Friday, December 2, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 8 -- Naming Names

"It is always easier to solve someone else's problem."
--Chinese proverb

My newest student wanted me to give her a name. While this seems unusual, it is a common request for foreign English teachers in Asian countries. Most foreigners find Chinese names unpronounceable, so they give their students "English names."

The catch is that most Chinese get their English names as children. As they grow up, Chinese people start to change their English names as frequently as they change shoes. Since I taught adults, all my students already had English names by the time they entered my class. Except this one.

Her name was Liang Lin. I wrestled with the naming process, because I thought it was such a huge responsibility. After we batted around a few possibilities, she chose Lillian. That one had the closest pronunciation to Chinese name.

My friends who teach English to children don't sweat this process. They've done it dozens of times by now. But I still saw it as a big responsibility. I've met Chinese girls with names like "Yo Yo" and "Moe" (as in the Three Stooges). They'll be humiliated mercilessly when they study abroad in English-speaking countries. The cruel foreigners who named these innocent Chinese need a severe beating.

Like many of my classes with new students, we spent the session getting to know each other. Lillian had spent time studying in Japan. Now she worked for a business consulting firm that helped Japnese companies enter the Chinese market.

After English, Japanese is the most popular language for Chinese to learn. China's biggest trade partners speak those languages, so that's very practical (European businesspeople use English as the default language). In fact, there's a Japanese language school next door to my English school.

I've met several women who've followed Lillian's career path. Get an undergrad degree in China, study Japanese in Japan, then come back to China as a translator. In the 1980s, around the time China started opening up, there was a big push to increase trade with Japan. Studying nihongo became a big fad. Being a translator was a hot job.

My translator students say it's a paradox: it's really hard to become a translator, but once you learn the language, the job gets boring. At first it's great, because translating is easy once you're fluent. But then reality sets in. Other executives get to work in production, marketing, and strategic planning, where all the action is. Translators do nothing but translate all day, all the time.

There's another danger. Translators accompany senior executives on business trips. Executives are often older men; translators are often younger women. They're stuck together in a hotel in another country, no prying wives in sight. That's a recipe for a soap opera.

I wrapped up the lesson, eager to get lunch from BreadTalk, the European-style bakery nearby. It's the Starbucks of bakeries. They have this awesome sandwich called "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Bacon." [insert sex joke here]

But Lillian had another request. She took out her name card (that's what the Chinese call business cards) and presented to me with both hands.

I accepted it with both hands. Name cards are usually bilingual, with Chinese writing on one side and English on the other. I turned it over. Blank. No English. Huh?

"Can you make an English name for my company?" Lillian asked.

I was dumbfounded. Naming a person was one thing. A company was something else. This career woman was going to place the fate of her company in the hands of a 22-year-old who almost flunked an economics class.

Not wanting to cause someone else's bankruptcy, I tried to talk her out of it. There are professionals who are much better at this sort of thing, I said.

Nothing would shake her. I was the right person for the job. Sometimes I'm too good at acting like I know what I'm doing.

We got down to work. The Chinese name of her company was "Zhiyou," (jee-yo) which meant "Intelligent Friend" in English. While this was good in her language, she thought it would not work in English. I agreed. Then she asked the impossible: to create a name in English that still had the Chinese sound and Chinese meaning.

How was I going to do that? I worked over endless iterations. She rejected every single one. I wanted to give up.

Finally, I decided to split the English name into two parts. One part would have the Chinese sound and the other part would have the Chinese meaning.

This was what I came up with: "Geo Knowledge Partners."

"What does mean?" Lillian asked.

"It means, 'Your friends that know the land,'" I said. My brain was fried by this point.

"That is perfect! Because we are business consultants! I love this name!" Lillian gushed. She promised to tell the CEO as soon as he got back from his business trip in Tokyo.

I imagined how he'd react: "Who came up with this piece of shit name?! If he worked here, I'd fire him!"

She made me give her my mobile number (like in Europe, the Chinese call it mobile phone instead of cell phone). Lillian wanted to invite me to meet the big boss as soon as he embraced my fabulous idea. I doubted that, but gave her my number anyway.

* * *

Later on, I told this story to David, one of my students. I thought he'd be interested, since he's an advertising manager.

"So how much did she give you?" David asked.

"Nothing. Why?"

"You did for free?!" He exclaimed.

"What? What?" I asked, worried.

"The name is the most important thing! It is the face of the company! Our clients give us a lot of money to give them names," David said.

So she hadn't thought I was capable, just gullible. A fortune in yuan (yoo-un, Chinese money) just slipped out of my grasp! I had pulled a major Homer Simpson.

Outside the classroom, students were booking classes at the front desk and using the computers. Suddenly, a sound ripped through the whole English school: