Most foreigners struggle to pronounce the names of Chinese colleagues and friends, not to mention political leaders who often tread a tightrope while dealing with difficult situations.
That’s probably the problem U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar encountered on Monday when he met President Tsai Ing-Wen in Taipei.
“Thank you very much, ‘Presidency’ for welcoming me to Taiwan today,” he said.
“It’s a true honor to be here to convey a message of strong support and friendship from President Trump,” he added while President Tsai Ing-wen was quietly nodding.
然而阿札爾似乎沒發現他說的字 “presidency”的發音，和一直視台灣為中國的領土的對岸總統「習總統」(“President Xi”)雷同。所幸，阿札爾在隨後的致詞中清楚地說出「蔡」的發音。
Azar didn’t realize that he had made a gaffe, however, as ‘pres·i·den·cy’ sounds like a nod to President Xi Jinping who considers Taiwan as China’s territory and has vowed to take it over one day.
Luckily, the U.S. official pronounced her name clearly a few sentences later.
Still, the members’ opposition Kuomintang quickly jumped on the gaffe and expressed their dismay and disapproval, before reminding the U.S. envoy to clearly state that the last name of the president of the Republic of China is Tsai and not Xi.
The latter begins with X which sounds like “shee” in “sheep” in English, meaning that you should place your tongue on the back of your lower front teeth to pronounce the letter properly: President “Sh.ee” for President Xi.
然而，「蔡」英文拼音的前部分「 Ts」就是這個字母發音，後面的 「ai」是如英文「like」的 「i」音。
The former, on the other hand, begins with Ts, which sounds exactly like “t·s” in English, and ends with “ai” which has the same pronunciation as i in “like.”
The transcript of Azar’s speech spelled Tsai’s name as “ts-eye,” according to a document released by the American Institute in Taiwan which declined to comment.
Reactions on social media were mixed, with some netizens saying his pronunciation sounded like President Xi’s, while others suggested it could be the word for the presidency.
The truth is that the stress of the public speech might have led the U.S. official to say “presidency” instead of President Tsai, making an opening statement that accidentally sounded like a “political statement with a smile.”