The Trouble With My Last Name

I often complain about how difficult it is to have a rare character for a last name. Nobody (Chinese or foreign) can say it properly. Few know how to write it. And I often get topped at airport check-in. This excerpt below from a fascinating book (“East Look West See”), published in Chinese by Zhai Hua, explains better than I can the trouble with my last name. I sought and happily received permission from Zhai Hua to translate and publish this portion on my blog. Hope you enjoy the read! If you want to read more of his works, visit http://blog.sina.com.cn/zhaihua

Translated excerpt from “East Look West See” by Zhai Hua

My last name is “Zhai” – it reads “zhái”, not “qū.” From kindergarten onwards, people with the last name “Zhai” get used to others mispronouncing or writing this rare name wrongly. “Zhai” is often mistaken for “Qu”, “Cui”, “Huo”, or “Yao.” “Zhai”, with its fourteen character strokes, also brings its bearer the least advantage when it comes to Chinese alphabetical ordering. I remember going up for election to the Student Council at Tsinghua University and seeing my name at the bottom of the ballot. At that time, I really envied a Politburo member named “Ding.” Each time the Politburo names were announced, “Ding” came right after Chairman Mao (1).

When I left China to study abroad, my last name was still no help. I was again at the bottom of every alphabetical listing because few foreign last names start with the letter “Z.” One year, I went on a work mission to Myanmar as a UN specialist. I had sent a prior fax informing my counterparties that a “Mr. Zhai” would arrive on so and so day. When I got to Yangon airport, the Burmese who came to pick me up regarded me with perplexity: “We thought the visiting specialist would be an Arab!”

“Why would you think that?” I asked.

“Your fax spelled out ‘Zhai’, which we took as a typo for ‘Zahi’”, they replied.

My last name turned out to be equally unfortunate in France. The French have no idea how to handle the “zh” sound (2), so I was constantly referred to as a cross between “Zai” and “Cai.” I tried to correct this, teaching the French to curl their tongues to make the “Zhai” sound. I almost succeeded, but one day, a French student came to question me: “You say your last name is pronounced as ‘Je-ai-zhai’, but how come your Chinese classmates call you ‘Zai’?” It dawned on me that my Cantonese classmate (3) (who is now a high ranking official) had ruined my name. The French often say, “No one loves the Kingdom more than the King does.” If my compatriots can’t even say my name properly, why force the foreigners to try? I abandoned my effort and let people call me as they please.

In the 1980’s, many Chinese needed to keep the telegraph code (TC) for their last names handy. With so many homonyms in Chinese and foreigners not reading Chinese characters, visa offices sometimes required applicants to write the TC on their forms. I remember visiting the consular section of the British Embassy. They gave me a manual to look up the TC for my last name. I was to write “5049” under the letters “zhai” on my application form, to avoid being confused for someone else. A few days later, a British official notified me to come to the embassy again because I had written the wrong TC. How could this be? I had carefully copied the TC, how could it be wrong?

I thought the culprit might have been the fact that the character “Zhai” has two pronunciations. One is “dí” and the other is “zhái,” which could have well confounded the Brits. Whether or not this was the true reason, the officer who met with me bought the story. By the time I got to the UK, I learned that the British no longer required Chinese to provide the TC for their names. Thank goodness for that!

When the character “Zhai” is read as “zhái”, it is a last name; when it is read as “dí”, it references a long-tailed creature […]. If you try to buy airplane tickets in China under the last name “Zhai”, the aviation industry computers can only print your name on a boarding pass by inputting it as “dí.” But this way, the English spelling of the last name on the boarding pass becomes “Di” and doesn’t match the “Zhai” spelling in your passport. Every time airport ground staff check my boarding pass and ID, I have to explain to them that my last name has two different pronunciations, which their system can’t differentiate. This is the best I can do. Strictly speaking, the airline can refuse to let me board the plane. I sincerely hope that one day Air China will fix this systemic loophole into which I keep falling. Every time I make a ticket reservation, I request that they print out the correct English and Chinese names, but the sales agent always shrugs, “”There’s nothing I can do.” To Air China’s ticketing software, “Zhai” is “dí.” If I want to change it, I have to approach “the appropriate authorities.”

Failing to find “appropriate authorities,” it’s still within my power to answer the reader’s question: Who am I?

Footnotes:
1 Chinese alphabetical order goes by the number of strokes. The character “Ding” has only two strokes, placing its bearer at the top of any alphabetical list.
2 “Zh” makes a “j” sound in Chinese
3 Cantonese and other southern Chinese have a different enunciation of certain words than northerners, most notably they make less differentiation between sounds like “zh” and “z”, “ch” and “c”, “sh” and “s”, etc.

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