Posted inCultural Identity

Mom, can you give me a normal name?

Illustration by Ben Beechener

As a kid, I told myself that personalized souvenirs were pointless, but I’d still steal a few glances in their direction. Among the keychains and mugs for Jasons and Janices, I was searching for ‘Zilun’. It makes me smile now – it took a special kind of naivety to hope for such things, but as a kid that wanted his name to be ‘normal’, that was all I had. During this time I would also rarely sign my drawings with my own name – ‘Zilun’ might confuse people more than anything, so it was as good as a scribble – instead I signed the bottom right corner with a star because I believed I was special. It’s safe to say my family fridge looked like a starry night by the end of kindergarten.

It’s not that I was ashamed of my name; I loved my name, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that my love would become a burden to others. This was, at least, how I felt when I first arrived in Portugal aged 6. If you don’t speak Mandarin, then my name, 林子伦 (lín zǐ lún), will likely have sounds you’ve never used before. To avoid double-takes, I held back pointers on how to pronounce my name the right way, the way my grandparents and my childhood friends would call me. This meant that If I were ordering pizza, I’d let myself be known as ‘Lin’, my surname, which is easier to pronounce and spell – ‘L’ as in ‘London’, ‘I’ as in ‘India’, ’N’ as in ‘Nairobi’. I ventured as far as introducing myself as ‘João’ to my local pizza store, the Portuguese equivalent of ‘John’, but I could feel my ancestors shaking their heads, so I stopped that rather quickly. The problem isn’t with having a western name, but my thinking that one is normal and the other isn’t. As a compromise, I began saying my actual name, except I’d have a pencil and paper ready for the ‘what’s that?’ that would follow.

Despite my efforts to appease, my name was still foreign. And because of my efforts to appease, I didn’t realize I needed to defend it. Every stereotypical nickname was met with a half-hearted smile, beneath it a mind scurrying to find humor from the rubbles of my self-worth. As a kid with a name that sounded funny because it was different, it became an easy target. For better or for worse, you grow numb to these things. After a few too many times of your name being the butt of a joke, you can’t afford to care any longer. Out of everything, however, the worst was to no longer feel proud to say ‘I am Zilun’ – in a way, I was no longer proud to be who I am.

I came very close to asking my parents to give me a Portuguese name. But something felt off. Logistically speaking, I was too old at that point to grow accustomed to a new way of calling me, there’d always be one thought too many. But more importantly, I didn’t want to hide my name from my non-Chinese friends, I wanted to share why I found my name to be beautiful. And I knew for a fact it was beautiful.

Like many cultures where given names are unique, Han Chinese names like mine are the first gift that parents give to their child. From the thousands of Chinese characters, parents choose one or two and weave layers of meaning with them, carrying hope and guidance for their unborn child. My mom still tells me about the great lengths my dad went to choose my name. ‘I’ve never seen him so engrossed by books, his desk had dictionaries, scripts on the zodiac, and numerous naming guides’. As I was born in a time where their future was all but certain, having to leave me with my grandparents in China, they named me after ‘family’ and ‘kinship’, ‘子伦’. My name is the resilience and optimism of my loved ones, something which I’ll always be proud of.

To this day my dad still gloats about the name he gave me, ‘you know your name scores higher than Jiang Zemin’s, right?’ – not sure that’s something I would be categorically proud of, but thanks, dad.

There’s also my surname, 林 (lín) which I got from my mother’s side. 林 means forest, it was also my favorite character to write as a kid, since it looked like one too, resembling two pine trees forming a canopy. While historians will be more eloquent at explaining the origin of this surname, I can only think of my maternal grandfather when I talk about it.

Barely five feet tall, he carried more love and tenderness than his fair share. With the few years he had spent in school, his calloused hands taught me the ‘proper’ way to write our surname – ‘that works too, but if you write it like this they’ll know you’ve read some books’. My childhood was spent on the back of his bicycle, where he talked about the civil war, foraging, and how to know it was the season to plant mustard greens. His life had given him a thousand reasons to be cunning and cold, but he’s scratched his head and said ‘perhaps another time?’ every time. I love my surname for the same reasons I love him – tenderness, unabating kindness, and the irrefutable fact that I was his favorite.

To love my name again meant that I had finally realized that I, too, deserve respect. To do so, I had to relearn everything my elders told me about the name that I was given. I also benefited from loving friends who shared my enthusiasm about my name and gave me the reassurance to treat it with love. It certainly wasn’t easy. For a great deal of people, their names have never been problematic, so to talk about loving one’s name may feel like a foreign and unnecessary subject. Yet this conversation is one which so many of us, who have grown up with names we found abnormal, deserve to have. There is still much that I need to grapple with, but the good thing is that everything I will need has been here with me all my life and that’s my name.

At this point in my life, I don’t like to take offense when people mispronounce my name, it’s almost always unintentional and I’d get old and grumpy too quickly if I did. In the rare cases where there is bad intent, I am reminded of what my name means and find the patience to explain why it should be loved and treated with care, even if it lands on deaf ears. After all, I’m loving my name for myself.

After all of this, it is only right I show you how to pronounce my name in Mandarin. But before I do so, I want to assure you you’re not pronouncing my name wrong when you call me ‘Zilun’. While I was given the name of ‘zǐ lún’, I’ve also grown to become ‘Zilun’; so much so that in family dinners I am called both, sometimes in the same sentence. ‘Zilun’ is my experience as a first-generation immigrant, it is making friends in Chinatown and teaching my grandparents how to ride the metro. I cherish being called ‘Zilun’. So ‘Zilun’ is not wrong, you’re just pronouncing it differently, and different is good because it is who I am.

Okay, as promised, the Mandarin pronunciation of my name. It’ll be challenging at first, but bear with me, it’ll be fun. Let’s start with my family name, 林 (lín) sounds like ‘lean’ from ‘you want me to lean into you?’, make sure you commit to the interrogative tone, that’s what makes you sound like a native. 子 (zǐ) is trickier, but not impossible. Here, ‘z’ sounds like the ‘ds’ sound when you say ‘dads’. To say ‘zǐ’, try adding a gentle ‘uh’ to the end. For extra credit, just make the tone go down and then up, just like how the accent looks; to nail the tone, think of a complaining and reluctant ‘no’ but without raising your pitch. Lastly, ‘lún’ sounds like ‘lon’ from ‘London’, except it’s more of a ‘Lwun-don’. Piece it all together and you will have something close to the Mandarin pronunciation – ‘lean?’ ‘dsuh’ ‘lwun’. It probably won’t be perfect, but what matters is that you are trying. If you ever meet me in person, I’ll be happy to give a few pointers and go through as many double-takes as you need.