Some people who have had tea with me have witnessed this:
Me: “Hi! Could I get the white peony tea?”
Teamonger: “Sure, what’s your name?”
Me: “Lily. Thanks!”
I’m not just assuming an identity for fun (although everyone should have a go-to alias); I know that “Helin” is (a) hard to hear since it starts with a quiet consonant, (b) easily misspelled, and (c) mispronounced if spelled correctly. So I’m “Lily” to a lot of people in the beverage industry.
My legal first name is always ridiculous when I’m calling about an appointment and have to say “my first name is spelled X-I-A” instead of having a normal-looking first name. It’s actually my surname, 夏, which means summer (unfortunately my birthday is in February). My parents placed it at the beginning of my English name because at the time I was born, they figured they might go back to China, where the conventional name order is surname, given name.
My last name, “Shiah,” is made up. My parents decided it would be best to provide a last name that would be a pronounceable version of my surname, and being recent immigrants unschooled in phonics, they didn’t realize it’s always mispronounced as “shee-ah” or “shy-ah” instead of something closer to “shah.” That being said, I’m grateful it’s not spelled phoenetically – it suits my personality to have a confusing last name rather than a mistakenly Indian one.
Most people know me by my middle name, “Helin,” and if I were to think about myself in the third person (not that I do, frequently) , I’d think “Helin is hoping her bus isn’t too late” and the like.
There’s a reason even my given name is unpronouncable (see blog title) – it’s the pinyin translation of my Chinese given name, 荷林. 荷 is pronounced “hé” and is half of the phrase 荷花, which means “water lotus.” (I believe lotuses and lilies are similar enough that “Lily” is a reasonable pseudonym.) 林, pronounced “lín” is half of the phrase 树林, which means forest. I think it’s overall a beautiful and well-considered name – forest of lotuses, essentially – and it’s really character-developing to require a kid to correct her teachers every first day of school for 12+ years.
So that’s the story of how my parents crafted a set of completely unpronounceable names for their daughter. Overthinking – I suspect it’s genetic.
Parents, Choice, and Trust
For a while I’ve been wanting to write about being Asian/Asian-American and what my Chinese ancestry means to me, and I realized it’s inextricably, and maybe exclusively, tied to my parents. I didn’t grow up in an area with many other Chinese people, so all that cultural identity was channeled through them.
I think my experience has been defined by a relative lack of tension. For this reason, I’ve been struggling with whether I can actually write about being Asian. I feel like people who usually write about being Asian have experienced a lot of race-related tension in their lives, trying to reconcile parental or traditional demands with their own goals or the norms of an American society. I’m thinking of content like Eddie Huang’s stories of racial bullying by Floridian classmates and his struggle to find a group and an identity (Fresh Off the Boat or the new tv show). Or Amy Tan’s books, where small cultural misunderstandings compile into a deep sense of humiliation and alienation.
I don’t really have stories like that, and I wonder if that’s because my parents are altogether pretty progressive and resolved these tensions within themselves or within our family, rather than me having to struggle with the outside world. They tried to instill Chinese cultural knowledge in my sister and me – both parents taught us Mandarin, and I predominantly speak to them in our Hangzhou dialect. They took us to China several times in our lifetime (I’ve gotten sick on every trip) and told us stories about growing up during Mao Zedong’s era (mostly it sucked). But they also accepted American customs with a little prodding: e.g. they didn’t understand the concept of a sleepover, but once I explained they immediately took me out to buy a sleeping bag.
Some people have remarked that my parents didn’t seem like stereotypical Asian parents because they got lucky with me, in that I was already a good “Asian kid.” I’ve always been amenable to most categories of learning, I did my homework if I remembered, I played violin because I loved it, and I was overall pretty smart and willing to submit to the system (existentially, of course). So maybe my parents never had to be ultra-demanding or espouse traditional, conservative values because I believed them by default.
But I also remember how when my parents bought their first house in a new development, they let me choose the color of the roof and shutters (I chose green shutters). When I was an undirected teenager uncertain about my career ambitions, my parents suggested pharmacy or law (two stable, certified careers in their view), but they supported my choice of engineering despite their doubts. (That may seem odd, because many Asian parents desperately want their kids to earn technical degrees, but I remember my parents said something like “Engineering?? That’s for immigrants who can’t speak English!”)
Even as an adult, as I’ve quit my finance career for something less defined, they’ve understood. As I’ve explained that my boyfriends are all a little weird because I’m also crazy inside, they’ve understood. So I think my parents are special among Chinese immigrants in how much they’ve respected my freedom and expressed trust in my choices. They also gave me this ridiculous name that’s unique, clever, and much more satisfying than the typical [random English first name] [unpronounceable surname as last name] combination that most children of immigrants enjoy. It’s evidence of how my parents always thought hard about what’s best for us rather than either defaulting to comfortable cultural habits or surrendering to outside pressures. I’m grateful for that.
Last week was my first trip to China on my own, sans parents. The first few days I spent in Hangzhou with my grandparents, which was overall a sedate experience, with a little stress mixed in. My grandmother fell on her bad hip a few days before I arrived, and after some persuasion, she let my aunt and uncle take her to the hospital, where they immediately checked her into the orthopedic ward for a surgical procedure. So I didn’t see much of her or my other relatives for my trip. Fortunately I’ve heard from my uncle that the procedure went well and she should be leaving the hospital next week, so all is well.
It was rough seeing evidence of my grandparents’ advancing age, and it was also rough witnessing my mother’s concern. She called every morning and evening seeking updates and pleading with my grandfather to be careful with his own health, to not tire himself out accompanying me on walks, to eat well, etc. It’s hard living far from family. I realized midway through my trip that I was desperately homesick – I missed my parents, my sister, and I missed Pennsylvania. I think partially it was hearing my family’s Hangzhou dialect everywhere; hearing strangers speak a language I associate with familial intimacy awakened a jarring juxtaposition of familiarity and distance.
I’ve thought about my parents a lot during and after this trip. How often we stay in touch and how I can shift our conversations towards sharing thoughts and feelings rather than logistical details. Whether they’ll end up moving back to China after retirement or if I’ll be able to convince them to relocate to Portland. Whether I’ll be able to take care of them when they’re older/whether they want this. As a child, it’s hard to notice the ways in which your parents differ from other parents, i.e. whether they’ve had to work harder or sacrifice more, because you only know one childhood. My father moved to Kansas thirty years ago with exactly $60; isn’t that amazing? And now my parents have paid for my college education, and they still pay my phone bill and ask me if I need money. Asian parents are infamous for nagging their kids to take care of them in old age, and mine have never done this seriously or frequently – but I think it is a natural impulse when we grow up and realize the enormity of what our parents have done for us.
It’s tough being disconnected from your extended family too, even though I’ve rarely thought about it in the past. Before visiting, I had no idea what my cousin does for work or what my grandparents do on a daily basis. My relatives prodded me to install WeChat (Chinese facebook) so I can keep in touch with them; I’m optimistic this will help me with my Chinese reading and writing. My aunt offhandedly mentioned that she reads my father’s writing on QQ – apparently he blogs! She said he’s written about visiting me in Portland, but he’s never told me about this writing! My relatives always tell me admiringly that my father is a brilliant writer, and I think my most acute Chinese-related regret is that I don’t read the language well enough to understand.