A Rose By Any Other

My Chinese name is 陳克聞. Seven strokes for the first character of my given name, fourteen for the second, because the fortuneteller told my grandmother that this mathematics of words was auspicious. I write my name with one stroke fewer than the prescribed number, so perhaps all my misfortunes are a result of bad penmanship. No one uses 陳克聞. At home, I am 哥哥, “older brother,” except when my mother, in exasperation, calls out all three syllables of my name for dramatic effect. Usually, she mistakenly calls out my brother’s instead, and the drama deflates, though my mother’s exasperation does not. It is not even a legitimate name. No court documents, no legal papers, no government-issued identification cards are inscribed with it. None of my friends have ever heard of anyone who goes by it. It is two words cobbled together, dissonant and unbalanced, like an untuned piano. If I were to forsake my name, I wonder if anyone would even notice.

My English name is Kevin Chen. Chen, because it is my father’s, and Kevin because my father’s coworkers told him it was a safe choice. Twenty-three years and innumerable same-name mix-ups later, I still blame those coworkers for their misguided good intentions. We call them “market names” in Taiwan, names you hear tossed around like loosely packed sweet potato leaves, so common and trivial they are. At Yale I knew five Kevin Chen’s, including one fraternity brother and one medical student, and the volumes of misaddressed emails I received revealed more to me about the worlds of SigEp or HIPAA than either would care for me to know. I tell people that my Chinese name came before my English name because the reverse seems so gauche, but I doubt it’s true. They sound similar, but Kevin is standard; 克聞 is not. My English name cannot even pretend to the storied heritage that its Chinese counterpart can; it is Irish, means “handsome,” and therefore bears no relation to me whatsoever. The only time “Kevin Chen” has been helpful is when it is attached to something I would rather pass off as belonging to someone else. It’s not often you find someone who can hide behind the anonymity of his own name.

It can take several years to make a new Chinese font. Conservative estimates place the number of commonly used words at 2,000 to 3,000, though most speakers will know more. Font designers must approach each character individually, a stand-alone piece of art. Vanishingly few type foundries still exist in the world, especially for Chinese fonts. Ri Xing is the only place in Taipei where you can still watch the craftsmen at work at their machines, shaping the surfaces of letterpress pieces the size of pinheads. I like to think that like a parent christening a child, every stroke is considered thoughtfully, lovingly, before being put in place.

My names, English and Chinese, appear side by side on business cards and in email signatures. Increasingly, I use both when I introduce myself to new acquaintances. For so long I resented my names because they seemed inadequate. Taken separately, they still do. But stringing them together is synergistic. This duality of languages, this duality of identities, is becoming more and more of who I am. One of my names is uninspired, ill-fitting, vague. The other is illegitimate, peculiar, derivative. Together, like sodium and chloride, they crystallize into something worth its weight in gold, precious because it is wholly mine, and mine alone.

Inspired by this piece? TaiwaneseAmerican.org is partnering with a collective to curate a mini-anthology of experiences of the Taiwanese Diaspora. See the call for submissions here. Deadline is February 19th, 2017. Please send requests for extensions to achu190(at)gmail.com.

Kevin is a Taiwanese American writer.

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