Editors' Choice

The Dangers of "Going Local"

by Olivia Edward

Picking a Mandarin name for yourself in China can be perilous.

“So what’s your Chinese name?”

“I haven’t got one,” I replied

“Well how can we print your business cards?” tutted the production manager impatiently.

“I don’t know,” I said limply. “I wasn’t aware I was going to need one.” Looks of disapproval and exasperation from my new Chinese colleagues.

I thought I’d done so well. Become one of those uber-cool global citizens I’d always wanted to be. Landed a dream job as a magazine editor in Shanghai. Found an apartment before I’d even set foot in the city. Arranged my flight and visa with minimal hassle. Said goodbye to my boyfriend and dog with minimal tears. Even managed to pick up a few words of Mandarin. And, yet, here I was, standing in my new place of work, only three hours off the plane, and I’d already made my first cultural faux pas.

Realizing I needed to get a name quick, I asked what the other foreigners in the company had called themselves. They reeled off a list of names translating into eulogies such as “Tall Handsome One,” “Elegant Crane,” “Proud Butterfly,” and “Bringer of Light.” Not even having had the chance to brush my teeth since landing, I didn’t feel I was in any position to bestow such glorious compliments upon myself. My breath was stale and my hair looked as though I’d flown in from London mistakenly strapped to the top of the plane.

It was explained to me that Chinese names were given by a child’s parents or grandparents, in the hope of bringing them a bright future, but my sense of British modesty kicked in. I just stood there—international go-getter that I wasn’t—shuffling from one foot to the other, until my assistant Happy came to my rescue.

“What’s your middle name?” Happy asked.

“Amey,” I replied.

“Well, that translates almost exactly into Chinese so that can be your name,” said Happy, happily.

I’d always wanted to be Amey—Amey Andrews, after my mother’s maiden name. And now I could be. New country, new name, new fabulous me. I smirked a little at the thought of my colleagues who had been arrogant enough to name themselves with praise and congratulated myself on my own choice of subtly glamorous moniker. Gratefully I signed a slip of paper confirming my authority for the printing, and soon had a box of name cards with my job title followed by my new name written in Chinese characters.

You’re a nobody in China without a name card. On meeting someone new the first thing you do is swap name cards. I was soon sitting in meetings handing my cards out to fellow Chinese journalists, photographers and high-flying businessmen. Often they would stop and repeat my Chinese name a number of times, pronouncing it Ai-mee, and checking it was right. Then they would smile slightly and emit an understanding “ah.” Innocently I believed they were touched a foreigner had so quickly picked up their ways.

Only a year later, after handing out over one thousand business cards, did I realize why they were smiling. It was as I was sitting in my Chinese language class, learning the correct forms of address for ordinary Chinese people—the man generally being Xiansheng and the woman being Xiaojie followed by their surnames—I was asked my name in order to incorporate it into a role play.

Aimee,” I said with pride. “So I would refer to myself as “Xiaojie Aimee.”

He sniggered. And despite his obvious urge to roll around on the floor with glee he managed to splutter out, “Do you know what that means?”

I replied in the negative and he expanded, “Ai means love and Mi means rice. And xiaojie can also mean…” But at this point the hilarity of the situation had paralyzed him from his shaking belly upwards and a classmate had to help him out by kindly whispering the word “prostitute” in my ear.

Composing himself my teacher said firmly, “I think you better change your name Miss Love Rice.”


Olivia Edward is a freelance travel writer who has written for numerous publications from Time Out guides to Amex's Centurion and Latin America's Travesias. She loves swimming in rough seas, sashimi and fresh watermelon juice (preferably not at the same time) and gets incredibly depressed in five-star hotels.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




Read more from Editors' Choice, Olivia Edward

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