Helping a businessman find a name laowai can recall
By Emily Ford
IT'S Monday morning. I'm teaching English to my student, Mr Bao, when he asks me if I will give him a new name.
Mr Bao is a middle-aged businessman whom I recently began helping with conversation practice.
He decided he needed an English name after he joined an American firm and his first name, Xibin, started causing problems.
"My new colleagues can't pronounce my name," he says forlornly. "It's getting a bit awkward."
It always strikes me as a strange tradition in China that people often have two names. "We don't take French names when we go to France," I think. "Even Japan doesn't bother. What makes China different?"
Being asked to name someone feels like a big responsibility. "This must be what it's like to have a child," I think anxiously. "It is a critical, identity-defining moment. What if I choose a bad name?"
English names in China range from the squarely conventional to impressively creative. Since moving to Shanghai, I have encountered a Phoenix, two Volcanoes, and my personal favorite, Prada.
"I don't want Mr Bao to be embarrassed by his name," I think. "I'll just choose something really plain, something he can't possibly be offended by."
Chinese names are even trickier to get right, thanks to the extra dimension of characters, whose hidden meanings seem calculated to make foreigners look ridiculous.
It is something of a sore point for me after my original Chinese name, given to me by my first Mandarin teacher in London, turned out to be a disaster. The name, Fo Meili, bore a pleasing resemblance to the English version, but unfortunately translated as "Beautiful Buddha."
"It's a great name," I remember her saying convincingly. "A really great name."
"Isn't it a bit, well, sacrilegious?" I asked.
"No, no! Everyone will remember it," she said.
I began to regret my name a few weeks after arriving when I realized that I was introducing myself by saying "Hi, I'm Beautiful."
Even worse was the surname, Buddha, which seemed akin to calling myself God. "People in South America are sometimes called Jesus," I told myself dubiously. "Maybe in China it is OK to be called Buddha."
I realized it wasn't OK when my business cards arrived and I saw my colleagues trying not to laugh. "Buddha!" one said. "Is that really your surname?"
Together we changed it to the more neutral Fu, which means master. "You're part of the Fu family now," I remember a namesake colleague saying comfortingly.
As I think about Mr Bao's name I decide to consult my Chinese teacher Meimei, who can always be relied on for honesty.
Meimei, it turns out, had her own scarring experience with names, having been called Lily until a flowering of other Lilys in her class led her teacher to start calling them Lily A, Lily B and Lily C.
"I didn't want to be 'Lily C'," Meimei says bitterly. "So now I'm Dorothy."
I show Meimei the list of names I have drawn up for Mr Bao.
"What do you think of 'Ben'?" I ask her. "I think it's a very nice English name. And I've never met a Chinese person called Ben!"
Meimei starts to laugh. She laughs for a full five minutes. By the time she stops I am a little cross. "What's wrong with Ben?" I ask huffily.
"You can't call him Ben," she says through gasps. "Ben means stupid!" She sticks out her hand. "Hi, I'm Ben! I'm stupid!"
Eventually, we settle on John. Thankfully, Mr Bao seems to like his new name. Every time I address him as John he beams with pride. Afterward, he sends me a text message. "Thanks for the class. John".
I experience an overwhelming rush of pride. "Most people have to have a baby in order to feel like this," I think. "I'll have to find someone else to name."