Monday, February 27, 2006

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol.12 -- Marcus the Great

"The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names."
--Chinese proverb

"Marcus? He is a great man in China," Maggie said.

"Really?" I asked. We were chilling out in the office after work.

"Yes, Marcus was very important," she said seriously. "We all had to study him in school."

Wow. It'd be good to be associated with someone positive for once. Sometimes when I tell Filipinos my name, they're like, "Marcus? Marcos? You mean Ferdinand Marcos?!"

Then I have to say, "NO! I wasn't named after him! I was named after my great-grandfather."

I pressed Maggie for more details. She couldn't translate what she knew, but she promised to look him up on the Internet.

My imagination was fired by visions of grandeur. Maybe I was a great man in a past life. Ha ha ha!

Famous (and Infamous) Marcus's in History

Marcus Aurelius--the philosopher-king of ancient Rome. Celebrated as the last of the "5 Good Emperors" before the fall of the Roman Empire.

Marco Polo--Venetian merchant who was one of the most traveled men of his time. Even more significant, his writings became the Western world's first look into China.

His book inspired another young Italian to go to China--by sailing west in 1492.

Markus Wolf--East German spymaster nicknamed "The Man Without a Face" because no intelligence agency was able to photograph him. Novelist John Le Carre used Wolf as a model for Karla, the most fearsome enemy to the British Secret Service.

Herbert Marcus--co-founder of the Neiman Marcus upscale clothing store chain. He started NM with a store in Dallas, Texas.

Although it would have been cool to be a Roman emperor, globe-trotting merchant, super-spy, or retail tycoon, none of them seemed right.

The Foreign Languages Bookstore is one of my favorite places in Shanghai. It's on Fuzhou Lu (Fuzhou Road), famous for having acres of bookshops. The selection of English-language books at the shops leave a lot to be desired. It's either guidebooks or literary classics in paperback. Anything else is absurdly more expensive. Many books go for 200 RMB ($24.80) and up. Literary classics are 18 RMB ($2.23).

I know it sounds weird to complain about 25 bucks, but I'm thinking with my Chinese salary now. In comparison, DVDs here cost only 10 RMB ($1.24), down to 5 RMB ($0.62). It's a cruel twist of fate that the only books I can afford are the ones that bored me in school!

I headed to the classics display to see what bargains I could find. While I dug through pre-20th century literature, my mind drifted to how Chinese people kept mispronouncing my name. They always called me "Mark-suh."

There was a stack of a new book that hadn't been there last time I was here. I picked up a copy.

Suddenly, everything came together: an important man; the strong influence he had on China; the way everyone said my name wrong.

The book was