Chinese in
public, even though his Mandarin is quite good. Mr. Silver, meanwhile,
can say, "Hello, I am Silver," in Cantonese.
But Ms. Gillibrand, bedecked in a red Chinese dress, was the main attraction.
One boy who marched alongside Ms. Gillibrand hoisted a sign with her
Chinese name, prompting a few spectators to say, approvingly, "Lu Tian
Na." And on Mulberry Street, two elderly Chinese women told her
cheerily, in Mandarin, about a local event, prompting Ms. Gillibrand
to nod, and say, "Xie xie," or "Thank you."
In an interview days later, Ms. Gillibrand said she regretted one
thing: not delivering her speech in Chinese.
"Next year," she vowed.
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