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What My Chinese Name Means

Last week, my Japanese professor taught my class how to write new kanji characters for the lesson we were learning. One of those characters was “ko” (子), meaning “child,” to which my professor began to discuss how her Japanese name included this new kanji to form the name “Yoko” (陽子), meaning “child of the sun” to convey her parents’ wishes for her to shine as brightly as the sun. Upon telling us that many Japanese names have meanings connected to the natural world, I realized how similar this was with Chinese names.

When I was younger, my mother told me that my Chinese name, “李怡燕” (Lǐ Yí Yàn), meant “carefree and happy swallow bird,” reflecting her and my father’s hope that I would grow up to become someone who is both graceful and strong, unafraid of flying towards the unknowns that accompanies life. They wanted me to be a person who doesn’t dwell on past regrets or mistakes and instead continues to look forward to forging a future that I am content with. At the time, I couldn’t comprehend how heartfelt my name truly was because of two childish reasons: one, I associated the word “free bird” with the burrito restaurant I had seen called Freebirds World Burrito, and two, I hated burritos.

While the reason was silly, it made me wish I had a cooler name. My friends at the Chinese school I was attending had names that translated to “beautiful flower,” “flourishing fortune,” or “winter plum.” My older brother’s name, “李健龙” (Lǐ Jiàn Lóng), meant “strong and healthy dragon” as my parents wished that he would become wise, confident, and resolute in whatever he decides to do in his life. 

Over time, I came to recognize that my name is special and isn’t something to shun away: it is a gift bestowed upon me by my loving parents who planted their hopes for my future into me through this anointment. I also found this name to be increasingly fitting for who I am in the present. I never actively tried to become what my parents wished for me, yet independence and courageousness became two characteristics often ascribed to me by others. It’s almost as if this name was subconsciously developing and empowering me to move forward.

Whenever my parents call out to me using my Chinese name, each sound resonates through my ears, reverberating who I am, and now, who I hope to be in years to come. This name connects to their endearment for me since birth, and ultimately, their hope that I become someone that I am proud of. 

Kayla is currently a second-year studying English at UC Davis. In her free time, she enjoys drawing, dancing, and learning photography.
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