Morning Orchid, Soaring Dragon
Tuesday, 12 November 2013 Filed in: China | Little A | Mr Oh
When you born, you are given a name and you usually get to keep your name throughout your life, if you so wish. You can change it if you want to - either because you got married or just because you fancy being called Rainbow Kettlefish - but you generally get to keep it if you like it. There are two exceptions to this:
1. When you go to the Gaeltacht and they morph your name into something three times as long and impossible to spell (Caoimhe, it took me six years to learn where those slanty bits go in your name - sometime I still check on Facebook); and
2. When you move to China.
Take Silvio Berlusconi, for example. Silvio Berlusconi is Silvio Berlusconi wherever he goes. When Silvio goes to London, they don’t start calling him ‘Silas’ (that’s the English version of Silvio, who knew?) - no, they call him Silvio Berlusconi as his mother intended. Even the good people at Telefís na Gaeilge (as it was known back in the day) knew that you do not f*** with the name Silvio Berlusconi. As my friend BMcG noted at one point when listening to the news in Irish one day, all you really hear is “Nyaca nyaca nyaca nyaca nyaca nyaca Silvio Berlusconi nyaca nyaca nyaca nyaca”. It counts as Irish if you say the foreign name in a culchie accent, apparently.
Were Silvio to travel to China, however, or even appear on the news here, he would no longer be Silvio Berlusconi simply because those sounds do not exist in Chinese. I’m sure there is a far more technical way of explaining it but essentially the problem is that there are no letters in Chinese - there are only words - small words that are put together to make bigger words. You cannot break the language down smaller than the word. You could try to make an approximation using the available words. My attempt is Sha-li-yu Bao-li-kao-ni but it could well mean ‘pink bucket in slime cucumber’ - this is a very risky approach. The better option all round is to pick a new name entirely - one that captures the essence of your being. Silvio could, for example, be Qian Feitu (roughly translated it means Money Gangster but it sounds better in Chinese). They couldn’t pronounce Elvis in China at all so they call him Wang Mao (King Cat). Honestly, if you say Elvis, they haven’t a notion but Wang Mao is very famous in China.
I was given my Chinese name - Bai Xiaolan (白晓兰）- when I first came to China. It means ‘white morning orchid’. Apt, non? This isn’t just some make-up name either (well, it is) but it’s on my official Chinese Government issued ID. I picked it for many reasons, but mostly because it’s easy to write. Mr Oh had to get one as well when he came and seems to have ended up with Dai Feihong (戴飞鸿) which is proving to be an interesting choice. The first character Dai is the only Chinese family name that starts with D so it seemed appropriate even though it’s so complicated it just looks like a big black squiggle. This is Dai a bit bigger:
I don’t know how he’s ever supposed to learn how to write it. I’m definitely not taking his name now.
Mr Oh has Dai Feihong printed on all his business cards. Whenever a Chinese person spots his name, they laugh. Initially this was confusing to him. He thought maybe he had been accidentally named the Chinese equivalent of Toy Bear. We had a Chinese student once in our school who was called Toy Bear and had to be gently encouraged to change it before he moved to London with his job. Feihong, it turns out, means “goose swan”. It isn’t exactly kick-ass but it’s hardly cause for mockery. After some investigation, it turns out that the laughing was on account of this man, Wang Feihong, a Chinese martial arts folk-hero. In China, it’s like giving someone your business card and saying, “Hello, I’m Chuck Norris”.
It doesn’t end there. Little A needed a Chinese name too. One of Mr Oh’s colleagues volunteered to help me out in choosing one. His family name would be Dai, the same as Mr Oh’s, so it was just the given name I had to pick. I suggested that maybe it could reflect his personality (active, strong, stubborn, fiery) and also give a nod to the fact that he was born in the year of the Dragon. She suggested the name Teng Long which means ‘soaring dragon’ and we settled on that. It’s a bit of an adult name though. As Little A’s Chinese teacher said to me “It’s a big name for a little boy”. While he’s still officially called Teng Long, his teachers and ayi all call him Xiao Long (Little Dragon).
It was only at the weekend when we discovered that Xiao Long is a very well known name in China. The man they know as Li Xiao Long, we know as Bruce Lee.
We’re going to get a goldfish and call it Jackie Chan.