Giving My Daughter a Chinese Name

(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/

When I was expecting my daughter, my husband and I of course started to talk about names for the baby. The discussion dragged on for months without really getting anywhere. The names I liked, he didn’t, and the names he liked, I was like, “Really?”

I began to appreciate how much culture is just as tied up in a name as the meaning or the sound.

While all this was going on, I confided in my Southern-born Mom.“Well, I wanted to call you ‘Scarlett’ you know,” she told me. I vaguely remembered. “Yes,” she went on. “But your Dad didn’t want to because he was worried that you’d be a bookworm with a name of a hoyden.”

Thanks, Dad.

My husband’s last name is Ha, which was something we had to take into consideration. We both rolled our eyes when random servers at restaurants would give him back his debit card and invariably say, “Aha!” To note that, yes, his first name begins with an “A,” and yes, his last name is “Ha.” Put them together, and yes! You get “AHA!”

I took his name when we married, thinking that I would free myself always having to spell my maiden name, “Bensko.” This was my spiel: “ ‘B’ as in ‘boy,’ ‘E-N, ‘S’ like ‘Sam, K, ‘O’ like ‘Oscar.’” Spelling “Ha” is decidedly worse. No one can quite believe that it is simply “H-A.” Being a non-Asian, I usually have to wait a minute before my Asian surname registers. Along with: “Yes, it’s just H-A, I invariably have to add, “No, not Haas or Haugh.” And no, the name doesn’t mean, “Hahahaha” in Chinese. It means “summer.”

I strongly identify with the “Donna Chang” episode of Seinfeld.

Nope. I’m not.

Knowing that our daughter would be spelling “Ha” for the rest of her life — except maybe in Chinatown or in China — we decided that her first name should be simple, but not monosyllabic, because that might sound odd. Or so we thought. As many times as we argued and disagreed, the name we agreed on was one that I stole from my hairdresser, who was also expecting a girl. Amazingly we both liked it, despite it being one lonely syllable.

I really thought we were done, until my husband pointed out that, of course, she needed a Chinese name, too. I was game, but not fluent in Chinese, how could I really discuss it or have a say? And what I learned was that for all that we went through to agree on our daughter’s name, picking a Chinese name, at least for the Chinese, is a ponderous thing.

Most of the time a Chinese name has three syllables, including the surname, and should make up for any deficiencies in the kid’s I-Ching. I-Ching is a type of Chinese astrology that determines luck and fortune, and is tied to birthdate, among other factors. If a child is born on an unlucky date, choosing the right name can balance it out. The name must also have just the right number of character strokes (it’s always a different number for boys than girls), and most of all, describe the child’s aspirational future.

I thought I would black out at all the requirements.

While in the past, and even now in China, either the grandparents or a fortuneteller would advise depending on the custom of the area, we were here, and I really couldn’t see someone else naming our daughter. My husband Alex broke out the Chinese dictionary and got to work. After a while, he came up with Jia-Ling. We write it using the Mandarin. Her tiny, three-syllable name packs a punch and translates to beautiful, good, fine, exquisite, delicate. AWESOME. Chinese people seem to get it, so who am I to judge? Chinese characters hold a lot of meaning and history in them that sometimes does not come across in the translation of a generic word or two. A character might be reminiscent of a famous poem, phrase or person for which there is no real dictionary reference.

It really annoyed me that my lack of knowledge was a barrier to something so intimate as my daughter’s name. Chinese culture was something that I had access to, but would never be a part of. Despite that, I pushed my husband to speak Chinese to her. He argued that since I really didn’t speak it well, it would never work. Plus, he wanted her to learnMandarin, not Cantonese, his native tongue. Mandarin was far more useful, he countered. I argued back that learning any language was good, and kids are in fact able to sort languages quite well. So what if it was Cantonese and not Mandarin? Eventually she could learn Mandarin, but this was a golden opportunity for her to be bilingual. Even if I probably never would learn, I wanted her to have that opportunity. In the end, I lost. He refused to speak Chinese to her. I speak several other languages, and the linguist in me never quite got over it.

Just nine months after my daughter was born I was expecting again. When our son was on the way, we more or less went through the same back-and-forth, but this time about the English middle name. We both liked the Finnish first name I adored. However we didn’t settle on a middle name until we were literally walking out the door to the hospital. I took the 500-page book I have on the family’s genealogy, closed my eyes, opened a page, and put my finger down. I skipped the first result, Angus, but on the second try, my finger landed in a good place. Picking our son’s Chinese name was easy this time. Siblings often share a character in their names, so that have us a head start. Once again I brought up again the idea of Alex speaking Chinese to the kids. He wouldn’t budge. I didn’t understand his strong objection to it, and never will. Maybe that’s a cultural difference that has nothing to do with names.

As for my son, his Chinese name is Jia-Houng — beautiful, fine, good AND courageous. Hard to beat that in any language

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2 Responses

  1. chandrakant

    What about an ancient Egyptian name – written in ancient Egyptian Pictures Script, according to Hieroglyphics?

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