What is a Name?
an article by Chris Fong Chew
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.
Yet not knowing how to speak or read Chinese, most of my life, it was something my grandparents would say to me. “Your Chinese name is Ziu Wai Ming.” These were characters that I had yet to understand and tones I had yet to learn to pronounce.
My two names, my two identities. Two worlds, two generations, two cultures coming together. My English name gave me a sense of belonging in school. No awkward stumbles or questions on how to pronounce my name. Being at home was a different story. To my parents and peers who grew up in the US, it rolled off the tongue easily. Yet for my grandparents and older relatives, it was always funny. The S and F sounds were always a challenge for them. Chritoper, Christoper, never quite rolling off the tongue so easily.
My Chinese name is something I am yet to be called by. It always felt like something buried deep inside. It wasn't until I was 21 that I learned how to write my own name, let alone how to pronounce it correctly.
My Chinese name in many ways represents ties to my roots. The less I knew about my name, the less I felt connected to my culture. This part of me, my Chinese name, didn't hold much significance for the longest time, like a box of childhood toys collecting dust in the attic. Until one day, many years later, when you brush off its dust and rediscover that little trinket from years ago. But my name is not a trinket. It grows the more I learn and understand it.
Like most of my identity, my name is split between two worlds. I am Chinese-American. I am Asian-American. Two parts of a whole. My Chinese name, a gift from generations before. My English name, a gift from my parents. Each has helped me understand the complexities of my family and my being; the two worlds that collided to make me.
My Name is Chris Fong Chew
Cover Photo Source: Monigle