Friday, December 5, 2008

"My Grandmother doesn't have a Name"

by Ruth

Two Chinese major students were having dinner with Kevin, Wes, and I. Cherry is Wes’ Chinese tutor and Lily is ours. She is very patient with our slow, stumbling attempts. We were talking about Chinese names because she was helping Kevin choose a Chinese name.

“How about Bo Wen? Ruth said you are smart and like to learn, so I think this is a good name.”

Wes said, “I think that is the same ‘bo’ as in the word for phD.” Kevin said, “Maybe that name is too smart for me!”

My student Gabrielle, (along with all of her roommates), recently helped me choose a Chinese name: Jing Yi (jing like jingle, with a falling tone; yi like a long E sound, with a rising tone). The jing means “quiet and smart”; Gabrielle said it popular for girls’ names. Yi means “friendship.” I liked that because it has a similar meaning to Ruth (friend). When Lily heard the name, she said, “Oh, that’s a very good name!” That was a good response. Much better than, “Hmm. That’s interesting.” “Interesting,” when used by Chinese, really means strange in a particularly unpleasant way.

We were also discussing how to choose a family name. Choosing a family name for yourself seems even stranger than choosing a given name. Nobody chooses a family name – you just get stuck with one! Wes said we should just choose one of the common names that sounds good, and Cherry started rattling off a whole list of very common names. We also discussed whether we should have the same family name or not. In China, married couples don’t have the same family name because the woman keeps her maiden name. But the children receive the father’s family name (need I say, “of course.”) Thus, a woman’s family name will still die out if she doesn’t have any brothers.

So it was during this discussion that Cherry casually said, “My grandmother doesn’t have a name.” After some of the things I’ve already heard, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. But still – not having a name?

“My grandmother is 85 years old,” Cherry said. “In old times in China, especially when people had many children, they would not give names to the girls. They were just called ‘first child’ or ‘second child.’”

“But what about with her friends or other people her own age – wasn’t there a name they would use for her?” we asked.

“In that time, girls did not really go outside of the household very much.” With few outside friends and no school, I guess you don’t really need a name…in some twisted form of logic.

I asked, “What about if the fa

mily had many boys. Would all of the boys get names or only the first one?”

“Of course all the boys had names.”

“If a girl was called ‘first child’ but she married a man who was also the first child, she would have to change her name to be ‘second,’” Lily added.

I think about parents expecting a baby or parents with a newborn child. Choosing a name – something special that will show their wishes for the child, that will show their value of the child, that will give the child identity. In China, having a name with a good meaning is especially important. It often shows the parent’s hopes and dreams for the child.

Imagine having no name. No personal identity. No parental hopes and dreams. Just a number- and in your own family.


Sometimes I forget how much has changed. One grandmother who lives in our apartments still has bound feet. I forget there are still people alive who have lived in such a different world. And in China, any grandparent has lived through so many drastic periods of change it’s a wonder they are still alive at all!

Much has changed in America in the past 85 years too, but there is still no comparison. When I think of my grandmother not having a name – well, I can’t even imagine it.

“Of course, many things have changed in China,” Cherry said. “Now it is hard to imagine.”

As we all marveled over this revelation about the not-so-distant past, a verse came to mind:


“I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.”


I want that so much for those who never had a name. I remember so many students who have said their grandmothers were followers. Can you imagine the joy of going from nameless to eternally named? And they are named. He names the stars, he knows the hairs of each “nameless” head, and he has their names written on his hand. Each one of those nameless grandmothers has a name. I just wish they had the chance to know it. Who will reach the grandmothers?

1 comment:

Sarah said...

wow. this post is super powerful. it really encouraged my heart and made me feel so thankful. i hope you guys are finishing well over there! lots of love from cali!

s.