glass_icarus: (Default)
[personal profile] glass_icarus
*Reposted here for the second Asian Women Blog Carnival.

My name is 張玉涵, and for the last seventeen years, I didn't remember it.

I have a thing about names and memory, you see. A name is all you have to go by in the world; a touchstone, an identity, an identifier. Something that's yours, if not always yours alone. For me, a name is different than a nickname. A nickname is something casual. It's something people call you because it's cute, or because it's quicker to say than your real name, or because it's a reference to something private- an in-joke between friends. A name has a history beyond the history of its component parts, beyond the etymology of its words.

For me, though, an English name is something casual, something that requires relatively little thought. My English name is simply a vaguely homophonic version of my Chinese name. My Chinese name- that has so much more, an intricate story in every word.

My family name is 張 (I won't transliterate this, for reasons of privacy). It's a common name, among Chinese people, if not the most common name. Still, it's a bond: of blood, of pride, of being part of a line traced down through the generations to this moment, to this day, that carries more weight than anything I've felt here in the West. In China- in Asia, really- family comes before everything, and it's a concept that seems completely foreign to people here. [personal profile] karanguni wrote a brilliant post about this recently, and it's expressed more simply and beautifully than I can say, so I'll just quote her here:

I look at the world and accept it without trying to pick it apart, because how can I? How could I ever explain to my Spanish friend that I think that sometimes breaking my heart in exchange for not breaking my parents' is valid? That I would give up what I love for income? That I would avoid an argument against my values in favour of maintaining a relationship? And that those things complete me rather than break me, make me who I am instead of making me downtrodden, dis-entitled, discriminated, underprivileged? That it is, in some ways, something I give away in exchange for something I receive?

It's an idea that defies description or explanation to people who are brought up to value the individuality of selfhood above all else, and I refuse to argue with anyone about the relative merits of these two viewpoints. I will say that many times what you might see as duty is inextricably tangled with love, and familial love (like any other kind of love) is impossible to fully, clearly express to someone who hasn't experienced it in this particular culture-specific way.

I remembered the character for my family name as a child, copying my mother's strokes over and over again on a piece of paper. Who knows why? Perhaps it was that familial love I've been speaking of, that instinctive, visceral connection. In any case, it was my given name, my parents' gift and my private treasure, that escaped me.

玉涵. My parents told me a story when I was very young, of how they picked my name. I don't remember why or when, but it was a soothing sort of story, the sort of thing that they would try to calm me with after I'd argued with my sister for the umpteenth time. (My sister is a year and a half younger than me, and the tensions of that age gap are felt to this day, though they were much more electric when we were little.) You're older, they would say; you should take care of her, be the responsible one. I hated that argument then. Wasn't I little, too? I could take care of myself at school; why couldn't she? Of course my parents couldn't answer those questions, so they distracted me from my peevishness instead.

They chose 玉/yù, the word for jade, our most precious stone, because I was a treasure. My mother had been trying for ten years to have a baby when she had me; my sister was a windfall, unexpected. (That part was something I held close when my sister aggravated me; I freely admit it. *g*) They chose 涵/hán, from 内涵/nèi hán, because they wanted me to be strong in my selfhood, to endure my troubles with patience and forbearance and grace. I was young when they told me, though; it's most likely only because the explanation was so dear to me that I held onto the tiny scraps of meanings with a death grip, even after the characters became confused in my mind and escaped my memory at last.

The sound of my name. My parents didn't use it often; we were generally called "older sister/younger sister" or by our childhood nicknames, or- after we started school- by our American names. It was only when my mother was angry that she would use my full Chinese name, though my father never got into the habit. The sound of it- that wormed its way deep into my bones, my heart, a comfort sometimes and an open sore of guilt at others. The name my parents chose for me was painstaking, a work of art and a work of love; how could I tell them I'd forgotten it? How could I ask them to write it for me again, now that I was older? I could have, but I was afraid: that asking would hurt me more than the question; that asking would hurt them more than it hurt me, though I'm sure they would never have said so, would have told me if I'd said I wanted to know.

Years and years of careful maneuvering, among friends and family, and the subject never came up- or if it did, I would fire off an explanation with the meanings of the words, and never actually have to write my name itself. It took a very long time, and a lack of face-to-face conversation, before I could or would admit to anyone that I'd forgotten it without the shame crushing the words in my throat, stilling my fingers on pen or on keyboard. It's only now I am whole again- through an unexpected conversation with a virtual stranger- that I find myself able to talk about it, to write it down and be cleansed.

