I remember my Chinese name

by Mengnan/Mary Wu

I remember my Chinese name. I remember when it was my only name.

My grandfather wanted a son. My grandmother gave birth to three daughters. Each daughter gave birth in the same year in Beijing. My mother, the middle daughter, was supposed to give birth to me in the middle of her two sisters. But I was 2 weeks overdue, and I broke the order of things. My two cousins were both born female before me, and I was the last hope for my grandfather.

My mother and father came up with many names for boys before I was born. My mother says that the nurse lied during the checkups when she claimed that she couldn’t tell the gender of the child. My mother says this was common at a time when everyone wanted a boy under the One Child Policy.

My mother had two abortions. There was one before and one after me; I was the middle.

When I was born, my parents scrambled in the delivery room to come up with a name. My mother wanted “Meng” – dream – because she had many vivid dreams. My father, who gave me my surname, thought “Wu Meng” was too common, so he added “Nan” – south – since he came from southern China. Wu Meng Nan means “dream of the South.” I think he was proud to be proud of being from the South in the large northern city for which he left his rural seaside town.

Years later, telling me this story, my mother points out that if you say my Chinese name in the western fashion (given name before surname) – Meng Nan Wu – you have a homophone for “dreamt of a boy, but got none.” This is funny to her. I am not Chinese enough to laugh at this.

I remember my Chinese name. Why is it laudable to remember? At what point are you fingering an open wound versus forming a scab to protect the soft flesh within? At what point are you asking for pity? For understanding?

On the night before my mother and I got on a plane for the U.S., she cracked open her abridged Chinese-English dictionary to look for a new name for me that would be easier for the Americans to say and spell. “Mary” was probably the first one on that list. She called across the room to me, six years old and playing with my beloved wooden blocks (blocks that didn’t make it over the ocean with me), and asked me what I thought of the name.

I remember when I used to think in Chinese. I remember when it was the only language I knew. I remember those blocks – simplified pieces of architecture, and how I built bridges across the dining table. Remembering is an attempt to bridge this moment to one in the past. Remembering is work.

I prefer that non-Mandarin speakers call me “Mary” even though I truly dislike the name and feel no connection to it. I don’t want to hear them mispronounce my Chinese name. I don’t want to tell them how to pronounce it or to encourage them for trying. I am not a teacher of the language; I am not an ambassador for the culture. My Chinese relatives call me “Wu Meng Nan” or the nickname “Meng-Meng.” For them, there is no person named “Mary.”

None of my names are more real/authentic/meaningful to me. They are heuristic devices. Claudia Rankine quoted Judith Butler responding to the question of “what makes language hurtful”: “Our very being exposes us to the address of another”, she answers. “We suffer from the condition of being addressable.” “Our emotional openness”, she adds, “is carried by our addressability.” Having a name makes me vulnerable. Having a name makes me vulnerable to being pinned in an identity, to being claimed by a language and culture.

I used to write my name as Mengnan (Mary) Wu. I would like to write it as Mengnan/Mary Wu. I have two first names. I have no middle name. I want to remember the patriarchal culture I was born into and the assimilationist culture I immigrated into. More than the two names, I love the “/.” I want to be the crooked slash between two names and two cultures.

I want to be the middle, the break in the order of things.



About the Author
Mengnan/Mary Wu writes, draws, dances, and works on building a community of radical activist artists in Chicago. She is exploring issues of identity, home, and citizenship these days and is super excited about a publication dedicated to Asian American creative expression.