WHAT'S IN A NAME?
“I would like to suppose a coast,” Charlie says,
holding his beer glass up. “Propose a toast,” Zac corrects, with only the
hint of a wry smile. Charlie scrunches his eyes and shakes his head, trying
to get the right consonants to rattle into place. “Propose a toast, yes,
yes, yes, that’s it! Propose a toast!” He nods his head, the consonants
subjugated, and takes a drink. “Charlie,” I say, “if you propose a toast,
you have to propose a toast TO something. You have to say what the toast is
for.” He swallows his beer, and looks at Zac for confirmation of this rule.
Although Charlie was my student, he had become quite smitten with Zac since
we first went out to dinner together long ago, and he now regarded Zac as
the expert on everything. Zac verifies this toasting regulation.
Obediently, Charlie takes his glass and tries again. “I would like to
propose a toast….” he pauses, builds suspense, “to Si Ruo’s new name!” he
concludes triumphantly and takes a drink.
Si Ruo is me. After nearly eight months in China, I
finally have a suitable Chinese name that I can almost pronounce correctly.
There had been several failed attempts to name me. Some had tried to name
me after famous women in novels and poetry. Others had tried to give me a
name sounding like Sera. One name meant “pretty rain.” That one came
close. But it was Charlie, at my Monday night gathering, who finally came
up with the perfect appellation.
I was joking with my friends about getting my first
business card, with my new and impressive-sounding job title: Senior
Education Officer. One side would be in English and one side would be in
Chinese. I told them that because I didn’t have a Chinese name, I just put
Sera Arcaro on both sides, since I mostly deal with the foreigners anyway.
With my limited Chinese knowledge, I naively suggested that I should be
named “Si Re” meaning something like “dead hot,” but at least I could
pronounce it. Some of my coworkers had suggested Se La, which my friends
laughed at and said it was a Chinese adaptation of the word “salad.”
Although this was the easiest to pronounce, I didn’t like the idea of
introducing myself as salad.
Perhaps it was the threat of naming myself “dead hot”
that led Charlie to his epiphany. He jumped out of his chair, waved his
arms around wildly, and shouted, “I got it, I got it! Oh my god, I got
it!” Tears were streaming from his eyes. “Si Ruo! Si Ruo!” Then slower,
so everyone could appreciate the greatness of his invention, “Si…R..uo…..Si….R…u…o….”
“Charlie--” I interrupted his mantra, “what does it mean?” “Ok,” he said,
“Ok, paper, paper, I need a pen…” I directed his frantic searching to the
little end table with a pen and some scrap paper. He drew the characters
and repeated, “Si Ruo, Si Ruo, it’s perfect! Perfect!” “Charlie, what does
it mean? What does my name mean?” Everyone was staring at him, although
everyone was Chinese and no doubt knew the meaning, they wouldn’t take his
moment of bestowing enlightenment away from him.
How I loved my friends at that moment! How I enjoyed
the combination of circumstances that had brought it about! To be aware of
being named is a great joy. I’ve been quite happy with my name, Sera,
simple but with that clever little “e” thrown in to confuse people. The
graceful S towering over the geological “era.” But I never recall becoming
aware that it was me. How that word crept into my consciousness, and
attached itself to myself, I cannot remember.
Finally being named was the perfect culmination to what
had been a momentous day in my small Chinese life. Being given my first
(and probably only) business card was exciting enough, but earlier that day
when I presented my big plan of hosting a workshop series in November for
all of the Future School teachers (never before done) Victor, the city
director, had said, several times, it was “a great idea.” A lot of people
had predicted it wouldn’t go through because I was breaking with “the way
we’ve always done it.” It was my first success in initiating administrative
changes in this job.
It was a busy Monday in the office, and Vicky and I
were both trying to complete our reports from the weekend of observations.
