"Fire is motion / Work is repetition / This is my document / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all defenses."

- Cap'N Jazz, "Oh Messy Life," Analphabetapolothology

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

the naming of things + 80's popculture + Chinese culture

[written 7/9/07, ~2 am]

my mother and i go for a walk in our neighborhood. it's just after 9, and on this mid-summer evening, the sun has only just set. everywhere, tinted blue and violet, but the humid stickiness of the July heat lingers in the air.

we walk in silence. i'm cranky with sleep, my jet lag and summer restlessness manifesting itself as unjustified moodiness, worsened by my frustration at the lack of conversation. my mother walks briskly, bumping into me on the awkwardly narrow sidewalk as we try to walk abreast of one another, the overgrown bushes nudging us into each other every twenty paces.

the tension is thicker than the summer humidity. i watch her bite her nails, wondering too why she can't carry on a conversation with her own daughter.

so tonight, i ask my mother about names, and how she and my father chose mine.

while the name i intend is actually my english name [Stephanie], my mother jumps immediately to my Mandarin name - Hsiao Jing (this disparity makes me flush slightly), explaining that my paternal grandmother chose my name. she then explains the Chinese naming process, a kind of "poetry."

she describes a poem, epically wrapping back in time, mapping generations and tracing family trees by stanzas and refrains. each branch of family history signaled by a line of poetry. i imagine an endless scroll, unwinding to reveal the flash of character that is my name.

"American names," she says, "are easy."

"They're just sounds. You just pick what sounds best."

my American name: purely 80's. my parents were deciding between 2 names - Connie and Stephanie. why those names? "because Connie Chung was well-known at that time," my mother explains, "everyone knew who Connie Chung was." and Stephanie? "after Princess Stephanie" (of Monaco). finally, they chose Stephanie because "Stephanie Lee" sounded better than "Connie Lee" (and thank heavens they did).

my brother's name is a similar story. Kevin was a popular name at the time (i can't help but wonder if this is at all a credit to Kevin Bacon's 80s fame), and Calvin Klein was hitting it big in the 80s. they thought Calvin Lee sounded better (little did they know that as a kid my brother would go around introducing himself as "Calvin, as in Calvin and Hobbes").

my mom then goes back to a day long before i was born, she is a beautiful young school teacher, accompanying my father as they move to Kentucky for his new job at the university. i imagine her face in the passenger seat window, gazing out, pondering names during the long drive before she arrives at the new home, stepping out of the car, suddenly "Angela" (b/c Americans never pronounce her given name with the beauty and delicacy it requires: Hsiao Hwa, like a fragile flower. it has the effect of dissociation, disconnect: "I never know if they're talking to me or not").

she goes back further still, to a day long before she married my father, she is a beautiful young university student, studying German, and she goes by Sabrina, Karinne, Sonya. a different name for every teacher.

as we come up to our driveway, i try Sabrina on my tongue, and try to remember the feeling of it, to store it in my mind in case i ever have a daughter... Sabrina.

memories like mohair sweaters,
Stephanie Lee / Li Hsiao Jing


remaerdyaD said...

steph j.,

Wow. Thas some pretty rad poetry. Beats the crap out of sifting through the various spellings for family names froms Elis Island records and all. (Which is alot like when (overseas) telemarketers call.)

I tried teaching myself Cantonese a long time ago and gave up. I think it was the detachment I have towards latinization. Rather just learn the caligraph too. Of course, it was not the fashion it is today. Finding the only teaching aid book in Montreal at the time was quite a challenge to write the least.

stephan!e lee said...

yeah, i know what you mean. i've been teaching myself Swedish thru the internet. it's certainly not easy.

cool that you gave Cantonese a try. i bet you know more than i do! i can't speak it at all. it sounds completely Latin to me.


remaerdyaD said...

Um well er actually, it was bcos I was in Quebec, emmersed in non-English speaking culture and was just poorly messing around with other languages on top of insulting the French. The Daydreamer has had a bit of a language learning disability over the years...

Mandarine is impossibly foreign to me in nearly every way. Odd, being that so many people speak/write it.

Bork it all. I still prefer Daydreamerian anyway.

stephan!e lee said...

and i have to say, what a language it is! u have a very unique way of expressing yourself, i'd say you're almost justified in calling it a language all to itself.

i mean this in the best possible way, of course.


remaerdyaD said...

Oh, you.

Rae Jin Devine said...

While my feelings for it have ebbed somewhat after reconnecting with my father, I have always disliked my name.

Me - Raymond John Devine
Dad - John Raymond Devine

It's not a family name either.
My dad's family is just that uncreative.

It's a name that makes no connection to an entire subsection of myself. Grr.

I envy my sister, her middle name is Jin, my mother's proper maiden name. To the U.S. government, my mother's maiden (and middle) name is "Chin." *sigh*

I've been contemplating a legal name change. Rae Jin Devine. It won't confuse my friend (except in writing), retains my initials (and thus a respect for my father) and gives me a connection to my Mother (and self).

I really liked this entry Stephanie. Thanks for sharing.

stephan!e lee said...


i REALLY like your idea for a legal name change. it's much more poetic, and really beautiful when you explain it like you did.

i sometimes wish i had a different name as well, but i can't imagine actually changing it.

but you, i think you're ready.

thanks for sharing, Rae.