Posts Tagged ‘china’

In the early 1980s my mother, then in her early twenties, was working as a secretary at Blue Cross & Blue Shield. While there she befriended a co-worker, an African-American woman named Bennye, whose husband and son shared the same name: Bobby. My mother got a kick out of it when Bennye would talk about her two Bobbys, big and little, in her thick southern accent. “BAH-bay,” she’d say, “an’ BAH-bay JUNE-ya.” So when my mom became pregnant with me in 1981, she decided I’d be a Bobby, too.

She had to sell my father on the name, which didn’t take much. “What about ‘Bobby Raymond’ for a boy?” my mother asked him, tacking on the middle name for her grandfather, who had recently passed away.

“Hmmm,” my dad pondered, “Bobby Ray…like Bobby Ray Murcer,” a popular outfielder on the Yankees at the time. “Yeah, that works.” I imagine him deciding this as casually as he might have decided between a hot dog or a hamburger at a barbecue.

When it came time to make it official on my zero-th birthday, my parents chose to put “Bobby,” not “Robert,” on my birth certificate. Like my namesake, an Okie whose legal name was actually Bobby Ray Murcer, I too, was just Bobby.

Years later I asked my mother whether she had ever considered that someday I’d be a full-grown man named Bobby—i.e. a full-grown man without the benefit of being able to switch back and forth between Bobby, among friends, and Robert, in professional situations or on legal documents.

“Back then my world was so small,” she told me. She hadn’t really thought about her life, or mine, that far in the future. I can’t fault her for that…right?

Yet when my brother was born four years later, my parents were four years older and ostensibly four years more mature. They put “Daniel Joseph” on his birth certificate. I guess there was no Yankee named “Danny Joe.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that name,” computer programmer Michael Bolton’s co-worker reassures him in the 1998 movie Office Space.

“There was nothing wrong with that name until I was about 12 years old and that no-talent [1990s adult contemporary singer Michael Bolton] got famous and started winning Grammys.”

Having a pop culture reference point for their name might be a good thing for some people, but it never did much for me growing up. I’d get “Bobby’s World” (the popular ‘90s cartoon show about a little boy named Bobby, voiced by Howie Mandel), or “Bobby Boucher” (Adam Sandler’s mush-mouthed lead in The Waterboy), but none was particularly original. Needless to say my peers never made the connection on their own that I was named for the Bobby Murcer.

More recently, though, the popularity of the TV adaptation of the Game of Thrones books ended up working to my advantage. As people became acquainted with the show’s most popular character, Daenerys Targaryen, a.k.a. Mother of Dragons, a.k.a. Khaleesi (wife of the king, or “Khal”)—which is coincidentally pronounced on the show exactly like my last name, ca-LEE-see—I no longer had to accept common mispronunciations like “ca-LEES,” or worse yet, “Carlisle.” I simply mentioned the show and they immediately got it.

In fact at an airport about a year ago, I walked up to a kiosk to pay for a shuttle bus back to my hotel. When the young woman working there asked for my last name, I gave it. She stopped writing and looked up, shyly. “Um…have you seen Game of Thrones?” I smiled knowingly and told her I had.

The GoT effect has extended to my wife, who changed her name after we got married and sent out a companywide email notifying her coworkers. “It’s pronounced like Game of Thrones,” she wrote in the note.

A few moments later she got an email back from someone at the company she had only spoken with a handful of times. “So, how many dragons do you have?”

When I was in grade school, being called Robert instead of Bobby made me furious—especially when it was over the loudspeaker to summon me to the main office. I’d angrily march down the linoleum halls and storm into the office.

Not bothering to ask why I’d been called to the office in the first place, I’d explain to anyone within earshot that MY NAME IS JUST BOBBY, NOT ROBERT. Usually the offending secretary would halfheartedly apologize, then go right ahead and call me Robert the next time.

Loudspeaker snafus aside, I liked school. I liked it so much, in fact, that I had perfect attendance from first grade through my senior year of high school. It’s not that I was never sick, just never sick enough to miss school. (As my mom, a single parent by then, would say: “School for you guys was half education, half free babysitting.”)

