I find names and the naming process fascinating. Giving someone a nickname is often a way of expressing affection—or dislike. My parents divorced and remarried so much that we sometimes had as many as three different surnames in our households, but God help the poor classmate who referred to my stepfather as “Mr. Ashbough,” (the name of my mother’s ex-husband).
God also help whichever sibling my father hollered at using their full name—middle name included.
When my husband and I married, we put a lot of thought into hyphenating both our names. Andy’s Chinese-American parents objected. Their arguments were illogical, hypocritical, and downright ludicrous, but I was forced to concede.
Years later, I was still pissed. When I got pregnant, I was ready for the second round. Our kid would have the surname
I we chose: Ashbough-Wong. No, Wong was NOT coming first, because the name Wong-Ashbough doesn’t sound right.
This time, I held all the cards because the mother gets all the say on the birth certificate.
So of course Andy’s parents didn’t make a single objection.
They stayed meekly and uncharacteristically quiet on the subject of the Number One Son’s future son.
This was despite the fact that in Andy’s family, it was traditional to give their children an English first name and a Cantonese middle name. Andy’s aunts, uncles, and grandparents always referred to Andy and his siblings by their Cantonese names. As Andy neglected to explain this to me, it took me about a year to figure out who his family was gossiping about, even when they spoke in English.
Since my in-laws were behaving reasonably and I’m a sucker for tradition, I magnanimously told Andy that his folks could pick a middle name for Baby D.
Then Andy’s cousins came to our baby shower. Engineer Cousin asked about Baby D’s Chinese name.
“Don’t have it yet,” I told her cheerfully. “Jay and Sunny are working on it.”
“You’re letting them? Are you crazy? If I could do it again, I would never let anyone else have a say,” she ranted. She told me she’d insisted on giving her daughter her first name, but let her husband pick the middle name. Like me, her husband was Quite White, but wanted to give his child a Cantonese middle name. So he dutifully studied and opted for “Mei,” which means “pretty.”
“But…what’s wrong with that?” I asked.
Engineer Cousin snorted contemptuously. “He didn’t even pick the right kind of ‘pretty.’ It’s a plain, insipid word for pretty! And then he insisted he liked it and refused to change it!”
“Oh. But, um, surely Sunny wouldn’t make a mistake like that. She’s a native speaker.”
“You never know,” Engineer Cousin muttered darkly, and took a hearty slug of the wine she’d brought.
That night, I insisted that my husband call his sister. She was pregnant with her second child, and due ahead of me. “Ask her what middle name your parents are giving her son.”
“But I’m so tired,” Andy whined. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”
I shoved a phone in his hand. “This is an important test case.”
Andy reluctantly called his sister.
He discovered that his father had indeed picked a name for our nephew, one that meant something along the lines of “country.” Jay was very proud of his choice.
In English, the name sounds like “Gawk.”
I immediately flashed back to my History of the Vietnam War class. “Oh, no! What if he names our son ‘Gook?!’”
“I’m sure it won’t be that bad, honey,” Andy said—without meeting my eyes.
I shoved the phone in his face yet again. “You call your parents right now and tell them that, that, I need a list! Yes! A list. They give me three names and I will pick one of the three.”
“Are you sure about this?”
“Yes. No! Make it five names!”
Thankfully, Jay had not yet settled on his favorite name. I got a list of 4 choices. Some sounded better than others, but all were better than my future nephew’s name. (Not telling you what the sketchy ones were, lest I offend someone. Or possibly I forgot.)
We chose “Kuang,” which means “shining,” or “shiny.” It also went the best with the rest of Baby D’s name.
As soon as I picked it, though, I chuckled.
“Now what?” asked my long-suffering husband.
“In my house, when you were in trouble—like seriously doomed—you knew it because my father used your whole name,” I explained. “He’d yell, ‘Autumn Allison Ashbough! Downstairs! This instant!’ And that’s when you wondered whether it’d be less painful to jump out the window.”
“But that’s not gonna work on our kid. I’m gonna be furious because he put an orange down the toilet or something, but the minute I yell, ‘Dalton Kuang Ashbough-Wong’ I’m gonna start giggling because it rhymes. So I won’t be able to use his middle name to intimidate him or convey the seriousness of the situation. I’ve lost the most important function of the middle name!”
“I thought the most important function of the middle name was to distinguish you for other people with the same first and last names,” argued my husband (who works at a company with TWO other Andy Wongs).
“Oh, honey,” I said. “I promise you, our son is going to be the only Dalton Ashbough-Wong on the entire planet. Ever.”
He’s gonna hate me when he has to start writing his name on school papers, though.
Want more info on Chinese names? Check out Marta Lives in China’s brand new post!