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What’s in a name?

I was in India a few years ago at a workshop … me and 49 locals and one French girl who may as well have been Indian she’d lived there that long. As an ice-breaker, we all formed a circle and the first person introduced himself. Hello, my name is Lakshminarayana. Then the next introduced herself: Hello, my name is Kajal and this is Lakshminarayana. And then the next: Hello, my name is Anand and this is Kajal and Lakshminarayana. And so it went around. I was number 35 or so in the circle and I was stumped. Had it been in Ireland, I’d have had a reasonable chance. We have simple names like Peter, Paul, and Mary. But aside from having a terribly bad name/face recollection, I couldn’t get my tongue around the names. Embarrassing. And particularly embarrassing when the last person, No. 51, introduced herself and remembered every single name in order. And she was 80 something.

Earlier still, when in Oxford studying, a number of my classmates came from China. They anglicized their names to make it easier for English-speakers to pronounce. Hi, my name is Vivien. I’m from Guangzhou still sounds odd.

And further back again, when I was at my swearing in ceremony in the USA, every Asian being conferred with US citizenship had chosen a new, American name. Xinran became Amanda. Mengyao became Matt. Qiuyeu became Connie. And it didn’t sit well with me.

Mark Twain supposedly said: Names are not always what they seem. The common Welsh name BZJXXLLWCP is pronounced Jackson. The man had a sense of humour; you get the picture.

Anyway, I’d forgotten how mispronouncing people’s names irritates me until I saw a clip of a UK politician being interviewed about Vona Gábor’s recent foray to the UK. Now, of all the Hungarian names out there (and yes, I have problems with György and Gergely and as for Fruzsina…well…and that’s not even touching the family names) but even I can manage not to mangle Gábor. Don’t get me wrong – he’s not on my Christmas card list – but I was a tad upset that those on the public airwaves whose pronunciation will be copied with a religious fervour, didn’t bother to check the pronunciation of his name, or that of his party, Jobbik.

Confucius reckoned that if names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things. And he had a point. But on a more basic level, I reckon that we’re just getting lazy. We can’t be bothered making the effort, and in readily taking the easy way out, we quickly come to accept a new norm where others must change to accommodate us. That is wrong on so many levels.

Yes, it’s difficult. And yes, I regularly make a hames of people’s names here in Hungary because I simply cannot hear the different sounds, let alone repeat them. I’m tone deaf. But I refuse to anglicize them. I like to think that my efforts, no matter how pathetic, are seen as well-intentioned. But perhaps I’m wrong… perhaps my Hungarian friends secretly wish that I wouldn’t try too hard. I wonder.

First published in the Budapest Times  31 January 2014

Baktuns and new beginnings

Well, 21 December 2012 has come …. and gone. The Mayan calendar has run its course and were the lads alive today, they’d be starting off at scratch again: 00.00.00. They measured their time in baktuns, periods of time lasting 394 years. This was simply the end of the 13th baktun. In all likelihood, they’d have woken up on 22 December and begun the 14th, just as we woke up on 1 January and started a new year.

The Internet was full of apocalyptic stories of the end of the world as we know it. Reports from Russia in mid-December talked of people stocking up on vodka and candles, while in China, the government was busy arresting those spreading doomsday rumours. More optimistic souls were maxing out their credit cards in the hope that their credit history would become just that – history! But for good or for bad, for better or for worse, we’re still here.  And while we have seen the end of an era, the world still soldiers on, undaunted.

Eleven days in and…

So far this year, in the USA, Congress and the White House swerved to avoid taking the country over the fiscal cliff. Croatia is on track to join the EU in July – all going well.  China is scheduled to attempt its first unmanned landing on the Moon and India is planning to send an orbiter to Mars in November. In Hungary, the country is battling with the results of a recent Eurostat poll that shows 31% of Hungarians at risk of poverty or social exclusion. The 2013 budget deficit is expected to rise to 2.9% of GDP and the IMF is expected to pay a visit in mid-January. Let the talks begin – again.

Ireland will hold the EU Presidency for the first six months of the year and has named 2013 as the year of the gathering when it will open its arms to friends and family from all over the world, inviting them home to locally organised gatherings in villages, towns and cities. The cynics say it’s a crude attempt at milking the pockets of successful emigrants; the idealists say it’s a wonderful opportunity to reunite families and friends and enjoy everything that Ireland has to offer. Somewhere in between, the publicans and hoteliers are rolling up their sleeves, oiling their credit card machines, and preparing for the onslaught.

What’s in store?

So what’s to celebrate…really? Let’s start with the fact that 2013 is the first year since 1987 not to have repeating digits. Excited? Brace yourself. It gets better. According to the Hallmark calendar, January 11 is Milk day. Back on this day, in 1878, milk was delivered in bottles for the very first time in the USA. Mind you, it’s also ‘step in a puddle and splash your friends’ day. Well pin my apron to the floor and keep me from stompin’. [I know about Hallmark as I’m writing this from the big island of Hawai’i and in the USA, Hallmark rules.]

Open house

It’s my fourth trip to the biggest of the Hawaiian Islands and once again, I’m completely amazed that people don’t lock their houses or their cars. They leave their stuff on display on the beach without a worry in the world. I’m the odd one out, shouldering my bag wherever I go or charging someone with keeping watch over it if I venture in to the ocean. I’ve had to be physically restrained from zipping up the Jeep’s windows when we go to the market and I hide my laptop every time we leave the house. In Budapest, I have three locks on my front door and a naggle of neighbours who know my comings and goings better than I do myself. I would never, ever think of leaving even a window open were I not in the flat. In Ireland, we have an alarm on the house that goes on every time we leave. Cars are checked and double-checked every night to make sure they’re locked and woe betide the one who leaves a bag, a purse, or a laptop in plain view on the kitchen table.

