Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, November 8, 2014

What's in a name?

My first business dealings with a Japanese company occurred almost 20 years ago. The meeting was at the New York office of a large Japanese trading firm. The gentlemen I was meeting had lived in the US for a couple years so he spoke passable English (unfortunately the opposite is rarely true for Americans living in Japan but that is another topic). He introduced himself using his real name and then quickly followed up by saying “but call me Tom or ‘TT’ ”. His first name in Japanese was Toshiya. His last name – Taniguchi. At that time I knew nothing about Japanese culture beyond what I had looked up in the library – yes, the library as this was in the “pre-internet” era. Handling business cards with two hands was about the sum total of my knowledge of Japanese business culture.

I became friends with Taniguchi san but I never called him Tom or TT. Although I quickly concluded that many Japanese dealing with foreigners took English names to make communication easier for themselves and those they were meeting with, I just didn’t like the idea of using “adopted” names. I thought I should show my customers from across the Pacific the respect of properly pronouncing and remembering their names.

My colleagues in the US never hesitated to use the English names and often wondered why I stubbornly insisted on using Japanese family names with “san” appended. My answer was always quite simple – “I prefer to use their real name”. It just seemed like the polite thing to do. 

On one occasion after dinner (and a few beers) a colleague from a trading company asked me “why don’t you call me Mike?” I responded, “Hasegawa san when you start calling me ‘Kentaro’, I will call you Mike". He looked surprised, “why would I call you Kentaro?” I told him it was my Japanese name. He said, “but Joe-san, you don’t have a Japanese name” and then he smiled: “ok – I understand”.

For better or for worse my refusal to use English names in Japan continues to this day. I tried the same approach when we moved to China and had to abandon it almost immediately. As in most cases, Japan and China are 不同 (different).

I spent quite a bit of time in China before we moved there but I did not fully appreciate the Middle Kingdom’s relationship with English until we settled into our new life in Shanghai.

Learning Chinese is a challenge, using English names made life easier

Most of the young Chinese I met never even referenced their Chinese name. My first office in China was a serviced office used by many foreign companies with limited staff. Included was a part time assistant. She introduced herself as “Jenny” which in 2005 was an extremely popular name. I think there were more "Jennys" in Shanghai than in the western hemisphere. During my first week in the office, Jenny told me that a representative of Citibank Private Banking wanted to meet me. I said it was fine and within minutes, a well-dressed, earnest looking young man was at my door. “Good afternoon, my name is Bear”.

I managed to choke back a giggle and offered Bear some tea. I moved to China before banking rules were relaxed so Bear’s pitch was a little weak: “if you deposit USD 50,000 we will not charge you to keep it” he told me with a straight face. He added, “of course there are some rules about how you get the money back out”. Bear had only taken one sip of his oolong tea when I told him that his offer did not sound like a good deal to me. I added that if he was going to remain in the financial services industry perhaps a name change was in order. I suggested he re-name himself “Bull” and the meeting was over.

Later that afternoon, the building manager came in to introduce herself. “Hello I am ‘Pony’; it is nice to meet you”.  Again I managed not to laugh but wondered to myself if the entire animal kingdom was going to show up before the end of the week.

We stayed at the Ritz Carlton while we waited for our household goods to arrive from Japan. Unfortunately the shipment was delayed so after a week we moved to a guest house closer to our home and daughter’s school.  Upon our arrival we were greeted by a young women named “Disney” and were soon introduced to “Belle”. I wondered aloud if Mickey and Gaston were going to help with our bags.

After a couple weeks, I realized that I was remembering all these unique names without a problem. Maybe the young Chinese were onto something.

I began to hire a local staff. First was Oliver who was followed by Sabrina. By then I had totally bought into this English name idea.  Later, my local staff included:  Wilder, Cory, James and Irene.  

I spent the most time with my driver Philip.  Philip was not his first English name. He told me that he used to be called "DVD".  I replied that Philip was a much better choice. As Philip and I got to know each other, I learned of his love for American movies and TV shows.

After several months of commuting conversations, one day on the ride home Philip asked me to do him a favor. “Sir, I want a new name.” I responded: “Philip is a great name and it suits you.” “Sir you know I watch a lot of movies – nobody in the movies is ever named Philip”.  If Philip was a good name it would be in the movies”.  We drove on. Since the IPhone was not invented yet, I couldn’t quickly check the internet for movie characters named Philip so I told him anybody could pick a movie name like “Rocky” but his name was better because it was “not a copy”. “Besides to the family you ARE Philip.”  His normally smiling face went to a frown and he told me he would think about it.

Christmas rolled around. One of my daughters got a “heavy bag” you could punch or practice kickboxing on. It needed to be hung from the ceiling in our garage so we called the maintenance office and they said they would send someone over. Soon a golf cart arrived with a very large smiling man carrying a toolbox. He didn’t speak English but by then I could speak enough Chinese (and gesture) well enough to communicate. I looked up at the Chinese giant and noticed the name embroidered on this uniform was “Hunk”. I think someone from the office picked that name for him.

Ironically, unlike in Japan, I had to have a Chinese name for official paperwork.  Someone from the corporate office in Hong Kong picked my name without consulting me. She took two Chinese characters that had the combined sounds of my last name. – well sort of. “The two characters mean sharp and bright” she said cheerfully over the phone. Not happy at having no input regarding my name, I responded that I guessed the meaning of the name could be interpreted as prick and closed the conversation with a less than sincere “thank you”.

Philip finally agreed not to change his name
Since the Chinese language is much harder for me than Japanese, I ended my time in China thankful that many of the people I dealt with everyday took English names. I was probably most thankful that Philip  agreed  not to change his.