None of my high school friends were particularly impressed with this feat. “You never missed a day of school?” they’d ask. “Why not?” Still, at the time I felt my Cal Ripken-like attendance streak was something unique and special about me. And as Woody Allen purportedly said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

I looked forward to receiving my perfect attendance award in a ceremony at end of senior year. This achievement was supposedly verified by amalgamating my last high school’s attendance records with my new one’s, but I suspect they simply took my word for it. I clearly cared far more about getting the award more than they cared about fact-checking it.

When I went up to the stage to accept my honor, twelve years in the making, I stared down at the fake wood plaque with its fake gold plating. It read:

Perfect Attendance Award
Robert Calise

My brother—nee Daniel Joseph, but who, incidentally, mostly goes by “Danny”—taught English at a university in China for two years. He told me that on the first day of class, he had to assign “English names” to his college-age students:

If a student didn’t have an English name, I asked them to pick a letter from the English alphabet that they wanted their name to start with. They would choose one based on the sound of their Chinese names. Whatever letter they chose, I would give them a bunch of choices, which they usually hated, and then forced them to pick the one they hated the least.

The most popular names according to Danny included: Cherry, Sherry, Jason, Vicky, and Allen. Beyond those, the names were a little more unique, at least from an American point of view.

Kids would select names like Purple, or Poet, or Wood. Others might choose Dragon, or Hometown or Man. He had students named Fish, Dollars, Garlic, Money, Color, Nature, Echo, Short, and my personal favorite, Kidult (a combination of Kid and Adult, obviously).

I can’t help wonder what names I might have come up with for myself, but part of me is glad I didn’t get to choose my own name–especially when I was a kid. There’s a good chance Michael Jordan Calise or Knight Rider Calise would be writing this today.

While studying abroad in England during my junior year of college, I met a fellow American student named Dan, who came from a neighborhood just outside Boston. I introduced myself as Bobby, as I always did.

“Good to meet ya, Bawb,” he replied in his local dialect. I didn’t correct him—Um, actually, it’s Bob-by—preferring instead to imagine myself as a Boston street tough Dan knew from his neighborhood. Oh him? That’s Bawb. You don’t wanna mess with Bawb.

A few days after meeting Dan, he and I got together at a pub near campus. I went up to the bar and ordered a Newcastle and when I came back, Dan was talking to a group of American students he knew from orientation. He introduced me to everyone: “Hey guys, this is Bawb, from New Yauk.”

“Hi Bob!” said one of the girls in the group, a perky Floridian. I was happy to have this new group of friends served up on a silver platter for me—Bobby wasn’t so great at meeting new people—so I didn’t want to make waves by clearing up that small detail of what my name actually was.

Initially it was strange hearing these new people call me Bob, as if they were speaking to someone else. But it also wasn’t altogether unpleasant, the idea that I could take on a new identity among these new people in a new place.

But after a few weeks playing the role of Bob, I eventually confessed to two of the girls in the group that back home I went by exclusively by Bobby. They didn’t miss a beat. I seemed much more like a Bobby, they said.

Making the Bob/Bobby distinction ultimately made me feel more comfortable while in England, though it did cause some confusion among the natives. While checking my email in the college’s computer lab one day, I ran into an English guy I’d seen in one of my classes. We started talking.

“What’s your name, mate?” he asked.

“Bobby,” I replied.

“Like the doll?”

“Huh?” I said, confused. Then I realized what he meant. “Oh…no, not Barbie. It’s Bobby, B-O-B-B-Y.”

“Oh, BOE-by,” he said, drawing out the first syllable–basically explaining to me how to pronounce my own name for the English ear.

“Right,” I said. “BOE-by.” My English name.

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By Bobby Calise

“One always begins to forgive a place as soon as it’s left behind.” -Charles Dickens

stumbled upon that Dickens quote a few weeks ago and immediately thought of my trip to China. This time last year, my girlfriend and I were backpacking south from Beijing down to Hong Kong, with a five-day stop in between to visit my brother, who was teaching English at a Chinese university about an hour outside of a city called Guangzhou.

Our two weeks in China were exhausting. Most nights we went to bed emotionally drained from the series of miscommunications from earlier that day. Food, in particular, was a constant struggle. The pinyin menus included items like “broccoli rape” (presumably broccoli rabe; we didn’t ask), and a Chinese waiter’s standard procedure on vegetarian orders was to smile and nod as if to say, “Yes, we have that,” and then just serve the dish normally with plenty of meat.

