Watermelon, Brad Pitt and Some of My Other Chinese Friends

This is not the real Spiderman from my

daughter’sKindergarten class.

This is just an imposter that

I met near our home.

My daughter went to Kindergarten with Spiderman.  He was shorter than he looks in the movies.

Something interesting happens when our Chinese friends get an English name.  It’s pretty standard practice, considering most Chinese students start learning English when they are in primary school (my French name in high school was Gustave).  Sometimes they have the luxury of a foreigner who chooses a name for them (such as our employee . . . Brad Pitt).  Other times it seems like more of a random English crapshoot.  Like they just shook the dictionary and took whatever fell out first.  China is filled with aspiring English speakers named Apple or Tree or House or Wing or Watermelon or Superman or Wonder Woman.  Just kidding . . . I’ve never met Wonder Woman but the rest are friends of mine.

The cockiest Chinese teenager I ever met was Tiramisu.  I was testing his English level for placement in a program that would help him get a visa to study in Canada.  I looked at my clipboard and started the interview, “So . . . you’re name is Tiramisu?”  He squinted at me, slouched down in his chair and thumbed his nose like he was Bruce Lee.  “Call me Tira.”

I really tried not to laugh but I think I snorted just a little bit (like when you’re trying to hold it in and can’t).  “No . . . no I think I want to call you Tiramisu.”

Like all things lost in translation it can be good for a chuckle.  In fairness, however, the goofy name shoe fits on the other foot as well.

My first Chinese name was You Wang.  Those of you who live or have lived in China probably pronounced this correctly in your head and for that I would like to say, “thank you.”  You realize that this is pinyin (Chinese phonetics) and not English.  Those of you who don’t and just made an off color joke in your head . . . shame on you.  The correct pronunciation sounds a little more like Yo (as in “yo whassup?”) and Wong (as in rhymes with “strong” or “Cheech and Chong” or “ching chang willy willy bing bang bong“).  It means, “to have hope” and considering Chinese names are chosen for their meaning I thought it was a good one for me . . . but Chinese people kept laughing at me.

No kidding, for three years every time I introduced myself, Chinese people would say, “I’m sorry, what?”

“You Wang.”

And they would laugh.

“What?!  Why are you laughing? It means, ‘to have hope’, why is that funny?”  And without fail the response was always the same.

“No, no,” biting their lips and raising their eyebrows at each other, “it’s a good name,”  *nose snort*  . . . “good name.”

I was convinced that my first year Chinese teacher had given me a name that secretly meant “Shoestring” or “Monkey King” or “Tiramisu” so I finally  cornered some friends and forced them to tell me why it was so funny.  I discovered that it was a legitimate Chinese name but it sounded like an old man from the countryside.  I’m pretty sure my Chinese name meant “Delbert Bob.”

So I changed it . . . with help . . . to Jie Rui.  Which sounds exactly like “Jerry”.  Boring but at least they don’t snort anymore.

Your name is your brand.  Our Executive Assistant “Flight” has known for a long time that her English name is not exactly mainstream.  She’s mentioned several times that she would like a new name and one day we even agreed on “Sonya” which sounds like her Chinese name.  That was the last time I called her Sonya.  She’s Flight.  She’s been Flight since Jr. High English class and once people get past the introductions they realize that she’s amazing.  She transcends the awkwardness of an unconventional name and no one gives it a second thought . . . until a rookie foreigner comes along and snorts through his nose.

Seriously though, we Westerners lose chuckling rights every time we download a song from Pink or Seal or Prince or Sting or Eminem or Meatloaf (really? Meatloaf?).  Suddenly Tiramisu seems so much less snort worthy.

But still funny.

8 Comments

  1. We had a friend in Huangdao whose name was Iceberg. He loved it. What you can say.
    Bernice

    Reply
  2. I had a student from Taiwan named Jackal. We tried to convince him that this wasn’t his best choice but he wouldn’t budge. I don’t think his name went over well in small town Missouri.

    Reply
  3. Okay, this was really funny. And true.

    Reply
  4. Jerry, will you write a blog about the taxi driver poem in your Chinese wedding picture book . . . PLEASE!!! (Stephanie)

    Reply
  5. Jerry, I don’t get around to reading your blog as often as I would like, but whenever I need a good laugh I find my way to your blog and just spend the time catching up on your posts! You are brilliant, in a pleasingly plump kinda way. 🙂 I think I may send a link to your blog to our interns, to help prepare them for all the ‘joy’ they will find if/when they go out into other cultures.

    PS I’m afraid the green couches are starting to break down!

    Reply
  6. Great idea Stephanie. Coming up.

    ps- save me a tiny piece of the couches before they go on to their final resting place. They will be missed.

    Reply
  7. When I came to China in high school to help teach English in summer camps, we had a student named Celery, and another named Coke.

    Reply

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