Gan-Bei!

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At night Chinamen jump

on Asia with a thump

while in our willful way

we, in secret, play

affectionate games and bruise

our knees on China's shoes...

from "Poem," by Frank O'Hara (1957)

Today, these Dalíesque lines almost make sense. China's closer now, but we're like the band of blind men inspecting an elephant: it's still pretty inscrutable — What do they want? Whatever, it's not peanuts. But at least, at their state banquets, when the Chinese say Gan-bei! (literally "dry cup"), they do mean "Bottoms up!" — so I hope, in the inevitable dinners to come, President Obama can hold his liquor. The trick may be to drink only for the actual toasts, nothing before or after, so he can pass a breathalyzer test.

Language is tricky, too ("breathalyzer," for example: try saying that, President Hu Jintao!). One summer Jeanne and I were in the city of Poznan, teaching English to some of Poland's brightest students. After class one day, we were having a drink with some of the professors, when a student dropped by. Showing off his new linguistic skills, the young Pole held up his glass and proudly enunciated, "Up your bottoms!"

"Pretty close," I told him, after we stopped laughing. Mr. Obama, be careful!

It's good to see more Americans studying Chinese. Twelve thousand public school students in Obama's home town, Chicago, are studying Mandarin. Obama's "100,000 Strong" initiative, a cooperative drive between the two countries, is aimed at getting more Americans to study in China; China has already overtaken India as the country with the most students at American universities, around 130,000 and rising.

An old Chinese proverb is "Friends before business." We're already tied to China economically; now we need to bind ourselves together in friendship and trust — and the best way to do this is through education exchanges. Young people can do this best, before misconceptions and fear get grafted on their minds and psyches.

America's lucky to have Obama in charge. Everyone, including the Chinese, knows that when Obama says he wants to be friends, he means it: it's been his modus operandi since he was a community organizer in Chicago. He's a pragmatist. If China and the U. S. can't get along, let's face it: both nations are doomed.

(Full family-connection disclosure: One of our charming daughters-in-law is Wei Chu, from Taipei; another is Aya Aoki from Tokyo; the grandchildren are studying Chinese and Japanese. When 5-year-old Sophie, in Scotch Plains, whispers Ni hao yeye on the phone, I'm pretty sure she's saying Hello Grandpa.)

Right now, China isn't a threat. It's an opportunity, for both countries. The main task for our leaders will be to hold down aggressive nationalistic blowhards so that the presidents can have time and space to work out our problems to mutual advantage. Shouting "We're #1!" works well enough in football stadiums — and can certainly be fun — but less well at international conferences, or even tennis courts. Basically, it's stupid to shout it at all: the idea of competition shouldn't be to make the opponent feel bad. The Greeks, founders of the Olympics, thought hubris (showy or excessive pride) to be one of our most dangerous traits, the one that can bring down a hero or leader; King Solomon, our Christian font of wisdom, agreed, saying "Pride goeth before destruction" (Proverbs 16:18). In the Australian Open, when China's Li Na defeated Denmark's #1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki in the women's semi-finals, she didn't raise her fist but joked about her husband's snoring.

In short, I think we should listen to the great 8th-century Chinese Poet Li Po, fill up a cup of warm maotai or saké — or even a cold mug of Bud — and wish a happy future for all of us. This doesn't mean at all that we shouldn't be skeptical as we work this future out. Li Po himself, for example, is said to have drowned when — following his own advice too exuberantly — he tried to embrace the moon's reflection in the Yangtze River. This of course is too good to be true. So keep your eyes open. Gan-bei!

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