Friday, October 30, 2009

The Naming of Things

One of the finer pleasures of your early days in Asia is the naming of things. When you first arrive in your foreigner ghetto, you are a child: you don't know your address, or the names of objects, or what to call manmade structures. Perhaps you know "here" and "there," but that will get you neither here nor there. And so you and your band of expats start naming things, at first for the practical reason that if you are to meet another expat somewhere, you must choose a discrete location in time and space at which to meet them, and then for the purpose of distinguishing important places from the sameness that surrounds them, a sameness that would astound even americanus suburbicus, and finally with the same giddy imperialism as kids naming lightning-splintered trees or NASA geeks naming rocks on Mars.

You can master the Korean alphabet in three months without even trying, and despite our best efforts, some of us did. We could read street signs, but the problem in Korea was that there were none: the Koreans stubbornly refuse to name their streets. So the expats of Chilgok District 3 devised an atlas of their own, a geography that was well-known even to the fringe members of the group. There was Cakehouse Road and Footbridge Boulevard, Garbage Heap Turnpike and Exploding Transformer Square. We often built bonfires along Cremated Cat Creek, so named, suffice to say, because the foreigners of Chilgok 3 once cremated a dead cat upon its fertile shores. We felt no need to rename the Gugu Tunnel, though nearby Mt. Unamji was known only as "Jumanji," and it was pretentious to call it otherwise. There was Rub 'n Tug Lane, a reference to the services rendered by its afterhours massage parlors. I lived on the corner of the Pig Intestine Intersection. You often took your best girl for a late night stroll along Sea Penis Promenade, named for its seafood restaurants and their specialty, an uncannily phallic bottom-dwelling organism that propels itself by ejaculating torrents of milky saltwater from its uncircumcised head, served raw. (Breaking News: Though for years I was unable to empirically prove the Sea Penis's existence, Wikipedia now tells me it is the urechis unicinctus, a species of marine spoon worm. That which we call a Sea Penis by any other name is just as hideous.)

There were other places which we did not rename, but endowed with a kind of mythical status that baffled any and all Koreans in our company. There was the GS 25 convenience store, where we sat outside in plastic chairs around a plastic table and insulted each other until four AM, and The Coffee Bean downtown, where we congregated the following afternoon to apologize, to read the New York Times, and to sneak off to the bathroom one by one to enjoy the sudden and violent regularity afforded by a hangover and too much coffee.

We rechristened the beers, mostly out of spite. Hite was Shite. Cass, obviously, became Ass. O.B., like the Gugu Tunnel, needed no alteration, was just fine the way God made it, though you were allowed to call it B.O. if that was your wont. And lest you think we were amused by ourselves, we always spoke these names with straight faces.

At Old School, Daegu's one and only hip-hop bar, Mark introduced the bartenders to the Irish Car Bomb, which later resurfaced on the menu as an Ai-ri-shi Ka Bom-buh and went for nine bucks a pop.

Children's Day became Youth in Asia Day. Daegu was known, affectionately (I think), as The 'Gu. Chilgok was The 'Gok. I was Kisu, Mark was Marker, and Arthur was R-Dor 3000. Hyunmin was Richard and Sangmin was John.

And now, in China, I am Pan Da. I have so far neglected to mention this fact, perhaps the key plot element of my Chinese existence. I did not choose the name, though I certainly would have if I had been creative enough to think of it myself.

Our official Chinese names were posted on the wall of the hotel conference room on our third or fourth day in-country. I'm not sure who picked them for us, whether it was a Chinese bureaucrat down at the immigration office, one of our Mandarin teachers, or a Peace Corps employee with his tongue planted firmly in cheek.

I remember glancing at the other names as I looked for myself on the list. Song Min-Tao, Gao Hai-Ning, Bai Li-Jie, Lin Rei: these were names that I could not pronounce or make fun of. Then I found mine: Pan Da. Pan ... Da. Panda. I stood there for an unusually long time. I ran my index finger across the page to make sure that the name was indeed mine. Keith Petit - Pan Da. I searched the other 74 names for a Kou A-La, a Wen Hung-Lo, a Long Dong, to no avail. I shrugged. It was a happy coincidence that the most ridiculous volunteer should have the most ridiculous name. From that day on, I was Panda. Many of my fellow Peace Corpses still do not know my Christian name.

Pan Da looks something like this: 潘达. The first symbol, Pan, is a surname. The second symbol, Da, means "dignity" or "to achieve." But to my students, Pan Da means "panda." And so, after asking them to call me Keith, Mr. Petit, or Pan Da, they insist upon calling me Mr. Panda.

It's good to be a panda in China. When my name comes up at the drinking table, I will smugly say, Dui-aaaa - wo shi guo bao: Yep - I'm a national treasure. It's hard to gauge whether my audience is amused, revolted, or amused despite their revulsion.

China has named me, but the naming of China is not yet complete. I have named and renamed some of my students. Monkey, I explain, is probably not such a good name for a human. How about Edwin? I am slowly mapping out Nanchong, planting flags and lifting my leg on street signs, but it remains largely uncharted. And Chengdu was far too vast for naming, aside from the bar where I met and came to know some of my favorite people, where we were once attacked by a hive of ill-tempered wasps, a bar we dubbed The Bee Bar and much later, The Bee Bar and Grille, after we discovered that they served peanuts upon request.

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