Names | 姓名

2022 Best of the Net Finalist

    Ask my American parents to write my Chinese name. I often want to, and I don’t know if my desire is driven by spite or desperation. Because I know, no matter what they say to excuse it, if I sat them down at the textured red metal kitchen table and slid a piece of paper and my favorite pen for them to take, they couldn’t do it.
               I was born ____. I don’t know if my Chinese parents named me, if they could bring themselves to name a child they were going to leave behind. I don’t know if I could bear the humanization of such an action if they had.
               I became 高小荣 when the welfare center staff found me. When my finding papers were filed, those three characters filled every blank asking for 姓名.
               I do not have memories of being 高小荣 from my infancy in China. I try to imagine the name sliding off native-speaking tongues, in the vocal register reserved for babies and similarly precious creatures who cannot reciprocate speech or understanding. On a weekend trip to 高邮 when I was twenty, a welfare center caretaker told me, with the help of a translator, that I’d been a very unruly child. Ever since, I have imagined my name spoken with fond admonishment in her voice, the sound of which I cling to through hazy memories of that visit. Peeling back the heat and humidity of the day, the way the translator fanned himself and squinted, hand shading his eyes, up towards the sun as if it would reveal to him how long the heat would last, quieting the clicking cameras and toddlers playing, I try to remember her voice. Tired but resonant, and deeper in pitch than I had expected.
               After I returned to America, other adoptees cautioned me that the caretaker’s memories might be a fiction, that the welfare center staff might have told me this story to make me feel better about my visit, to make me feel like my connection to that place hadn’t been completely lost. But even if some connection had been severed, even if this was perhaps the kindest lie I’d ever been told, it wasn’t until I heard her voice that I could imagine myself as a person in the time between abandonment and adoption, that I realized that I hadn’t been able to before.
I became Gao Shao Rong when my American parents first learned my Chinese name in preparation to adopt me. I do not know exactly when this was. I don’t believe there was any intentional malice in mispronouncing “Xiao” as “Shao.” The Mandarin “x” sound doesn’t map easily onto any common English sounds, and I have seen pronunciation cheat sheets simplify it as a “sh” sound. Chinese teachers have told me to start with a “sh” sound, then widen my lips to flatten the sound into an “x,” but I don’t know if that’s only because they thought I, a Chinese per- son, should know such things. There was less of an emphasis on my white classmates pronouncing it correctly, although whether it was because it was assumed to be too difficult or because it was good enough for a white person to merely make an attempt, I cannot say.
               I legally became Kimberly Christine Rooney when I was one and a half years old. A white judge with curly blond hair smiles in the photo from that day. Her black robes billow as she leans over her bench, looking at the camera rather than down at us. She looks excited to bring together this new family, to help my American parents give me their name, to help them scrub the last legal mark of 高小荣 from me. The weight of the legality, the weight of the next twenty years of using Kimberly Christine Rooney without question, became a closed door barring another name, another legacy, another history.
               The name, and the history it carried, forced its way to the surface, but only rarely. My American father used to make up bedtime stories for me about Gao Shao Rong, the smartest girl in all of China, to encourage me to be like epitheted heroes in storybooks. I can only try to remember those stories fondly. Perhaps one who actually bore that name received my father’s good will. For me, though, his stories are marred by an incongruence, an incorrectness, and his ignorance and indifference to them that linger still.
               I do not remember when the stories stopped. But by the time I was faced with the choice to learn Chinese, French, or Spanish in middle school, they were long gone. Most of my friends took Spanish. What need did they have for Chinese classes in school, when they returned home to Chinese parents and Chinese food and Chinese conversations? The only other Chinese students in the class were ones who wanted to learn the formalities of grammar and writing that growing up hearing a language doesn’t fully provide. But before I even stepped foot in the portable classroom, the furthest on the left in the line of portables that sat behind the school, I sat at my Chinese teacher’s wooden kitchen table. The smooth surface with rounded corners was a patient place, with silky white curtains that let the sunlight shine gently through from the backyard. She knew through her daughter that I was adopted, although I don’t know if she had already sensed my discomfort and uncertainty with my Chineseness. Her daughter was a friend of mine, although she wasn’t present—in another room of the house, perhaps, or somewhere else entirely. I wasn’t there for her, but for a brief lesson with her mother before school could start. Because, as she explained to me, many of the incoming students already knew the basics in Mandarin. Many had even been to China. They would be in sixth grade, whereas I was in seventh, and they would be overwhelmingly white. She didn’t want me to fall behind. I wondered if she knew the shame of white people knowing more of what is yours than you do.