Great expectations

There are those who say that if we expect to have our stuff stolen, it will be. If we expect our house to be broken into, burglars will oblige. If we worry about our car or bike being nicked, we may as well wave them goodbye. But can it really be down to expectation and how we live our lives?  John Wayne apparently said that tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday. And yesterday’s lessons really do determine what we do today. We can choose how we react to both fortune and misfortune. We can choose what measures we take to prevent the same things happening again and again. We can choose how we live our lives. Now that’s reason enough to celebrate. Welcome, 2013.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 January 2013

A little piece of heaven on earth

Since I started to boycott products made in China, my shopping habits have been severely curtailed. I loathe high streets and shopping malls with a passion. The appearance of the same shops all over the world makes one city look just like the next. It is getting harder and harder to find locally made goods. I lucked out in Serbia last week in both finding a local designer (dress) and a local milliner (hat), neither of which could be termed as an extravagance considering designer prices in other parts of the world.

So a Sunday afternoon in Sarajevo wandering through the cobblestoned market streets was a joy in itself. The afternoon sun transformed the stalls into shining grottoes of gold and silver. Tin, copper, metals of all kinds had been fashioned into trinkets and utensils. Craftsmen worked in their stalls, oblivious to passers-by. The smells of Turkish coffee and kebabs hung heavily in the air.

It was all so very foreign. So very local. Not an H&M or a Zara in sight. The plastic sunglasses and the Turkish tat were housed up the road in the covered market – but this place, this open air heaven was for artisans. I felt brief stirrings of a move – a quick flash of wonder at what it would be like to buy and furnish a flat in Sarajevo. What a challenge it would be.  I found myself mentally discarding colours that wouldn’t fit and gradually piecing it all together. Perhaps if Mr Orban shows me my exit papers, I will head to the Balkans – to Bosnia – to Sarajevo.

Hijacking harmony

A good friend of mine, someone I’ve known and grown to love in the last four years has committed herself to a relationship with someone I don’t really care for at all. I know she’s not stupid. I know that she knows that he doesn’t treat his kids very well. That he is dictatorial, censorious, and hungry for power.  I know that she knows he’s desperately short of natural resources. That he has a habit of burying history. That he is a little indiscriminate in his choice of bedfellows. So, what do I do?

Blowing in the wind

For three years now, I’ve been reading the labels on everything I buy. Apart from the tools of my trade – my laptop, my printer, and my mobile – practically nothing else I’ve bought in the last three years has been made in China. And I’ve saved millions of forints because it’s nigh on impossible to find anything these days that isn’t made in China. One day, we will wake up and find we have no choice left at all. Feel free to laugh. Others have. I’m sure that China hasn’t even noticed what I’m doing. It’s not as if my few forints are going to affect its balance of trade. I might not be achieving anything other than peace of mind, but that, to me, is priceless.

Keeping troublemakers at bay

China’s history of human rights abuse is well known, particularly with regard to Tibet. Just last month, documented, registered Tibetans were ‘summoned’ to the Hungarian immigration office (BÁH) and kept there until after midnight in case they felt the need to take to the streets to express their concerns at the visit of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Am I the only one who is deeply upset by this complete disregard for the basic right of freedom of assembly? So the government had Hungary’s interests at heart and was apparently driven to such actions to protect the interests of the state. But just as my pathetic boycott of Chinese products is, and always will be, completely ineffective, did the government really believe that China would have hurried back home without putting pen to paper twelve times had there been a demonstration or three? And if so, what does that say about the rather precarious nature of this relationship? When one party is desperately afraid of upsetting the other, surely things will never quite be equal? My friend, my friend, just what are you letting yourself in for?

Arresting a harmonious society

While publishing colleagues assure me that China’s censors are still wielding their black markers on paper texts, the recent popularity of the Internet is creating a host of new problems. In a thought-provoking article for the International Herald Tribune magazine recently, author Yu Hua talks about the phenomenon of May 35th. For the rest of the world, the date does not exist, but in China, May 35th really means June 4, 1989. When people want to talk about the unmentionable Tiananmen Square ‘incident’, they refer to it as May 35th. So long is the list of words blacklisted from the Internet, that May 35th has come to describe a style of writing.  To circumvent the censors, Internet users have developed a code of sorts. For example, with the Chinese government so anxious to promote a ‘harmonious society’, being ‘harmonized’ is code for getting shut down or arrested. Of course the government knows what’s going on – they’re aware of the barbed meaning but were they to ban it, they would, in effect, be banning the harmonious society they are so earnestly advocating. As Yu Hua put it: Harmony has been hijacked by the public. Hungary, my friend, you know this and yet you persist.

Burying history in a corner

The New York Times recently reported that the newly renovated National History Museum, which occupies a space of some 185 000 square meters, contains just a single photograph and three lines of text dealing with the Cultural Revolution that tore China apart from 1966 to 1976 and resulted in millions of deaths. And even this is hidden away in a back corner. How many more skeletons has my friend’s new partner buried in a back closet?

Yes, I know that China’s recent surge to dominance could well be just the world getting back on kilter. Yes, I know that for 1800 of the last 2000 years, China and India were the two largest economies in the world. And yes, I know that China has pulled billions out of poverty and the heavy weight of censure is being visibly relaxed. Yet I still worry that this new partnership is more a matter of pragmatism than principle. And if so, what does that say about my friend?

First published in the Budapest Times 22 July 2011