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Chinese Name

October 2005

 “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 conversation.

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.

Si Ruo

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 ROUGH.

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