Choose wisely, Big Grasshopper

Offered the chance to move to Beijing, journalist Julie Makinen was excited about picking her Chinese name. Then she heard the choices.

Los Angeles Times

Offered the chance to move to Beijing, journalist Julie Makinen was excited about picking her Chinese name. Then she heard the choices.

Ms. Wheat Golden Farmer. Was that really the new me?

When I was offered the chance to move to Beijing, I was excited about picking a Chinese name. How often does one get to select a new identity?

In China, the names of foreign movie stars and politicians are typically rendered in Mandarin with direct transliterations — Bill Clinton, for instance, is written with characters that sound like Bi-er Ke-lin-dun and have no real meaning. Sports heroes earn nicknames — NBA player Carmelo Anthony is Tian Gua, or "Sweet Melon."

But many expats working in China adopt shorter names following traditional Chinese form: One character for the family name, and one or two others for the given name.

I wasn't planning on anything as grand, but I imagined perusing my Chinese dictionary over pots of tea, looking for the perfect combo of characters that would connect to the sound of my English name yet convey some essence of myself, perchance a bit of mystique.

The cadres at the Foreign Ministry's International Press Center, though, had another idea.

When I began my application for a press card, part of the process for receiving a working journalist visa, I found I had already been assigned a name. It was Mai Jinnong, a very loose adaptation of my Finnish surname, Makinen. The characters' meaning? "Wheat Golden Farmer."

"It sounds rural," one of my Chinese office colleagues commented, giggling. Opined another, cautiously, "That sounds like a man's name."

Further research revealed Makinen already had an officially designated (though equally unappealing) Chinese equivalent. According to the state-run New China News Agency's 800-plus-page style manual on transliterations, I should be Ma Jinen, three characters meaning "Horse Basic Tender."

An appealing Chinese name is important, for individuals and overseas corporations. But I didn't have the luxury of engaging a consultant, so a co-worker and I quickly searched online again. I wanted the "ma" sound for my family name, and two other characters approximating the sound of Julie. But the standard rendering of Julie, written with characters meaning "Medicinal Herb" and "Jasmine," was ruled out after another co-worker remarked, "That sounds like a plant."

We filed the form with Ma ("Horse") as my family name. For my given name, we settled on Zhu Li, meaning something like "Pearl Striving."

I felt like a dazed mom who goes into unexpected early labor and scribbles "Banana" on the birth certificate in the delivery room. As I recounted the episode to a Chinese friend, she frowned. "You should go see a fortune­teller," she said. "In China, parents often do this for new babies. Don't leave it to chance."

So in the shadow of Beijing's Lama Temple, I found the cramped office of Zhang Buyuan, a 75-year-old with a Confucius-style beard. His services start at $50.

Zhang looked at my birth date and hour, then consulted texts to see which of the five elements — wood, fire, earth, metal and water — I was supposedly weak or strong in.

Next, using numerology, he determined the number of strokes my name should ideally have.

I asked him about Wheat Golden Farmer. "Unlucky," he scoffed, counting the strokes of the first two characters. "They add to 19, which signals a short life."

I wondered whether the folks at the Press Center had intentionally cursed me. But he was equally dismissive of my alternative. "Zhu Li? It's a lonely name. You will be without a partner. You need a good, fortunate name, like Da Shan."

He flipped through books of characters handwritten in black ink.

"Your personality is close to the soil. You're down-to-earth, loyal and honest. You don't like money in your life," he told me. Then, with no hint of irony, he added, "You should be an official, a politician."

What I lacked, he concluded, was fire. He suggested a name whose first two characters totaled 24 brush strokes; according to his texts, 24 meant fire. "Horse," he said, was good for the first character. That's 10 strokes, leaving 14 for the second character. How about Meng? he asked. It means "Dream."

I laughed. Meng is one of the strongest political catchwords of the day, popularized by President Xi Jinping and his vague but appealing notion of "The Chinese Dream." The phrase is on billboards across the nation.

Choose wisely, Big Grasshopper 03/18/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 1:20pm]

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