There are many reasons why RaceFail is valuable to me. It is at once the source of massive amounts of pain and rage, and the Great Wall of solidarity and awareness that rose up among PoCs and allies. It started me writing and thinking and talking about all of these things that are precious to me, the more so because I can now find the words to articulate them. It brought us the Remyth Project, Verb Noire, the Asian Women Blog Carnival, and it gave me one thing more: one person more literate than I am, who took the time to do a little research and gave my name back to me.

I said I had no words for this, and it is true, because a simple thank you can never be enough, but- thank you, [livejournal.com profile] drelfina. That means more than you can ever know. &hearts

Date: 2009-06-03 12:19 pm (UTC)
karanguni: (Default)
From: [personal profile] karanguni
I have no words other than ♥ ♥ ♥!

Date: 2009-06-09 01:21 pm (UTC)
delfinnium: (Default)
From: [personal profile] delfinnium
(it's me! from lj!)

You're so so welcome, I'm glad that I could help at all. :D Names are important, and I'm glad you found your name again.

<3

Date: 2009-06-09 07:41 pm (UTC)
delfinnium: (Default)
From: [personal profile] delfinnium
<3!

me just lucky I guess. :P

Date: 2009-06-09 03:03 pm (UTC)
sheafrotherdon: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sheafrotherdon
This is beautiful, and so powerful. Thank you for sharing it.

Date: 2009-06-09 04:09 pm (UTC)
wingstodust: (Default)
From: [personal profile] wingstodust
Oh gawd. Reading this post really struck me 'cause... I kinda felt like I was seeing this alternate universe of myself. I too forgot my name, within the span of two months of summer, in my elementary school years, which I wrote about a lil while back . It was two months worth of being free from Chinese class, of not having to speak or think or write in Chinese. I'm not quite sure how I felt about not having to do anything Chinese related for that one summer. Elated, maybe, from being free of struggling with that elusive language that always escaped me, always a step away from my grasp. But it didn't hit me that I actually forgot my name until my parents started trying to enroll me and my brother to Chinese class once again, and the teachers started to test us on our Chinese knowledge and I couldn't write my name on command no matter how nicely they asked. The shame of it, I can't even begin to describe, of not being able to even look at my parents in the eye as the teachers of the chinese school told them about their kids couldn't even write their names out and there's no way they can put us in anything higher than the kindergarten level class if they still want to enroll us in. I remember the night we came back home, when my parents sat down with my brother and I, and showed us each stroke needed to shape and form our names. I copied it over, without the usual whining and complaints of having to do Chinese related work, over and over and over until it was imprinted in my mind. Until I could never ever forget again. And then, reading this, I wonder, what if I succeeded in convincing my parents to drop me out of Chinese class before this happened, before they realized that I forgot the name that they choose for me with so much care? I know I would never dare to ask my parents to write it out for me, for the shame of it. Would someone have been able to find it for me again? It's all these what-ifs, running through my mind and conflating into this thing and then it all boils down. I'm just really, really happy you found your name again. ♥ ♥ It must mean so much, probably more than all the what-ifs I can imagine, and I'm happy for you. So happy. ♥

Date: 2009-06-09 06:58 pm (UTC)
bravecows: Picture of a brown cow writing next to some books (Default)
From: [personal profile] bravecows
I'm so glad you got your name back! Well done [personal profile] delfinnium. :)

Date: 2009-06-09 07:47 pm (UTC)
delfinnium: (Default)
From: [personal profile] delfinnium
Right time, right place. >.> As long as the person knows the hanyu pinying, and knows (roughly) what the meaning is, it's entirely possible to reconstruct the name.

I don't even know my mother's name. D: Because hers is in dialect, and she doesn't know waht the meaning is either. D: D:

Date: 2009-06-09 07:51 pm (UTC)
glinda: pirate TARDIS (pirate TARDIS)
From: [personal profile] glinda
Names have such power, I'm so glad you were able to find yours again.

Here via the Asian Women Carnival

Date: 2009-06-10 12:26 am (UTC)
laurashapiro: a woman sits at a kitchen table reading a book, cup of tea in hand. Table has a sliced apple and teapot. A cat looks on. (Default)
From: [personal profile] laurashapiro
Thank you for posting this. It's very moving, and beautifully written.

Date: 2009-06-10 05:11 am (UTC)
dhobikikutti: earthen diya (Default)
From: [personal profile] dhobikikutti
This was heartbreaking, and I am so glad you got your name, and now I wish to hug you. ::hugs::

Date: 2009-06-14 04:12 pm (UTC)
livrelibre: DW barcode (Default)
From: [personal profile] livrelibre
Both this and your other post on language and appropriation are beautiful and affecting. Thanks for sharing and I'm glad that RaceFail brought good as well as fail.

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just another fork-tongued dragon lady

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