I hated my name until the end of high school, especially during my kindergarten and elementary school years.
My mother told me not to worry since our house was just down the street from my new school. At the age of four, the only things I knew how to say in English were 1) a simple self-introduction and 2) asking to use the washroom.
When we entered the school, my teacher came trotting down the hall with a smile lifting his pale, rosy cheeks and red lips. My fingers tightened around my mother’s hand when he stopped in front of us and dipped in a bow, his eyes meeting mine. I thought his brown eyes looked friendly until he opened his mouth.
“Ai, is it?” he asked.
I looked up at my mother, who smiled encouragingly. My head tipped forward in a slow nod.
My teacher’s smile stretched wider as he brought his hands up to his face. He closed each eyelid before tapping them with his index fingers, alternating left, right, left, right.
You would think a child would be amused, but, for some reason, I found it irritating, and began plotting my escape from kindergarten daily. And of course, my teacher greeted me the same way every day.
On the last day of school, he saw me down the hall and walked briskly towards me.
In the third grade, I noticed my name was much shorter than the other children’s. On my name card, the two lonely letters took up little space, so I decided to double my name — “Aiai” instead of just “Ai”.
A boy from my class took one look at my completed name tag, decorated in purple and pink, smirked, and said, “Aye-aye, captain.”
When we were handed our math tests the next day, I wrote “Cornelia” where my name should have gone.
“Cornelia!” my teacher said when she was returning the tests.
I didn’t raise my hand, but everyone knew what I’d done because my desk sat empty while all theirs had a booklet of marked paper. My eyes landed on my friend’s test next to me, her English name in beautiful cursive.
“Blue or black?” my doctor asked, holding out two eyepatches.
I wanted neither, but I knew that wasn’t a choice. He told me I had to wear them to balance my vision. At eight years old, balancing my vision didn’t seem as important as not wanting to look like the pirate in SpongeBob.
My finger drifted to the blue cotton eyepatch.
“Great choice.” The doctor placed it into my hand. I only stared.
I wore the eyepatch the next day, the material held in place by my glasses, itching my left eye.
Every day after, when my grandmother dropped me off at school, I took off the eyepatch when the morning bell rang.
“Where’s your eyepatch?” my friend asked when she lined up behind me.
My fist balled up in my pocket. I shrugged.
“Why don’t you have an English name?” a boy from Biology asked.
I focused on twirling the pen in my hand, a trend spreading around my school. Everyone was doing it — I wanted to, too. Most had an English name — I wanted one, too.
The pen spun, flew out of my hand, landing on the ground. No doubt the teacher gave us a reprimanding look. The boy turned his attention back to his textbook.
During the summer after high school graduation, I visited Starbucks. I often liked to order Frappuccinos. Usually, the name the workers write on the cup included variations like “Alice”, “Alison”, “Ali”, “Al”, “Ivy”, “Eye”, or “I”. I’m not quite sure where the extra letters come from.
“How do you spell that?” the Starbucks worker asked.
“A. I.” My eyes followed their hand as they scribbled my name onto the clear Venti cup.
I guess I was shocked, but I couldn’t do anything but smile.
When I picked up my drink, my name sat on the cup in a lovely cursive.
I had ordered my coffee black, but it seemed sweeter that day. I remember thinking: Perhaps my name could be beautiful after all.
Ai Jiang is a Chinese Canadian writer and an immigrant from Fujian. She draws on cultures and landscapes of the lands she has walked for inspiration. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Dark, Hobart Pulp, Haunted Waters Press, among others. Find her on Twitter (@AiJiang_) and online (http://aijiang.ca/).
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