What’s in a name?

I just received an email saying that I will need to have a Chinese name when I’m enrolled as a student in the Yenching Academy. Our program administrators had mentioned this earlier in the summer, but I hadn’t known that it would be written on our official documents & used on our diploma once we complete our degrees. Knowing that this name will be a formal identifier for the next thirteen months of my life is making me spend some time reflecting on the act of naming and the conscious choice of self-identification.

I don’t know how to easily transliterate “Kelly” into Chinese characters, and have decided instead to use my mother’s maiden name (梅) when providing a surname. Her name, Moy, translates directly as “Plum”, and is a common surname in Taishan Province in Guangdong, where our family emigrated from in the early 1900s.

When it comes to deciding on a given name, I have had some things to think about. My PoPo (Cantonese for maternal grandmother) had given us each Chinese names when we were born, although we’ve never used them in any official capacity. In fact, the first time that I remember learning about my Chinese name was when my brother began to take Mandarin classes in High School. Three years later, when I began to take the same weekly independent study in Mandarin, I also hunted down this name to use in the classroom – though I’ve retained relatively little memory from these classes.

I’m left with a piece of paper that says “Kristen – Jade Flower”, along with the characters “Yu Ping” (玉苹). What’s problematic about this, however, is that the characters do not align with the English translation provided. Yu (玉) does mean Jade, and is a character that is shared among the girls in my generation. However the second character, Ping (苹), translates to Apple, rather than Flower. If I wanted to use the characters for Jade Flower, I would say Yu Hua (玉花).

In high school, I had read the provided English translation and used Yu Hua (玉花). Now, learning about these differences between the characters and their translation, I’ve grown curious about what my name might be – but have few people within my family to ask. My GongGong passed away before I was born, and my PoPo died in my junior year of high school. According to my mother, my PoPo most likely asked one of her brothers to write out the characters for our Chinese names, as she was the first in her family to be born in the United States and never received a formal education in written Chinese.

So, I’m left with a gap between what is written and what is intended. Did my PoPo mean to give me the name “玉花”, making “玉苹” an accident of mistranslation? Or was “苹” a reference to my mother’s name, an intentional choice and desire from my PoPo to create a visible connection between mother and daughter, grandmother and granddaughter? It’s times like these when I feel most acutely aware of how fragile memory is, and how much I wish I could have asked during her lifetime. (This is the same with both sets of Grandparents – things I wish I had known to ask for, stories I now wish I had written down more carefully.) Instead, I’m left with speculation – wondering, for the most part, where to go from here.


I think that the answers to some of the questions of my name might reside in another gift from my PoPo. When I was ten or eleven, she gave each of her grandchildren a chop carved with our zodiac animals perched on top, and a thick cinnabar paste to help stamp our names. The only time I can remember using this chop was after taking an ink painting class, when I used to affix the tiny square to monochromatic images of bamboo. Everything would be made in shades of black and grey, diluting the pigment with water to signify distance – the vermilion signature always floating outside of the crowded grove.

I’ve asked around to my friends who can read Chinese characters, seeing who might be able to lend a hand. I haven’t heard back yet from anyone, and I wonder if they’ll be able to give the definitive answers that I want (or need). I’m left with the possibility that I’ll be choosing a name on my own and of my own, deliberating between these options without much outside guidance. I think that it’s fair to say that I feel nervous to make this decision, because I don’t know what exactly is at stake.

On a lighter note, this entire situation reminds me of this scene in Mulan – one of my favorite movies growing up.

“It’s Ping. Yes, my name is Ping.”

Perhaps I should take it as a sign when weighing my options, and choose the name that will help me become a better woman warrior? I’ll keep you updated about the final verdict.




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