It used to be that you delivered the baby, established respiration, then looked down south and said “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl,” or better still, held up the baby for the mother to see. This was before the introduction of ultrasound and it was at this moment that the gender was first known. Then I would ask, “So what is baby’s name?” The mother would tell us of her choice. In some cases, however, the mother did not have a name chosen; it was perhaps her eighth baby and sixth son. “What’s your name, Doctor?” they would ask. “Michael” I’d say, and many times that’s would be chosen as the baby’s name. In the Britain at that time, Michael was a very cross-cultural name, favored by all layers and classes of society and the mothers in the city-center hospital were very comfortable with it. When my friends Nigel or Jeremy would announce their names, there would be a short silence and then mother would say, “I’ll think I’ll go with Fred.”
I always liked my name and handing it around like this always seemed harmless; the occasional Michelle and Michaela, I was not so sure about.
When I was in practice in Ottawa I had many Chinese patients, mostly Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong. When a baby was born, they would give the baby a Western name and then phone HK with the details of the time of birth so that the grandparents could consult the fortune teller and get a lucky Chinese name for the baby. It was a good system and everybody was happy. For the Western name, the Hong Kongers loved the old British Victorian names: Winston, Charles, Cedric, Jennifer, Heather, and Caroline. Names with a little weight.
Later when I moved to China this naming took on a whole new dimension. At that time China was opening up and many young Chinese were taking on Western names. There were several reasons for this. In a country of 1.3 billion people there are not that many surnames, since 25% of the people are named either Li, Wang or Zhang (that’s 100 million of each!).
Given names are in equally small supply. I met three Li Pings during my first week in China. The Western name gave the new upwardly mobile young person a little more individuality. Western companies favored Chinese staff having Western names and while its true they are easier for us to remember I was very hostile to Western employers insisting on staff adopting new names since it smacked of raw colonial behavior.
Some of the names were strange. I had a friend called Washington Li. This was because an American teacher had walked into the class at school in Beijing on the first day of term and given all the boys the names of American presidents. Given their own choice, the girls almost always chose names with open vowels at the end: Lucy, Linda, Debi, Susi, Annie. They sound easy on Chinese ears. Some other names were original and very pretty; I knew an Autumn, an Orchard and an Apple.
Some, however, would seek advice and I hated this. I had no problem naming a baby, but naming a thirty-year old, university-educated professional woman was just too much responsibility. I remember one of our pharmacists insisted that I pick a name for her. We settled on Louise and for weeks I was telling her that if she did not like it we could think of another, but she stuck with it.
Chinese mothers never asked for help in naming their baby. The one-child per family rule meant that almost all babies were first babies and a great deal of thought and planning went into the selection of a name.
My biggest problem was that the fortune teller that named the baby did so according to the time of the birth. Differences of hours could mean the difference between growing up to be a tycoon or a tramp. Mothers would come to see me insisting that their baby be born on the 17th between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. After doing my first elective Cesarean at 4 a.m. I insisted on a second opinion from my own fortune teller (whose identity was known only to me, wink, wink!) who happened to be strictly a 9:00 to 5:00 guy.