Thursday, August 21, 2008

Wikipedia Set Me Straight

In 1992, I was invited to present a paper at Vietnam's 1st Women's Conference in Hanoi. ( My topic--no surprise--was how culture and the stories each culture tells shape attitudes towards women. ) It was an interesting weekend, not so much for what we accomplished as for the friendships we made with women from all over the world.

One particular woman I met was an energetic and kind young Vietnamese named Miss Ha. We had such fun talking with one another and trading stories, that when she offered to guide me to a beautiful part of the country--Halong Bay--I wrapped the rest of my time in the country around this plan. She said she would have to take a day off work, but not to worry. Just to go ahead by myself. She and her husband would meet me in a certain hotel lobby at 2pm.

So off I went in a battered old taxi. All I had was the name of the hotel and her name: Miss Ha. I reasoned that there couldn't be too many hotels by the same name in a small village and certainly nobody else by the strange name of Miss Ha.

After riding on a dusty road for several hours, I arrived in this amazing place where black rocks jutted out of the emerald green Halong Bay. There were different names for the rocks and stories behind each of those. I was mesmerized. I needed to find Miss Ha and her husband so we could go out in a small wooden boat and explore.

I went to the designated location, an old colonial style hotel with a wide open-air lobby and a lazy ceiling fan stirring up a breeze. A man and two women were chatting behind the counter, laughing. Miss Ha wasn't there. I walked out to the back where there was a garden. But Miss Ha wasn't there either. I checked my watch. It was 2pm.

"Can I help you?" the man behind the counter asked.

"Yes, " I said. "I'm looking for Miss Ha."

"Which Miss Ha?"

"I don't know," I said. "She's with a man, her husband."

They exchanged looks.

"Miss Ha is a very common name in our country," the man explained.

Despite my predicament, I had to laugh. Just because I'd never heard the name, I'd assumed it was rare. Here it turned out that it was the equivalent of Smith or Jones. (Or so I thought)

As luck was on my side, Miss "Jones" came running up the path with her husband just as I was leaving. They'd been caught in traffic. "What is your full name?" I asked before we went further. "Nguyen Thanh Ha," she said. Great. Now I knew (or thought I did.) We had a wonderful time together wandering around the Bay, and have been corresponding ever since.

Last week, though, I was working on a Vietnamese fairytale that she told me, and I needed some common Vietnamese names to work with. I went to Wikipedia. Turns out --as I had learned so many years ago--that Ha is a very common name. But it's not a common last name. It's a given name. So when I went walking into the lobby, I'd been asking for Jane.

All these years, my friend probably assumed I knew I was addressing her letters as Miss Jane. I always assumed that she had taught me her name from given name to surname as we do. It took Wikipedia to set me straight.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yay for wikipedia. What did we ever do without it?

What People Are Saying About My Half of the Sky

My Half of the Sky was the BookSense Pick for August 2006 as well as a Forbes Book Club Pick.

"McBurney-Lin tells a wonderfully entertaining story with the traditional coming-of-age theme (which is experienced universally)...weaving in the cultural challenges of growing up in China's rapidly changing social system."
Mary Warpeha, co-President of the Minnesota Chapter of US-China Friendship Association
March 2010

"The novel ...includes many of the tales and the folk ways of the people living in the rural areas of South China, still followed provincially. The story takes place in current China, but could relate the dilemma of any young woman in rural China through the ages."
Kitty Trescott, National Board of the Midwest Region of US-China Friendship Association. March 2010

"A lot is expected of a young Chinese girl. My Half of the Sky by Jana McBurney-Lin is the story of Li Hui, a young girl who has just achieved marriageable age. She seeks to make the most of herself, but the expectations all around her make it difficult, as her parents seek to use her as pawn to their advantage, she is faced with what she believes to be true love. She must balance career, romance, and family, all to somehow make everyone happy, a tough endeavor indeed. An engaging and entertaining read from beginning to end, "My Half of the Sky" is a poignant tale of the modern Chinese woman, and recommended for community library collections.
--Midwest Book Review November, 2008

“It is a rare women’s novel that sensitively describes the life of a young educated woman in modern-day China in its full complexity, without resorting to unnecessary sentimentalism. Jana’s deep knowledge of the realities of life in China and Singapore makes the reading extra rewarding. In fact, with every new page the novel gets harder to put down and you find yourself gobbling it up before you know it. Finally, the author has given a voice to the Li Hui in all of us, as we struggle for the golden middle between tradition and the modern momentum of our world.”
Isabella Sluzek
Friends of the Museum Book Review 2008

You'll be rooting all the way for Li Hui as she struggles, ahead of the curve, to be her own woman in an emerging, modern China. Jana McBurney-Lin's My half of the Sky is a beautiful, witty, touching debut novel.
Thomas B. Sawyer
Head Writer TV Series "Murder, She Wrote,"
Author - The Sixteenth Man

A complex and mesmerizingly original tale of a young Chinese woman caught between the modern world and the pull of her ancient culture. McBurney-Lin’s intimate portrait of China sparks with insights and is peopled with characters so rich and alive, they seem to breathe on the page. Dazzling and unforgettable.
Caroline Leavitt,
Author - Girls in Trouble

McBurney-Lin's debut novel is a gift. Li Hui is a memorable heroine, a young woman torn between her heart and her culture.Her daunting journey is a trip into China's complicated soul, and a deeply moving exploration of love, honor, duty, and loss." Frank Baldwin, Author - Balling the Jack

My Half of the Sky is a wonderfully-crafted story that was obviously written with a piece of McBurney-Lin's heart. A masterpiece."
Lee Lofland, Author - Howdunit: Police Procedure and Investigation

My Half of the Sky heralds the arrival of a fantastic new storyteller. With artistry and precision, Jana McBurney-Lin's clear-eyed prose takes the reader on a new journey into a past world that speaks to a modern sensibility, a modern world, a modern woman. This is a book to be treasured.
Emily Rapp, Author - The Poster Child

Through vivid descriptions of sights and smells, Jana McBurney-Lin's My Half of the Sky is a haunting, emotional journey of what it means to be an honorable female in modern China. Jill Ferguson, Author - Sometimes Art Can't Save You