Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Nǐ jiào shénme míngzì? - "What is your name?"

During our first visit to China, I noticed that all staff of the Sheraton-Kingsley in Nanjing had both a Chinese name and an American name. Their name badges sported both. We had wonderful service from “Sophie,” “Kevin,” “Dave,” “Betty” and “Rick,” all young people in their twenties. The chances that those American-type names appeared anywhere on their People’s Republic of China government issued identification card with its 17-digit number and solemn photo was, in my opinion, quite slim. They brightened whenever we used their American name and especially when we made the effort to greet or thank them in Mandarin.

In the midst of globalization it seems a cross-cultural tradition for a Chinese speaking person to also have an “American” name. This became even clearer to me when we met our landlord’s daughter, Chén yì jūn.

She looked about thirteen years old, distrusting & quite sullen when meeting the 'big money’ Americans that were about to take over her home. Her hair was black with a long-banged bob which she peered out from while she stood in the dining room and I stood in HER kitchen. I was doing my utmost to converse with her mother, our landlord. Her mother would look at her for help knowing that Chén yì jūn was studying English at school. I fully suspected that Chén yì jūn would be fluent in both and that she was just being, well, a pissy teenager. I was wrong. Only two out of three of us could understand the other one and I wasn’t among the two. I was immediately overpowered in their homeland, on their turf, in their kitchen. Perhaps Chén yì jūn, had every right to be perturbed.

Perched on the dining room table were three books that will be rag-torn before you know it. They are “Chinese Phrasebook,” “Chinese Phrases for Dummies” and “Mandarin Chinese English Visual Bilingual Dictionary.” I grabbed one and flipped frantically to find the right chapter that would get my point across. We all huddled around the book until I found the object I was looking for. On that page was a picture of a clothes washer, the Chinese characters signifying washer and the pin-yin pronunciation of the Chinese characters. We were all on the same page, we had broken the ice and I showed them both the other books. They were fascinated by them. Sullen teenager no more, Chén yì jūn began to think I wasn’t all that bad and her frown turned upside down to reveal her sweet self. She conveyed that her English teacher had given her an American name, “Emily.” I told her it was a beautiful American name and she beamed.

“Do you have an American name?” I asked her mother. She shook her head no and looked at me expectantly. After all, I was the only one in the room with the grand power to dub her with one, right? As if performing a magic trick I asked her to write down her name. She did so in Chinese characters and in pinyin. It said Bì hǎi ping.

I thoughtfully looked at those three syllables and paused while they both held their breath. Instead of stroking my non-existent beard I “hmmmmmm”-ed and exhaled slowly. The first name I wrote down under the letter “B” was “Becky,” I wasn’t quite happy with that selection, so I went toward the letter “P” and wrote “Patty.” I paused, looking at both names and back at the landlord. That wasn’t going to do it either, as I shook my head. They watched the pen on the paper as I scratched off the first two selections. By this time I was empowered with the process and felt, like they did, that the pen, most assuredly, held magical ink. Then between “Becky” and “Patty” I wrote the name “Rebecca.” There was no question in my wizard-like mind that this was the right choice. I pronounced it and looked at the landlord and her daughter. They peered at it closely, as if looking for gold dust. They pronounced it over and over, “er-becca,” and then we all giggled with the revelation. Now this sweet Chinese landlord, who was a physical therapist in Nanjing, would have an American name befitting to her kindness, “Rebecca.” She and “Emily” floated about the house explaining to workers, the realtor and family that her name was now “Rebecca!” I truly don’t know what she said other than the name, but I heard it a lot that day. When I summoned her with her new mystical American name she brightened as if it were the first time she had heard it. Dismiss the magic if you must, but our new home reverberated with the enchantment of two cultures, two languages and three women in a kitchen in Nanjing. I think things are going to work out just fine.
 Chén yì jūn ~ “Emily”

Thanks for Reading!



Buff said...

I do sooooo look forward to "Story Time with Cricket"!

Becca said...

Well, so now I have a Chinese namesake, eh? I probably never told you that when I was a little girl I had an imaginary friend named "Patty" - nor that I tried to get my mother to change my name to "Patty" when I was five! lol

I wish I could hear what "Rebecca" sounds like in Chinese/English :)

BTW, that picture of "Emily" is priceless!

Patrice said...

This is a charming story! I felt like I was there (without the stress!!)

Anonymous said...

I am so loving your stories! Is there a book in the works? I see "NY Times Bestselling Author" in your future.

Love to you and UG!

Donna Lynn

Don said...

And speaking of cross cultural, shouldn't you have a Chinese name? How do you say Cricket in Chinese? Gaye

Glee said...

What a great story! And hang in there... it must be overwhelming, but I know you will really blossom and plant some (people) gardens while you are there!