A Rose By Any Other Name…:
Any newly arrived Westerner in Asia must quickly come to grips with strange names and naming conventions. Granted, there are Asians who probably think my name – Rob Chipman – is hysterically funny and, as a Westerner, I suppose I bear some responsibility for the late guitarist Frank Zappa naming his kids Moon Unit and Dweezel. Even so, dealing with Asian names can take foreigners for a dizzying journey.
China is the dominant culture so let’s begin there. In China, the family surname comes first, followed by a given name. That given name often comprises two parts. Take a name like Lee Shui Kee. You would address that person as Mr. Lee. His given name would be Shui Kee. When he deals with Westerners, as an accommodation to his guest, he might ask to be called SK. All that seems pretty sensible and straightforward but wait, there’s more.
In Hong Kong, many people have adopted Western-style given names. I’m sure Hong Kong’s 150 year British colonial heritage has something to do with that. So if our Mr. Lee Shui Kee were a Hong Konger, he might be known to his friends as Steven Lee, Steven being substituted for Shui Kee, and the order being switched to the more Western form of the given name followed by surname.
So far, so good, but for some reason there seems to be a pronounced tendency in Hong Kong to look ‘outside the box’ for unique given names. Way outside the box. For example, I remember a waiter in a local coffee shop by the name of Mr. Tung. OK, no problem there. But wait, his given name was Handsome. Handsome Tung. Or how about a teller at the Hong Kong Bank, a Miss. Tan. Arsenic Tan. I actually received a resume from a Miss. Glorious Chow. No modesty there, Glorious had quite the CV, I can assure you. Arsenic? Handsome? Glorious? What were their parents thinking?
Let’s turn to Thailand; maybe things will get saner. I was there only last week (yes, more golf, for those of you who read this space regularly) and the immigration officer who stamped my passport was Mr. Surachi Sirisoomboonhakdi. Somewhat dazed, I collected my bags and eventually made my way to the hotel where the rather fetching young lass at the reception desk was a Miss. Patacharee Niratpattanasai. At the risk of having to pronounce her name, I engaged her in some small talk. “It sure is hot, Miss. er, um, ah…” at which point she smiled and said, “Please call me Moo.” What a relief that was, so I asked her what Moo meant. Pig came the reply. Nice naming job, mom and dad. As long as the Thai formal names are, their nicknames are equally short. Microsyllabic examples include Nit, Oi, Dum Lek, Som, and Nok. So as I earlier tried to pronounce her last name (er, um, ah) I had instead called out to half the staff behind the front desk.
OK, I thought, the Philippines must be better. I was, after all, a Spanish colony for many generations. Sure enough, Latin sounding surnames abound, names that could originate from a number of Western countries. However, I also learned that the Filipinos have acquired a strange affinity for overly cute nicknames. For example, Baby is very common nickname for women. It’s not easy for me to take someone seriously whose name is Baby. My personal favorite is none other than the son of the late Dictator Ferdinand Marcos. I knew the Marcoses were ruthless dictators but I had no idea just how cruel they could be until I heard that they named their son Bong-Bong. During the People Power revolution that led to the Marcos fall from grace, there was much speculation as to the whereabouts of their son, culminating in a Wall Street Journal headline that deadpanned: “Bong-Bong in Hong Kong?”
(The author (a.k.a. fatboy) can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)