THE BLOG
11/02/2011 12:02 pm ET Updated Jan 02, 2012

A Foreigner By Any Other Name

In China, mi gao is a popular type of rice cake. It's also my name. It translates to Tall Rice and Chinese people find it hilarious.

Tall Rice was born on a business card, a name given to me by my cubicle neighbor at China Daily, the state-owned newspaper where I worked when I first arrived here in 2007. I had an interview lined up and I needed business cards -- essential for any formal greeting in China. Since I needed business cards, I needed a Chinese name.

My colleague tackled my request for a new name with vigor, spending the better part of an hour scribbling down different combinations of characters on a piece of paper.

She slipped the paper on my keyboard as I edited a story. There were two characters written on it.

"That means rice. That means tall, or high. It's Mi Gao," she said.

"Rice Tall?"

"Tall Rice is better."

The reporter behind me peaked his head over the cubicle wall. "Ha, that's a stupid name!"

"No it's not!" she insisted. "Mi, because your name's Mitch. And Gao, because you're tall. And the characters are beautiful."

I held up the paper. They were beautiful characters indeed.

I liked the name right away, but I had no idea then how much it would eventually mean to me. Over the course of four-and-a-half years living in China, my adopted name has become more than just a name: It is a mask, a character, an identity.

Peter Hessler, the great American writer on China, discusses his China identity in his first book, River Town. By slipping into his alter ego, Ho Wei, Hessler finds it easier to navigate Chinese life and make connections with the people around him.

"Ho Wei was completely different from my American self: He was friendlier, he was eager to talk with anybody," Hessler writes. "Also Ho Wei was stupid, which was what I liked most about him... People were comfortable with somebody that stupid, and they found it easy to talk to Ho Wei, even though they often had to say things twice or write new words in his notebook. Ho Wei always carried his notebook... and when Ho Wei returned home he left the notebook on the desk of Peter Hessler, who typed everything into his computer."

Like Hessler, I find it easier to approach and connect with Chinese people as Mi Gao. But I also find that it allows me to be whomever I want. Under a different name, I can re-invent myself. Living abroad is all about new experiences and through my alter ego I've tried to say "yes" to experiences I would never have (or want to have) back home.

As Tall Rice, I've appeared in a movie, a humiliating music video, a commercial, a Peking Opera television special and, soon, a Chinese dating show. At home, I would have said no to all of it. I didn't really want to live out these experiences, but I did want the stories to tell friends over beers. Because of Tall Rice, I could do it all.

I used to wonder why Chinese so often gave themselves such strange English names (I've encountered a Lucifer, a Math and a couple Apples, Angels and Princesses) and why they insisted on being called those names long after their foreign friends memorized their Chinese names-- their real names.

I don't wonder about it anymore. I get it. Living in a foreign country or being among foreigners can be difficult and sometimes putting on a disguise makes it just a little easier. Besides, some foreigners here have Chinese names that see and raise any English names locals have chosen for themselves. I know a Graceful Dragon (Aaron), a Big Dragon (Nick), a Dangerous Pig (Julian) and a Horse Cubes (Martin).

Language is a big part of a China identity. In that respect, you have to earn your Chinese name. I came to China armed with an arsenal of one Chinese word, ni hao, my silver bullet. It wasn't until I started to make headway (albeit incremental) in Chinese that I started to feel truly comfortable here, to begin becoming Tall Rice.

Like Hessler, I enjoy slipping into my second identity. I can be goofy and ridiculous. I can be totally at ease behind the mask. It's around my Chinese teacher and good friend Guo Li, who knows me only as Mi Gao, that I feel most comfortable. I talk to her about anything and everything, because I feel like it's not really me talking. I feel like I can be completely open with her. She's like my therapist. She knows everything except my name.

Four years ago, it would have been hard to figure that these two funny little characters, 米高, would end up meaning so much to me. Now that they do, I can't imagine friends like Guo Li calling me by anything else.

To her, I'm an easy-going, dim-witted foreigner. To her, I'm Tall Rice.

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