The Mandarin was expected. It is China’s major language.
Xu’s English was anticipated, too. He is originally from Shenzhen, Guandong Province, but has been learning English at the three Major League Baseball developmental centers where he has lived and trained since he was a boy.
But the American film crew, which had wired Xu with a small microphone, noticed he was alternating between Mandarin and Cantonese, sometimes in mid-conversation.
Cantonese is a distinct Chinese language common in Hong Kong. Since Shenzhen is located in the same province as Hong Kong, the crew (myself included) probably should not have been surprised he was speaking some Cantonese.
Xu and Jackson Zhuo would toggle between Mandarin and Cantonese in conversations following batting and fielding drills. Zhuo is here temporarily as a coach but is normally a baseball instructor based in China.
“Some words I don’t know how to say the Chinese so I speak Cantonese to him,” Zhuo said.
Among Xu’s friends at camp are a Korean pitcher and a Venezuelan outfielder. The outfielder, Oswil Lartiguez, is Xu’s roommate -- they share a small hotel room -- and has been teaching him Spanish.
At dinner at Chipotle on Thursday night in a Sarasota strip mall, Xu stood up and demonstrated the Spanish he had learned so far.
“Let me see. Como Estas,” he began. “Vamos. Come on. Right?”
Xu, whose nickname is "Itchy," seems to work on his English almost as much as his baseball skills, and for the same reason. He wants to make it in the United States. He wants to belong.
He’s trying to become the first player from mainland China to play in the big leagues. He is eager to make sure he can communicate effectively with coaches, teammates and fans.
“Jackson, he will be leaving,” Xu said. “I don’t want a translator too much.”
From China to Birdland
Arriving at Orioles minor league spring training this week, Xu Guiyuan, a 20-year-old left-handed-hitting first baseman, is trying to become the first player from mainland China to make it to the big leagues. He’s already the first player signed from one of the major league's three youth developmental centers in China, a country that American baseball officials consider fertile ground to grow their sport. He has adopted the nickname "Itchy Shoe," a reference to his hero, Ichiro Suzuki, and the phonetic pronunciation of "Xu." The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Barker is following Xu's journey with daily reports and videos: Can he hit American pitching, much less navigate the pressure and cultural curveballs that accompany his 9,000-mile trip? Barker is involved in a documentary chronicling Xu and Major League Baseball’s China push.