I can’t say I agree with Miss Capulet on this one. I’m sure if the flower we know as the rose were called the stinky poo-poo weed instead, Valentine’s Day would have a completely different vibe. Names are magical things, after all. They’re imbued with cultural, historical, or linguistic significance. They express our individuality or conformity. They invite our assumptions about people, and possibly, ourselves.
Naming a child is a weighty matter. Most parents take that responsibility seriously and labour to make the right choice. Does it have a pleasing sound? Does it work nicely with the family name? Does it have an acceptable meaning? (If you don’t want to saddle your son with a name that means “heavy, slow, or foolish,” your probably shouldn’t name him Brutus.)
There’s also the Playground Test to consider: will the name cause your child to be beaten up or mercilessly teased on the playground? This category includes initials that spell rude words, names that rhyme with rude words, names that lend themselves to rude nicknames, or names that can — by the slightest stretch of juvenile imagination — be rude.
Few of us have the option of choosing our own names; we’re pretty much stuck with what our parents gave us. But many expats get a second chance at the name game if they live in a country with a different language and/or writing system.
This never occurred to me until Chef Boyardee came home with his new business cards. As is the custom in Singapore, one side was in English and the other was in Mandarin. “What’s this?” I asked, pointing to four characters that were in a large, bold type.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think it might be my Chinese name.”
“You have a Chinese name?” I was instantly jealous. “What is it? What does it mean?”
He had no idea. Someone — he didn’t even know who — had given him a name without consulting him, and presented it to him as a fait accompli. I was indignant. He was indifferent.
I took the card to Lihong, my Mandarin tutor. She wasn’t impressed with the name he’d been given. She took special exception to Fule, the family name. Pronounced foo-luh, it was clearly chosen to sound like Foley, but it felt inauthentic because traditional Chinese surnames have only one syllable. Since the first character, 福, is very auspicious and means “good fortune,” Lihong and I decided to keep it and drop the extraneous second syllable. And that’s how I got my Chinese surname. It totally fails the Playground Test, but I don’t hang out in the sandbox very much these days, so I don’t care.
As for my given name, I was a little disappointed to learn that Maria (a form of Mary, which, by the way, has the delightful meaning of “bitter”) is one of those Western names that have a standard Chinese counterpart: Mali. The first character, 玛, is related to the word “agate” (and the right side of the character means “horse”). The second character, 丽, means “beautiful.” I absolutely love it, although I could have done without my daughters calling me “Pretty Horsey Mama.”
Here’s my full Chinese name, Fu Mali:
The girls’ Chinese names were chosen primarily for their similarity to their English ones, but we looked at other factors as well. For example, I liked that the first character in Elder Daughter’s name, Ailin, means “love”:
The first character in Younger Daughter’s name, Meiqin, means “beautiful,” and I thought it was sweet that it sounds like the Mandarin word mei mei, meaning “little sister.”
These days, I only call myself Mali in my emails to Lihong. But I feel so privileged to have had the experience of living with this lovely name. I can’t explain it, but being Mali feels somehow different than being Maria. Mali is much more fun, and I really should make the effort to take her out more often.
(After publishing this post, I found a video on YouTube about names that don’t translate well. Loved it, so I’m sharing.)
How about you? Do you have a name/identity in another language?