As many people might already know, I was born and raised in New York City. My parents both immigrated to the US separately, my father as a refugee from China in the late 1970s and my mum moved to the city just a little bit later after spending a few years living in Amsterdam. They were introduced to each other through my mum’s brother-in-law and mutual acquaintances in New York and eventually married in 1980. I was born a couple of years later in 1982.
My parents gave me a traditional Chinese Name, Wai-Ping (慧萍) which growing up, I had thought translated to “knowledge apple”, which I thought was pretty cool. Of course, my Chinese is pretty horrific and I never learned to read or write nor did I really completely comprehend the subtle nuances of radicals and strokes. Anyway, when I got much older I realised that the characters of my name were different to the ones of knowledge and apple, even though they sounded the same. I was actually closer to being “wisdom algae”. Imagine my disappointment!
Turns out, it’s not QUITE that bad. While the Ping is a part of the word for “duckweed” (浮萍), the Ping actually is a word used to refer to a traveller or someone who doesn’t have a permanent home – I guess a little bit like algae since it doesn’t have roots. I’m a little bit more okay with that!
Is Wai your surname?
One of the things that I’ve been asked a lot is whether Wai is my family name. That’s because with traditional Chinese names, you address someone by their surname first. In Little and Lo in the City, Guo’s friends call him Lin which is his and Mei’s surname.
However, because I grew up in the US, I have always been addressed by my first name. It’s actually amusing because depending on what stage in my life my friends first got to know me – primary school, high school, uni or as an adult – they address me slightly differently. I grew up as Wai-Ping and was quite adamant about its pronunciation in primary school (WY-Ping rather than WAY-Ping) but then switched to the softer sounding WAY-Ping in high school and uni. Then because I lived in Japan after I graduated from school, the foreign sounding Chinese name was much harder to figure out for an English teacher with bad Japanese (even though everyone prattled away at me as if I understood them perfectly), I dropped the “ping” altogether and just became known as Wai.
I quite like Wai now – it’s simple, kind of no nonsense. And it’s still amusing enough to watch the poor baristas try to call it out.
Oh and a quick note on the Chim, in case anyone’s interested. The character 詹 is usually pronounced Zhan in Mandarin but my father had his name phonetically interpreted from Cantonese not Mandarin when he first arrived in the US. It’s not a very common surname, but it is the name of one of China’s most famous railroad engineers, Zhan Tian You.
Here’s a picture of him:
I think there’s a family resemblance in there!
So curious what’s the story of your name? I love to hear about ancestral histories and origins – drop me a note below!