For a new assignment, I needed a new name

Yesterday in China, I got a new name. This wasn't a religious experience; no blinding light on the road to Beijing, no heavenly host. Rather, it came from Jia Aimei, my Chinese teacher. Mrs. Jia is a cultural interpreter and the kind of person every foreigner here should meet. She comes early in the morning to share a hot beverage in the kitchen and, as her aphorism goes, "fry the cold rice" - get the language instruction started.

I'd gone through several Chinese teachers before finding Jia. To learn Mandarin is to learn about China, and you need a teacher with more than technical skill, someone whose principal interest is instruction. Beijing is bustling with sharp young men and women who advertise in the English-language magazine subculture used by expatriates here. But Jia, now retired, is a walking cultural ambassador who has been there and done most of that.

Now she was needed anew: For too long I'd tromped through the Middle Kingdom without a Chinese name. The move to Beijing was speedy, and I settled for a Mandarin transliteration of "Robert." But here, transliterations are like canned oranges. Why settle for them? Due attention to a proper Chinese name shows respect, and most expats who log time here have them. I'd been through too many banquets and introductions - too many long silences as Chinese puzzled over the business-card characters for "Robert."

Getting a name is a job for someone with wisdom, someone who has sat patiently, summer and winter, listening as I say things like, "Mr. Li can meet Mr. Brown at the train station," someone who has come to Thanksgivings, who knows me, whom I can trust.

It is like that with some teachers. You know right away. In our first lesson, "tomato" was in the vocabulary. Did I know tomatoes only arrived in China in the 19th century? They came with the potato and the sweet potato, and became a staple. Because tomatoes came from the West, Chinese call them "west red persimmons." They were brought by ship, by "yang ren," or "ocean men" - what foreigners were called until well into the 20th century. The tomato arrived about the time that Chinese began to leave for Jiu Jing Shang, 'old gold mountain," still the Mandarin name for San Francisco, harking back to the gold rush.

That was how we started lesson No. 1.

Jia is from an old Shanghai family. She went to Fudan University there, rare for a woman in those days. She later researched village women in China with a scholar from the United States, also a pioneering feat. She has a great ear for English, unfailing humor, and a son who lives in Japan. Like many Chinese these days, she travels to Thailand and Vietnam. Her stories show why it is easy to feel affection for Chinese.

I had to politely ask about the Cultural Revolution. Yes, Jia had been "sent down" to the countryside in the 1960s. Chairman Mao wanted city people to understand earthy peasant wisdom; hundreds of thousands left home and family to do patriotic harvesting or ditch digging in China's good earth. Jia remembers quickly learning how to spit. "The tougher peasants would leave you alone if you spat like them, so we did." (She no longer does.) But Jia also says it was helpful to mix with rural people. "We didn't know the peasants at all, so I learned some things."

During the Cultural Revolution, teachers were told to start children's English instruction with the word "imperialist," to introduce the correct political context.

"Good morning class, can you say 'imperialist?' " Actually, the kids could not. The practice stopped when teachers complained that "imperialist" was too difficult for youngsters to pronounce.

Jia met her husband in Beijing. In those days, a city groom had to provide three things: a watch for keeping time, a bicycle for travel, and a radio for listening to news. Radios are plentiful and less vital today. But at the time, it was crucial to stay tuned to messages coming out of Beijing.

"A husband must provide those three things, or there is no way the girl will marry him," Jia smiles. "Nowadays, it is a house, a car, a computer."

We struggle with Chinese language tones. In Mandarin, a different pitch or "tone" changes the meaning of a sound. There are four tones. Take "ji": The tone determines whether "ji" means machine, chicken, or to count. "Ma" is horse or mother, depending. The difference between saying "I love you" and "you are a dwarf" is the trajectory of a puff of air. My first month in Beijing I parked in a police zone to wait for a friend. I thought I told the officer "My friend - pungyou - is coming." The officer told the arriving friend that I wanted an apple - pingguo. No one was arrested.

Many Mandarin words are literal. Bike: self-propelled vehicle. Refrigerator: electric ice box. Movie: electric shadows. You don't go to a concert but to a "music meeting." To travel fast is "ma shang," or "on horseback." Things not so great? That's mama huhu - what happens when a horse, ma, meets a tiger, hu. Coffee-mate, the popular milk powder, is "coffee spouse."

How do you like Ma Le Bo - horse happy knowledge? Don't laugh, but it is my name. Ma picks up the first sound of Marquand, a nod to my Huguenot forebears, and family names come first here. Horse is a prized creature, and name. Jia considered just two sounds, horse and happy. But that connoted something a little too much like spring break during college. Adding "knowledge" gives it a "happy to be learning" meaning. Which is true.

Anyway, Chinese friends hear it and say, hey, a good name! Thank you, Jia laoshi (teacher).

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