Last night while putting my baby to sleep, I went over the Chinese names of my friends the way you count sheep in your head. I went to a school in England that had a lot of overseas students from Hong Kong like me. We were known by our English names in school; as friends, we also tell each other our original, Chinese names. Pammy’s Chinese name is “Treasure of the Family”. Candy’s name says “Seductive Fragrance” and Chloe’s is “Sunshine”. My husband Galen’s is “Mountain Range of the Family”. James’s is full of aspiration: “Reaching the Sun”. And Ken’s parents hoped that he would be “Intelligent and Conscientious”.
Not all Chinese names have coherent meanings and there’s no one way to come up with names. Parents may start with a word for its meaning. Or they may start with a favorite sound, then choose a character/word based on its meaning, kind of similar to choosing the spelling of a name. For instance, will it be Lisa with an “s” or Liza with a “z”? In Chinese, the “s” and “z” not only looks different but may also have different meanings.
My friend Phoebe’s Chinese name sounds like it could be a man’s name, until you see it on paper, where the characters chosen are all floral-based. My dad’s name literally is “Metal People”. When the internet came along he called himself Iron Man as his email address. For his children, he wanted to carry on the metallic element, so while my given name sounds feminine, on paper it looks like “Armor Flame”.
I had to think hard to recall some of those Chinese names of my friends in school. I counted them in my head like you would count sheep, but the second time around each of them had become shiny jewels and interesting pebbles. With fifteen years of distance between us, I now see that without exception, every one of them is a part of my life. What is there in your past if there was nobody in it? Friends, non-friends and enemies alike, they all make up the color and story of our lives.