Unbeknownst to many, I was given two names upon my birth:
1) My American name: Mary Hsiao-Ling Wu
2) My Chinese name: Wu Hsiao-Ling
When I was a little girl, I remember asking: “How did you choose the name ‘Mary’ for me?”
The story goes that my older sister named me because she was teetering on 7-years-old and had always wanted a sibling just like all her other peers who had at least one sibling. My parents gave her the exciting responsibility of naming me. So, I was born. So, my American name was born by my sister, Chinese name by my parents, and surname by my father.
When I was trying to learn to write my Chinese name (a task I still shamefully do not know), I asked my father: “What does ‘Hsiao-Ling’ mean?”
He paused and explained slowly, “Well, the modified version means ‘Little Bell,’ but it has a little bit of a more involved meaning that is complicated to explain in English.”
I accepted my father’s explanation by proudly announcing to others what my Chinese name was and that it meant ‘Little Bill’ in representation of my high-pitched voice and small stature. Now I was curious to find out what the “H” meant in my American name. However, rather than ask what it was, I made it up myself. I figured that everyone had chosen a name for me. Why couldn’t I choose a name for myself? The “H” must stand for something exotic and foreign like “Heidi” or “Helen.” So European and American as I believed I was rather than the reality that I had Chinese culture and roots. For years, I wrote and signed my name as “Mary Helen Wu.” Using my imagination to create my middle name was mine alone in the midst of my parents and my sister who had chosen and given me names.
It was years later that I learned that the “H” in my American name was actually my Chinese name: “Hsiao-Ling.” It all made sense. It all clicked. My name was actually a combination of my Chinese-American (or ABC, American-Born Chinese) identification, though I failed to identify and play the part of my Chinese background and could only identify it by ‘looking’ Chinese. I was proud of my “Mary Hsiao-Ling Wu” name. My parents and sister did well. And, as for me, the middle name “Helen” makes me grin and giggle when I am in retrospect mode.
This is the history that lies behind my name, but what about others? I wonder: What is in a name?
Truth be told, I am atrocious with remembering names. I excel at recognizing faces and voices. The warmth of a smile, the soul and degrees of lightness and darkness that lie behind the eyes, the contours and curves of the face and its features, and the sound qualities and intonations of the voice all ignite memories in my mind of a particular person and my time with them to say: “Yes, I know this person.”
I will forget your name; I will never forget your face. Especially how you look at me and your facial expressions in my presence and when we are together.
As a result of my failure to recall names, I started to create at least one nickname for certain people who have come into my life. I mainly do this as a stamp of personalization to the particular person who has had (or still has) an impact on my life, validation to the memories and moments I had with the person, and confirmation that our paths crossed at some point—or, if we are lucky enough, paths that still intertwine in a happy medium of not too tight or too loose but just right. Almost always just before I part ways with someone I just met, rather than “good-bye,” I will say or at least think: “I will have a nickname for you by the end of our time together.”
The first three nicknames I was ever given as a little girl were “Bao Be” (‘little treasure’ in Chinese), “Little Bell,” and “Wuburger.” My mother called me “Bao Be.” When I eventually understood that I was Chinese, I learned that “Little Bell” was the modified meaning to my Chinese name “Hsiao-Ling.” All that time, I thought that “Little Bell” was synonymous to my high-pitched voice and rather pint-sized stature. My sister gave me the nickname “WuBurger” because of my passion and love for food and eating. Not to mention that I was roly poly after my second kidney transplant and did, somewhat, resemble a burger in shape and size.
Over the years, I have been given an array of nicknames: Wuster, Wuzle, Wuzer, Mares, Mars Bars, Mary-la, Marila, Mare Bear, Wawa (means ‘doll’ in Chinese), Chunky Style (thanks paternal Grandpa!), Wusarski Wusterelli, Rush Hour Sister, Wu, Worchester, Marinator, Frog, Panda, Little Big Horn, Chipmunk Warrior, Wonder Wu, Sweetness, Little Buddy, Sunflower Transplant Soul Sister, LKS (Little Kidney Sis), and this list can go on and on and on. And, I love how this list of nicknames can go on and on. I love all these names, or nicknames. I love that the people who touched my life have welcomed me in their life with a simple nickname that holds much more of a personal meaning to me and our connection and relations with each other.
I’ve come to realize that a name is a title to identity, but not necessarily how we identify ourselves and the various roles that we come to play and create throughout life. A name is what we are called, but not really who we are. I had no choice in my name. None of us do. And, yet, it is the very first piece that others clamor and question with the announcement of a baby to be born—after the piece of asking the gender of the baby. I took what was given to me. I made it mine. I am still making it mine.
Do you have nicknames? How did you get your name? If you could choose your name, what would be it be? Do you think a name holds great weight in identity of how we create and see ourselves?
Honestly, what is really in a name?
Keep smilin’ until we meet again,