Lost in Translations (#254)

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!

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Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

28 thoughts on “Lost in Translations (#254)”

  1. Naming conventions are amazing these days. They don’t even have to be real names. Inanimate objects will do but it’s very important that the whole name be able to ring out in times of parental anger. How else does a child know they are in deep doo-doo?

  2. Technically, the right pinyin is “Guang” (光) and not Kuang. His name sound like the Shining Prince in the Genji Monogatari. My mom never call my name out loud. She just chased after me with a wok spatula. Stainless steel ones. 😛

    1. Your mom is hardcore. I hope she never caught you.

      Shining Prince sounds good. 🙂 Yeah, in English the sound is somewhere between a hard “g” and a soft “k.” Like many sounds, it never translates exactly right.

  3. At times I swear we’re neighbors as we just went through this with our little boy (born earlier this month). In our case though it was more that my FIL couldn’t decide on a boy name because he had girl names already picked out. I was really worried we’d deliver and not have anything for the birth certificate.

    1. He had names picked out for a GIRL? Wow. My sexist FIL never even considered feminine names because of course his son was having a boy. A girl would be irrelevant.


  4. Haha, yeah I know a thing or two about parents shouting your full name…those times were also pretty much the only reasons that I ever heard my middle name.

    Now shouting my kids full names would be a nightmare! Nathan Yiran Antti Glander, come here! Or Nathalie Yishi Amalia Glander! As you can see their names are very much alike…we did not even realize it at first, only when writing thundergoats name on the hospital papers after she was born.

    At first we were thinking about asking MIL to chose a name but she was thankfully too lazy for it. In fact she had chosen the names for several relatives but when I think that my wife’s cousins name is Chuchu I am very happy that we came up with the names ourselves.

    1. You have two kids with the exact same 4 initials?! You can’t tell me you didn’t do that on purpose. LOL.

      Chuchu? Well, it’s probably not as annoying in China as it would be in the U.S., with kindergarteners making train noises every time they heard her name.

      1. We really didn’t do it on purpose
        With the first name we were just lazy/ it all started as a joke for Nathalie and for the rest…well Amalia was my great grandmother’s name and Antti my great uncle’s name (both on my mother’s side). My wife chose the Chinese names and well we all know how it turned out.
        As for chuchu, it is also kind of the same here in Germany for the noise of a train so Nathan used to make the noise when talking about trains!

  5. My son comes from Jewish and Cantonese cultures. His father and I agreed that first name will be English and middle name Cantonese while last name would be his. In Jewish culture we name kids first letter after dead relatives. My son’s name is Zachary. I used Z from my father’s father. The middle name, his father came up with it on his own. ( Strangely enough, his mother could care less, and his father has passed away when Zachary’s father was a child.) His name is Kin-hang, something with building balance?

      1. Yeah 🙁 sad part is that my son will most likely be her only grandchild ( she has a daughter, but daughter is special needs, I am sad to say). She lives in Boston, and I live in Texas. Yet in his entire three year old life she saw him once in person and twice on Skype. And even then I don’t really count pictures. She never sent him any gifts for any occasions. On both sides he is the only grandchild. Zachary’s father did ask for her input or to come up with a middle name, but i guess she didn’t care, or didn’t bother. I was surprised.

  6. I love the baby picture. Such a cutie!

    My FIL chose the Chinese names for all three of our children and also their eight cousins. They’re all double names with the same first syllable (a generation name). Everyone agreed he was the most scholarly person, and they were all satisfied with his choices. The Chinese names he chose aren’t middle names. They’re supposed to be used instead of their English names when anyone is speaking Chinese. Consequently, they seldom get used these days. Two of my daughters are married. They took their husbands’ names–one Jewish, the other Hispanic.

  7. Ha, thanks for the mention!

    Baby A.’s Chinese name was chosen by my husband. His parents didn’t have any objections… but I did. It’s a girl’s name and even I can see it. One of the characters he chose is almost always used for girls, and the other for both genders. But whatever, I chose the Spanish name so he got to choose the Chinese one. Anyway, it’s not official. Only the Spanish name appears on the birth certificate. Before you could have both foreign and Chinese names in the birth certificate, but now you have to choose one. And as we gave him Spanish citizenship, we also put the Spanish name on the birth certificate.

      1. Ahem… It’s complicated. China does not accept dual citizenship BUT they automatically consider Chinese the child of a Chinese person. So Baby A. is Spanish but for China he is Chinese even though we haven’t “registered” him as Chinese anywhere. China won’t give him a visa on his Spanish passport (because by their logic he is Chinese and doesn’t need a visa to stay in China) and when we travel abroad we need to apply for a special travel permit. The only way that China would stop considering him Chinese is if we officially renounce Chinese citizenship. It’s all very fun (not). Basically, China forces Chinese citizenship on the children of Chinese and foreign couples.

  8. So cute! Did Andy adapt his cooking to make gourmet baby purée? Were the dogs very protective? I can’t wait to hear more stories! And I’m thinking that since you have 2 cats, 2 dogs… you know… 😉

  9. Awwww!!! Baby Dalton is so cuuuuute!!!

    So glad you had a chance to chime in for all of the baby’s names (first, middle, and last!). I think Kuang is a beautiful name, in Mandarin I believe it is “guang”? He has a bright and shiny smile in the photo, so it’s fitting!

    I think if I hyphenated our someday baby’s last name, my in-laws would murder me (maybe my husband too). But if you say the mother has 100% say with birth certificate, maybe I can use my executive order to make it happen … mwahaha

    1. Well, there’s never any doubt who the birth mother is when it comes to babies. As for the Dad? Until he paternity test, you’ve only got the mom’s word for it. So it makes sense that Mom is the one to sign off on the paperwork. 🙂

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