more than just a name

I was sitting at the Napier Hotel’s front bar waiting for a serve of its famous steak sandwich when a very drunk man tried to start up a conversation and in so doing shook my hand numerous times. I was a bit taken aback as i hadn’t been to a pub for awhile and my front bar social skills were a little rusty. Besides it was the Napier which has long been yuppiefied into yet another place where people go to meet their friends instead of getting pissed by themselves and then talking to anyone who would listen.

It turned out that the man, a 40 yo welder, wanted to talk to me because I am Asian and he and his wife had just after 4 years of redtape successfully adopted an 18 month old female baby from Szechuan. He had got to the maudlin stage of drunkeness.

“we love her so much.” he said tearfully, “and we don’t want her to lose her culture. I’m going to learn to speak chinese.”

I recommended he choose mandarin as it was most commonly used and asked him what their baby’s name was.

“Siew Fua”, he said.

“Little Flower,” I guessed.

“We call her Camellia,” he said proudly.

I didnt say anything to that although i wondered how much one can keep one’s birth culture if one’s name is westernised from the beginning. I suspected not much but then I dont have overly romantic ideas of cultural essentialism – that one’s culture had to “match” one’s appearence. Eventually after the tussle over identity and the search for self is over (or at least reasonably complete), you just get on with it.

Encouraged by my interest, the man told me about how his father used to work extensively in China and how his mother had been born there as an expatriate. He said all this with great meaning and camaraderie as if his family’s history and now his adopted daughter had created a bond between us. I did not have the heart to tell him that he was barking up the wrong tree.

Finally, he asked me if I was going to be celebrating Chinese New Year next week. As part of his efforts to keep with the culture, he’d been taking his family to chinese festivals. There was a kite festival of a sort the other week and now he was looking forward to the big one, Chinese New Year.

I admitted that I had no plans and that indeed I wasnt even aware that it was on. My ignorance dismayed him. He looked at me in disappointment.

“I’m not the most asian person,” I said as kindly as possible.

He struggled a little over that and finally, with a broad smile, he said.

“You’re quite .. uhm .. socialised.”

He was drunk enough that I knew that what he meant was integrated or perhaps even assimilated but I think that his usage of the term “socialised” is quite revealing of the mainstream’s attitude to cultural integration.

So there you go, I am socialised.

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