Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Name Game
This week's Standard column examines what's in a name, Sino-style
What originally brought me to China was a three-week summer English language camp in Shenzhen where one of my first duties was to name two students, a boy and a girl, who didn't already have English monikers.
But I was struck first by some of the names that had either been bestowed by Chinese teachers using lists apparently drawn from 19th century British census polls, or ones the pupils had chosen themselves. Most were fairly traditional (Tim, Kevin, Rachel, Cindy) or, at worst, only antiquated by western standards (Cora, Ivy, Heathcliff, Fletcher, Agnes, Ethel, Mabel).
But the best ones were incomprehensible, except to the owners. My favorites were the noun and adjective names. Three of my best students were girls named Street, Precious Moment and Most. Another teacher had what she dubbed ``The Fruit Sisters'': Lemon, Banana and Orange. One boy had apparently taken a cue from The Wind in the Willows with Mole and there were others seemingly inspired by the Seven Dwarfs: Happy, Itchy and Funny. A possible UFO freak called himself Roswell, though he wisely resisted my suggestion to change it to Area 51.
And there were a few gender-benders recalling Johnny Cash's A Boy Named Sue. One young man had no problem with Tina, another had tagged himself April Wednesday in honor of his birth month and day and there was a girl named Joey in honor of baby `roos.
I had little room to snicker, however. You see, I hail from Boulder, Colorado. Besides having a state university cafeteria named after a 19th century cannibal and being the editorial home of a magazine for wannabe mercenaries called Soldier of Fortune it's also one of the last refuges for the Woodstock Nation where names like Dharma Bum, Astral Plane, Bilbo Shrooms, Shamica Sativa and XXX God raise few eyebrows but lots of consciousness.
While my teaching stint gave way to more lasting and suitable duties, I later struck up friendships with long- term teachers who had some winners.
``Here's smattering of nonsensical names I've had the pleasure of knowing: Red Hat, Arrow, Small Fish, Yellow Pencil, Dolphin and Ranson,'' said Patrick Mullen. ``There are a good many others, but my beer-encrusted brain can't pull them out right now.''
Another American, James Baquet, who teaches at Shenzhen Polytechnic University, was a little more sober when contacted and a lot more comprehensive. His name game fascination also served as therapy in his personal Heartbreak Hotel.
``Last Spring, I compiled and alphabetized a list of 579 student names. I then assigned a category to each one,'' Baquet said. ``I only did this my first semester here; an update on the next two semeseters will happen if I ever lose my girlfriend and have too much time on my hands again.''
Baquet's list is staggering. It covers 17 categories ranging from Finance (four: two Moneys and, in a rare bubble of pro-Japanese sentiment, two Yens and zero Yuans); Animals and Humans (``Faves here include two girls with double-names Bear-Bear and Pig-Pig; one male and one female Fox; two girls named Man, and the superbly misspelled Gorille, a girl'') to Words: adjectives.
``There were 21 of those,'' Baquet said. ``My favorite was when a kid missed the first class. When he showed up for the second, I asked, ``What happened last time?''
``He said, `I couldn't find the classroom.'''
``How long did you look?''
``A couple of minutes.''
``Okay, what's your name?
``That got big laugh from the class.''
The two largest categories were No English Name (69) and Standard (299). ``I noticed a strong correlation between the failure to choose an English name and poor English conversational skills,'' said Baquet. ``I think it's something about a comfort level.''
``As for Standard names, there were some strange spellings like Carloes, Howy and Jackueline and some unusual ones: Athena, Astrid. I also had some gender-benders (two males, Gigi and Penny, a female Tom) and some names that should have been filed under Inexplicable: Connia, Dorty, Eline, Jeffson and Winson.
``I guess there are two defenses for including those. They're close to real names (Connie, Dorothy, Elaine, Jefferson, Winston) and I've lost some of my sensitivity about what's considered weird.''
As for Inexplicable (55, including gems such as boys named Figer, Hoorock and Potti and girls called Cavery, Gife and Sikky) Baquet said: ``In many cases, the students couldn't or wouldn't explain them or their explanation was still wanting. But Sikky was a sweetie and Potti became a good friend.''
There was also his Initials category (15) that might also have been called R2-D2. It was virtually all male with an A-2, an aspiring CEO and two inventive ones who melded their Chinese names with US hip-hop sensibilities.
``My favorites were T.W.I.M. Hu Bin -- a boy named Hu Bin who said it was The World Is Mine Hu Bin -- and Hmily, a boy named Hu Ming who said it was Hu Ming I Love You,'' said Baquet. ``The best part was that both insisted on being called by their full names every time.''
Unlike me, Baquet said he was never called to name a student. But I've got three great suggestions. Ultimately I dubbed my charges Elvis and Aretha. And though they were unaware of their namesakes' soulful significance, they seemed perfectly satisfied.
Another teacher at the summer camp had the same quandry and took a cue from the same book, just a more recent chapter. Suffice to say that somewhere in Shenzhen there's also a Chinese Bono.
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