By Linda Lew from GEN M #2 “移民一族”, 2017.
I had thought I lost my name. The one I was given at birth. The one written in Chinese. 刘凌达 or in Chinese pinyin, Liu Lingda.
It’s always been there, used by my parents and extended family who speaks Chinese. But after we moved to New Zealand and as was usual for new immigrants keen to assimilate, a new English name was chosen for me.
“Oh, your English name is already really similar to your Chinese name! That’s so convenient,” new friends would tell me.
But not really.
The Mandarin “ling” chimes like a bell. The “lin” syllable spoken with a Kiwi accent falls a bit flat.
The first day I went to school in New Zealand – Hamilton East Primary – I was 9 and couldn’t understand any English other than “hello” and “Linda”. Or so I thought. People would call me and I wouldn’t respond because I was Liu Lingda. Linda was another English word I hadn’t yet learned how it sounded in my ear.
But children learn fast. Within a couple of years I was speaking accented but somewhat fluent English. When I met new people, I introduced myself as Linda.
Scared that I’d lose my Chinese, my parents sent me to weekly Chinese lessons once I grasped English. Along with two or three other family friends who were also sons and daughters of Chinese immigrants, we’d visit a church every Saturday where classes were held for a couple of hours in the afternoon.
On the first day Teacher Luo taught us, she asked us to write down our Chinese names for her and she would try to explain the meaning of the characters in our name.
“Your parents have big dreams for you, Lingda. See “凌” or “ling” is part of “凌云壮志” or ambitions that soared beyond the clouds and “达” or “da” is part of “到达” which means to arrive,” explained Teacher Luo.
“Linda” the name is Germanic and means soft or tender. It also coincides with the Spanish and Portuguese word for beautiful. The first definition I looked up in a baby name dictionary but the second definition I learnt from men who knew a bit of Spanish complimenting me and saying that I lived up to my name.
Dad properly explained the whole history behind the names of the Liu family to me at the end of high school or when I first started university. I couldn’t remember when because it just happened to come up in a conversation one day.
“We didn’t pick “凌” or “ling” because it meant 凌云壮志 or “ambitions that soared beyond the clouds”. It was already picked, a couple of hundred years ago. Our family follows this poem that the ancestors wrote and every generation takes one character from the poem and use it as part of their name. So your mum and I only picked the “达” or “da.”
“Oh?” I tried not to gape.
“You never notice how your sister’s Chinese name is Linghua, and your brothers are Linghao and Lingfeng?”
I had thought my parents were trying to be quaint and doing what would be akin to Western parents giving their children names that start with the same letter. A la the Kardashians. I bit my tongue because I didn’t think dad knew who the Kardashians were.
Dad wrote the poem down, which he had memorized by heart and explained what it meant:
“Our family began in the Ming dynasty, all the descendants would maintain our golden tombs. Every generation will contribute to the strength of the country, they will achieve prosperity.”
Chinese names usually have three characters: the family name, the middle character and the third character. Our naming convention was that children of each generation all used the same character from the poem as the middle character in their names. Parents would only need to pick the third character. Then the next generation would use the next character in the poem, the generation after that would use the character following the previous character, so on and so forth. This had been going on in the Liu family for…
“12 generations. I think they’re up to “宗” or “zong” now.”
Even having left China 10 years ago and living at the end of the world, dad was very up to date with everything that happened in the big, extended Liu family back home.
“Hang on, the character in the poem isn’t the same as the one in my name,” I pointed out “陵” or “ling” which sounds the same but is written differently to “凌” or “ling”.
“Yes, this “ling” or “陵” means tomb or grave. The ancestors thought it’s a bit morbid to be used in names, so they changed it to “ling” or “凌” He wrote (凌) in brackets next to the poem and two other characters that had also changed through time.
“I didn’t tell you this sooner because I didn’t think you were interested.” Dad looked a bit sad.
No ambitions that soared beyond the clouds, not even soft and tender or beautiful. My name means the tomb.
For Qingming or the tomb-sweeping holiday in May this year where you’re supposed to go clean the graves of your ancestors, I went back to dad’s hometown in rural Guizhou. I’m doing my Masters now in Beijing and thought I’d go pay my respects to granddad who passed away last year. My siblings have school in New Zealand and so my parents didn’t come back this time. I returned with my uncle who happens to live in Beijing as well.
Potou is a village of a few hundred people, one of the many poor villages that make up the underdeveloped Guizhou province in China. However, world-class high speed rail network has reached the region and it is possible to take an 11 train hour ride from Beijing to Guanling station then drive for half an hour to Potou.
The last time I visited Potou was when I was 11 for a couple of days, so I don’t remember much. This time, the village was still novel and fascinating as ever. I took photos of Chairman Mao and President Xi Jinping posters that hung on the wall, next to the family shrines where burning incense emitted wisps of smoke.
This year, the extended Liu clan decided to do Qingming as a whole family. They’d clean the ancestors’ graves together and prepare a community reunion meal. The day before Qingming, the adult and teenaged men in the family who returned for the holiday or happened to be in town gathered at the Liu hill in the village to clean up the gravesite. The women went to do grocery shopping for the reunion meal while the kids just ran around.
Uncle helped me to get acquainted by pointing out different relatives to me, this is your cousin, this is your uncle once removed, this is your nephew, this is your grand-niece –
“Grand-auntie! 姑太婆!” The little girl politely called me.
I jumped. I had no idea I was old enough to be a grandparent.
“What’s your name?”
“Liu Zongting.” She answered. Suddenly, I realized the middle character of her name “zong” comes two places after my character in the family poem.
Then whenever I met a new relative, I’d start by asking their name. The middle character in their name tells me exactly how they are related to me in the family tree. I met a lot of “ling” cousins, a few “dai” nieces and nephews, some “Jing” uncles and aunts and the occasional “zong” grand kids.
When we finished the ceremonies of paying respect to our ancestors and granddad, and laying out the offerings, we sat down to enjoy the reunion meal on the hill. The clan filled out seven or eight tables. I challenged myself to the delicious yet very spicy local foods while the busy chatter of the Guizhou dialect was all around me.
It was magnificent.
It was belonging.
It was how I found my name.