Jerry Cristoforo looks and sounds like an American, which is no surprise. He is an American. But close your eyes when he’s speaking Mandarin and even a trained ear probably would not pick the difference with the real, Chinese, thing. He seems to get the complex intonations right, which foreigners find very difficult. Furthermore, he can read and write characters, although not yet to the standards he would like. This is because he works at it. After 25 years since he first went to China for a stint as a lecturer in computer science, he still gets more than 12 hours a week of coaching. He’s learnt that Chinese characters tend to tell a story in themselves. One group of four characters, for instance, Cristoforo explains, is of a snake with feet.

The story is a little like the Hare and the Tortoise. It goes: a couple of thousand years ago, in the time after Confucius, someone held a competition, which involved drawing a snake. One contestant drew the snake very quickly and, with time on his hands, decided to add the feet. Meantime, another contestant finished his snake and won the prize. The Chinese four-character idioms mostly come from historical stories and are called ‘Cheng Yu’, which means ‘become a saying’. In this instance, the saying is: ‘Paint a Snake Add a Foot’. The equivalent adjective in Chinese for the characters depicting the footed snake is ‘superfluous’. Although he set up and runs State Street’s burgeoning IT and business process outsourcing (BPO) business in Hangzhou, China, Cristoforo’s academic roots are frequently revealed. Learning Chinese may not be essential, but it has certainly been helpful for him and State Street on their Chinese journey.

And a proper understanding requires learning the history which goes with it. Jerry and State Street maintain strong links with academia, primarily with Zhejiang University, where he worked in the early 1980s. Importantly, he has also forged links with government and now is a senior advisor to two Chinese boards: the China Foreign Exchange Trading Center, which is a sub-group of the People’s Bank of China, and the Shanghai Finance College International Research Centre. Both of these positions would have been unlikely without fluency in the language. Hangzhou, which is about a two-hour drive from Shanghai, is the capital of the Zhejiang province. It is a small city, a bit bigger than Sydney, and is a favourite holiday destination for officials and businessmen starting with Mao Zedong in the 1950s. It has a beautiful lake around which the upmarket suburbs are nestled. Most business success stories involve an element of luck.

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