Travelling in Asia can be problematic at times if you are a Western woman and your name is Lee. Your first name, I mean.
Lee is one of the most common family names in Asia. In China it ties (with Zhang or Chang) as the most common surname, being shared by around 100 million people. In Korea, it is second only to the surname Kim. In Singapore, it is the third most common name among Singaporean Chinese. And of course, there are many Chinese in Malaysia as well.
Over the years, I have become used to turning up at hotels and finding my booking in the name “Mr Lee”. But the most recent tangling of my names could have been much more inconvenient. When I turned up for a flight on Air Asia at Australia’s Gold Coast Airport (which is known by the wonderful airline code OOL), the check-in desk was unable to find my booking.
Luckily, I had the booking number…and soon the problem was discovered. The booking had been made using Lee as my surname, and my other Christian name. My real surname was nowhere to be found. The correction was soon made, and I was indebted to Gold Coast Airport manager Logan Howe and his staff for also checking and correcting all my other onward and return flights. From past experience, I know that explaining it (even with my passport in hand) in places where the family name Lee is as common as Smith or Jones can sometimes require patience on both sides.
And as a bonus, the Air Asia staff also took the time to have a look at my seat allocation, and move me to a seat with space around it for a more comfortable flight. Top marks to them!
Even in Western countries, the first name Lee often leads people to expect that I will be a man. After years of travelling, I’m no longer fazed by that. When I turn up, the mistake is pretty obvious!
But I was shocked some years ago to eagerly open up my new passport and find my gender had been listed as “male”. It was only a few days before I was due to travel, and I was soon making a quick dash to the passport office for an on-the-spot replacement.
As I said to the passport officer: “Passport photos are never great, but I didn’t think it was that bad!”