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What is a Name?

Updated: Feb 19

Dear Asian Youth,

My Name. My name has always evoked a sense of pride in me, yet it is a constant reminder of the internal identity crisis that I have dealt with my whole life. Like many Asian Americans, I have two names: my English name and my Chinese Name. These two names represent two worlds, two identities, two generations, and two different countries wrapped into one person.

My English name, Christopher, is Greek in origin, though I don’t know why my parents chose it for me. I always insisted on being called Christopher in elementary school, especially since there were two other Christophers in the class. After a while, many just defaulted to calling me Chris. Even my parents and siblings picked it up.

My last name is Fong Chew. Two words, not one. My parents decided, to the protest of some of my relatives, to combine their last names for my siblings and me. Their subtle but defiant act broke the patriarchal standard of taking the father’s last name only.

My English name has followed me my entire life - from elementary school through college. It has taken different meanings, and morphed with age, but still is very much me. It is a reminder of how my parents' unique view of the world influenced me. And something that has always set me apart.

My Chinese name was something of a mystery to me. I always knew I had one, I always kind of knew its meaning, but it has never held any weight until now. For most of my life, I didn't know how to pronounce it, let alone write it. My Chinese name, 招偉明 (Ziu Wai Ming in Cantonese) is a name given to me by my grandparents. Both my paternal and maternal grandparents came together and agreed on the characters to use.

Steeped in tradition, my Chinese name comes from generations of Chinese customs. Chinese names, like many Asian names, go in the order: surname, then first name. Each character is a word that has its own unique meaning. The first character 招 (Ziu) is my dad’s last name. A character passed from his dad, and his dad’s dad; generations going back to the Village in China where my grandfather grew up. The next two characters 偉 (wai) and 明 (ming) are my given name. One character unique to the boys, and one unique to myself. If I had a brother, his name too would have had the character 偉 in it. This character is generational, meaning that it sets one generation apart from another. Being the firstborn son, any male siblings or cousins would have the same name. Both my sister share the name 愛 in their name. 明 is the character unique to me, what would have set me apart from my other family.

Chinese is a very literal language. Each character by itself, has a certain meaning or definition. Characters are combined to make words and phrases to expand the meaning of the two characters. For example,the Chinese Word for ‘happy’ (開心) is made up of the character 開 (hoi1) meaning ‘open’ and 心 (sam1) meaning ‘heart’. Each character of my name is a word on its own, but together, they build greater meaning. The character 偉 meaning Great and 明 meaning Understanding.