陳詩靈 or Reaching Beyond the Ceiling
The first song I ever learned was one my mom made for my name. It goes something like this: See ling ling, ling ling ling, ling a ling a ling, ling a ling a ling. I promise it sounds better if you could hear her sing it. The song ends on a high note, turning sing-song at “ling a ling a ling.” You can’t sing it without a smile on your face. My memories of my mom rocking me to sleep with that lullaby definitely don’t bias me into saying that.
The first Chinese characters I learned were also those that make up my name. First comes the Chen, from my father. Then the See, which my sister and I share. Finally, there’s the character I call my own, the Ling, the most complex of all the characters. The pseudo-mnemonic device my mom taught me to memorize the character was to imagine being big-mouthed (the three boxes are the character for “mouth”), and under an umbrella (the two person characters at the bottom of the character look housed under umbrellas from the “rain”, the horizontal strokes, at the top of the character). This character alone consists of over two dozen strokes. My mom regularly joked that since we are in America, I wouldn’t need to worry about writing my Chinese name a hundred times if I were disobedient in grade school. My mom knew that experience well.
Instead, in America, I tried peddling my name off as an exotic oddity. “Do you want to see what my name looks like in Chinese?” I’d ask, hoping to get the attention of any of my classmates for more than ten seconds. We had moved recently. Making my name for myself by being the first to stand up with my completed multiplication tables wasn’t working as effectively as I had hoped.
My classmates grew impatient at how long it took me to write each character. How I paid special attention to getting each stroke right, because these were the only characters I knew. For the few that stayed until I finished, they grew confused at my explanation of the character. They’d ask questions I couldn’t answer, like: “Why does this one have boxes but that one doesn’t?”, or “Why does this one have rain?” or “What are you talking about? I don’t see it at all.” When I looked at my name, written out, I saw a beauty I couldn’t describe with words. I had hoped that, if they saw the characters, they would see that in me, too.
A few weeks after the “Let me show you how my name is written in Chinese” debacle, I decided that the written characters were too complex and inaccessible, but how my name is pronounced should be easier. I thought of English words that phonetically sounded similar to the Cantonese tones in my name. The closest I could think of was “ceiling,” even though my dad gave me the English name “Celene”, since it sounds close to my Chinese name “See Ling”. I knew my classmates, and they wouldn’t get the Celene à See Ling connection. But my classmates were even more bored with hearing my Chinese name spoken out loud. They still couldn’t get the tones right, and when I told them that, they moved on. Once I shared my name with them, there was nothing they could do with it. Instead, they asked, “Can’t you teach us some swears in Chinese?” I went home with that homework.
The peak of my middle school popularity was the day I returned with the sought-after information. I taught swears I goaded my dad into saying, and when my classmates got all the tones wrong, I didn’t correct them, because those words didn’t matter to me. And when they said Ni hao and Gong Xi Fa Cai to me on Chinese New Year, words they learned from a Disney Channel ad spot, I nodded. They wouldn’t want to hear about the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin.
In high school, when I took Mandarin classes, my white classmates got to make up a Chinese name, but I already had a name to use. We were learning to write in Simplified Characters, not Traditional, because that’s the uniform standard that Mainland China imposes. When I wrote my name in Simplified Characters, I recognized only the shell of what it is in Cantonese. My parents say Simplified is writing without the soul.
When people in my high school graduating class started marrying and having kids, I thought about how I have no idea how to craft a Chinese name for my future kids. I’m conversational at best in Cantonese, and the only Traditional characters I can write by heart are those that make up my name. I asked my parents how they came up with mine. They reminded me of something lingering in the back of my mind that I’d known but had forgotten. When I had told this to my grade school classmates, what my name meant, they were bored. I remember thinking, “Why couldn’t I have a cooler name?” then feeling even worse for thinking that about something I loved. My name means “Swift poem”, the “See” translating to “poem” and “Ling” to swift.
Before my sister and I were born, my parents foretold that their two daughters, sharing the “See” character, would become writers. They gave a poet and writer a name we would never give ourselves, a name that reminds us to say, “Yes I’m a writer,” when we’re feeling more imposter than real. I’m never going to be able to make up a name as good as my parents made for me. But I can stop changing my name into something it’s not. This is the story of how I broke through my own ceiling.
Celene Chen (she/hers) is a lesbian and 2nd generation Hong Konger. Her poetry has been published in The Lickety Split. Her fiction has been published in the West Trestle Review. Celene graduated from the Boston University School of Law in May 2022. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @underwatervent.
Art: Les Anderson/Unsplash CC1.0 ALT A young girl holding a pen, writing, looking slightly alarmed! A doodle of an umbrella in the upper right hand corner, a doodle of a rain drop in the lower left
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