After a few days we got used to the cuisine. (We’d simply look at each other and say, “Noodles?” “Yeah, noodles. And beer.”) But it took a little longer to acclimate ourselves to the aggressiveness of China’s tourist-hounding sales force. The first few times someone tried to sell me something that I didn’t want, I’d politely smile and say “no thank you.” But after two or three days of this, I became more annoyed and less patient. It became a game for us: Spot the Salesman. “Watch out! Guy approaching on your right selling glow-in-the-dark Frisbees! NO THANK YOU NO THANK YOU NO THANK YOU.”

Looking back through that same Dickensian lens, I see now that it took progressing stages of politeness, aggravation, and ultimately appreciation for me to accept the persistent sales tactics in China. A former salesman myself, I can still recall some of the craftier pitches we came across:

Granola from a Street Vendor (Beijing)
Granola with dried apricots seemed like the perfect snack while biking around the Forbidden City. But between the vendor’s muddled English and my inability to convert kilograms to pounds, he managed to slice off twice as much granola as we requested, and this led to an argument over price. In the end I couldn’t tell who ripped off whom, but the granola was delicious.

The Great Wall (Beijing)
It’s easy enough to sign up for a tour of The Great Wall. (In many cases it can be done right through your hotel.) However, the Wall was just the first stop on an eight-hour excursion that included a sneak peak at a jade “gallery,” which had our tour group listlessly wandering through a Macy’s-like showroom of jade bracelets available for purchase; a “silk factory,” which found us in back room warehouse full of Chinese silk comforters for sale; and finally a 30-minute foot rub from a college age Chinese “massage student” which also included a free consultation from a Chinese “doctor.” He read the lines in my palm (which any good doctor would do) and explained that my kidney and liver issues—which I was hearing about for the first time—could be easily remedied with a few herbal treatments, which he just happened to be selling.

Touts (Yangshuo)
A young man named Kim found us wandering near a bicycle rental stand in Yangshuo and helped us find our hotel, even picking out a restaurant for our lunch. We mistook his initial friendliness for clinginess, before realizing he was actually a tout, whose jobwas to latch onto tourists and give them an insider’s tour of the area for an unnamed price. These young men and women camp out in tourist hot spots within Yangshuo (such as a bicycle rental stand) wearing comfortable shoes and small shoulder bags so they can spring into action as soon as someone looks like they might need some guidance.

Bamboo Boat Ride (Yangshuo)
After negotiations with a street-side travel agent (we settled on 160 RMB total), we followed the agent’s motorcycle-riding colleague on our rented bicycles to the Yulong River, a popular tourist attraction in Yangshuo. We were paired with a young bamboo boat driver who spoke the bare minimum of English. A few minutes into the trip, the river reached the first of several drops, this one about three feet down. As we braced ourselves for splashy impact, a photographer on an anchored bamboo raft feverishly snapped pictures of us on his digital camera. When our driver led us over to the photographer’s raft—it seemed the drivers had instructions to make as many stops as his passengers will tolerate—we saw that this was actually a one-stop photo shop: a PC and monitor to pull up the pictures and let customers choose their favorites, and a printer and laminating machine to create and sell a finished print. Gimmicky or not, we were so impressed with the photog’s ingenuity—I mean, where did he plug everything in?—that we forked over 30 RMB for the keepsake.

Moon Hill Postcard Lady (Yangshuo)
The long, steep stair climb up Moon Hill led us to a doughnut-shaped mountain top and a few snapshots of Yangshuo’s tree-covered, cone-shaped crags. On the way back down, an old Chinese woman somehow caught up to us. She spoke quietly, mostly in cryptic hand gestures. (She only seemed to know how to say “U-S-A” in English.) “Yes, we’re from the U-S-A,” my girlfriend responded. With that, she opened a little notebook and showed us hundreds of messages written in English from well-wishing tourists, always with a similar sentiment: “What an amazing lady! She’s 69 years old and climbs Moon Hill every day! Please buy postcards from this lady!” Acknowledging that we were probably being duped, but too polite (and too hot and tired) to say no, we bought ten postcards from her. When we reached the bottom, we bought another ten postcards and several bottles of water from two other old women who had “volunteered” to watch our bikes because the rental place had “forgotten” to give us locks.  Well played, China.

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