Vicky is the Chinese teacher trainer, and we share the same computer and
desk. When we both have computer work to do at the same time, I take my USB
drive and use the computer of someone who is on their day off. But on this
day so many people were there that I had no free computer to work on. I
randomly blurted out, just stating the facts, “Victor, we need another
computer in here.” He said, “I know, you’re right,” and then went on to
talk to some people in Chinese. I thought it was the typical way of saying,
“That’s true, but what can we do?” But after a while, I began to notice a
lot of commotion behind me. Apparently, I had made my statement at
precisely the right second when Victor was inclined to say YES, and all the
right people were there to make it happen, because they had, on this very
day, dug up a computer, monitor, keyboard, desk and mouse for me. To fully
appreciate the gift bestowed upon me, you have to realize that all the
teacher trainers before me have also asked for another computer.
To finally have my own workspace after sharing a
cramped and cluttered desk for two months was almost as good as getting a
new name. Albeit, I had to wipe a layer of dust off of my grungy little
desk that is barely wider than a keyboard, not to mention that the rolling
keyboard tray consistently falls off, my mouse doesn’t roll well, the shift
key sticks, my monitor has one of those old 14-inch screens that is far too
round, the computer is in Chinese and the spell check isn’t installed. But
still, I had a place to call my own.
So it was a good day: I had gotten my workshop series
approved. I had gotten my own desk and computer. A business card was on
the way. I was making plans and making progress. I felt like I had (dare I
use the word?) a career. I guess being a teacher always felt like another
phase of being a student (I still had homework and exams—it’s just that I
was on the other end of them). I always referred to my Mondays through
Fridays as “school” instead of “work” as most normal adults earning a salary
do. Granted, at this job there are still teachers and students, and
managers (principals) but I float somewhere in the middle of all that. I
have meetings, I make appointments, I spend time in the classroom, time in
the office, time traveling, I network, learn names, build alliances. I make
my own schedule and make my own plans. I’m half manager, half teacher.
Powerful enough to make things happen, yet ultimately powerless to achieve
all I want to. In staff rooms across Dalian, there are notices posted by
managers proclaiming the coming of the teacher trainer to do observations,
provide feedback sessions, conduct a workshop… People have heard rumors of
me before they meet me.
It was nearly the end of this significant day before I
remembered that since it was Monday, my friends would be arriving soon for
our Monday night class. Mondays are essentially the beginning of the
weekend for me. I get home from work tired, Zac has the house cleaned, he
leaves for his evening adult class, and soon my friends arrive bearing
gifts. Like Mr. Cunningham to Atticus, they pay me in their own way: dates,
chestnuts, orange juice, popcorn, oranges, homemade candied hawthorns,
apples, more dates… Our Monday night meetings serve all of our needs: I
maintain my connections with the Chinese part of China, and they maintain
their English. I came up with the idea when I got a new, big apartment
which would accommodate more people and a new job which would prevent me
from teaching my beloved adult classes. So I invited my adult students from
my first and favorite class to come every Monday at 6:00 for English
Today’s topic was traditional Chinese fairy stories.
They each took a turn telling their favorite story and we discussed the
meaning. There is a famous song associated with one of the stories and Jane
and King sang an impromptu a cappella duet of the song. It was later
when we were eating the popcorn brought by Jane that I brought up my lack of
a Chinese name. They all made suggestions, based on Sera, Shogren, or
Arcaro, but none hit the mark.
It was fitting that Charlie should be the one to
finally name me. He was my most loyal student, enrolling in all four of my
adult classes offered last semester. After he had drawn the characters,
Charlie explained their meaning to me. “This one is Si,” he pointed to the
pen strokes. “It means ‘thinking’.” He dabbed the pen at the other
character, “Ruo. It means ‘looks like’.” So my name, Si with a flat tone
and Ruo with a falling tone, means someone who always looks like she is
thinking. Charlie said, “If I had a daughter, I would give her this name.”
I was quite happy with the name and spent the last few
minutes of our class being coached by everyone on the correct
pronunciation. Of course, with Chinese being what it is, I soon realized
that if I switched the tone on Si, and confused the vowel sound on Ruo, I
could very well introduce myself as “Dead Meat.” Chinese is dangerous.
The pinyin alphabet is a bit different from the one
we’re used to, so here is a pronunciation guide for my new name:
Si is pronounced like the SI in SIT. Ruo is pronounced like the ROU in