               She showed me a piece of paper with three characters. This, she explained to me, would be the name she would call me in class. She had asked before this lesson, if I knew my Chinese name, and I’d sent her the Romanized spelling, no tones, that my mother had dug up for me. I didn’t know at the time that my parents were mispronouncing it. When the teacher asked for the characters, I told her I didn’t know. I had asked my mother, and she had told me I would have to dig through my old paperwork to find it because she didn’t know it.
               I found myself with my hand on the door, behind which lay 高小荣 and the history and trauma the name carried. The only thing between me and that name—my name—was finding where my mother had put the binder with my papers. The task paralyzed me. I told myself it was too high a barrier to surmount. I didn’t yet have the words to understand that the barrier wasn’t too high, but the information was too significant to receive. Years of keeping 高小荣 tucked away behind Gao Shao Rong, behind Kimberly Christine Rooney, had hollowed me out and chipped away any foundation upon which I could hold the vastness of another life, another history. So my Chinese teacher took her best guess.
               I became 高小容 when she showed me that paper. Incidentally, I would discover years later that she had guessed the tones correctly, but the third character was incorrect. 高 for my hometown, 高邮, survived the guessing game, as did the first character of my given name. But this 容 meant “to hold,” “to tolerate,” “to contain.” It could also mean “appearance.” Combined with another character, it becomes another word, 容易, “easy,” which was how my class learned 容 several months later. I used to laugh off my discomfort with this guessed name, make jokes that my name was so weird, isn’t it funny? For a while, I forgot it was an untruth, and it became easy, or easier, at least, than facing the weight of who I once was.
               For four years, when I entered a Chinese classroom, I became 高小容. When I left, I became Kim, or Kimchi if you were part of certain friend groups, or Kimmi if you were one of my relatives. Because of class sizes and format, Chinese instructors in middle and high school could never devote much time to improving speaking and pronunciation skills of individual students, leaving my ear and tongue untrained to hear and pronounce the difference between “xiao” and “shao.” And so, for those four years and the four that followed, my own incorrectness and my parents’ blended together.
               I stopped taking Chinese after tenth grade. It was time to focus on preparing for college applications, and to do so, I had to be judicious with my time and effort, reserving it for things I could leverage as success stories. I was already struggling to maintain my grades in Chinese classes. My parents hired a private tutor to help me, but it felt futile. I could not keep up, and even the gradebook successes felt hollow when confronted with questions spoken to me in Chinese. I felt as though I was wasting the tutor’s time, and so, in the hopes that she would deem me unteachable and therefore remove the burden of trying, I began to stall during tutoring sessions. And in a sense, it worked. When it came time to choose classes for eleventh grade, my parents had no issue with my choice to drop Chinese in favor of more AP classes: Language and Composition, Psychology, and World History. AP classes had a chance of transferring to college credits, and I knew I could excel in the ones I had chosen, safe from the shame of learning Chinese while lacking the courage to find my correct name.
               I rediscovered 高小荣 a month before I left for an eight-week study abroad program in Shanghai. It was after my second year of college, during which time I witnessed a professor switch effortlessly from English to Italian, then back to English. It was the first time in years I had been part of a conversation where language switching occurred, and it planted a need within me. The ability would be mine, I determined. I tried to push away lingering guilt for not achieving the ability already, convincing myself that I would cleanse my prior sins by doing it right this time.
               When I visited my American parents’ house before leaving for China, I dug through the relics from China my parents kept tucked away. I touched the clothing I wore in China, running my fingers over the silky cloth. I turned over in my hands the chop and ink set they bought and never used—the ink might spill and get everywhere, my parents told me, and then we’d never be able to get it out—and resisted the temptation to stamp my name into myself at that very moment. Instead, I pulled out the paperwork with my Chinese name and wrote it down, the lines and boxes and hooks disproportional and misaligned from lack of practice. I tried again, and this time I was able to write each character in the same size.
               In the few weeks I had left before my departure, I practiced writing my name over and over. I was determined to know it correctly the next time anybody asked. When I did, my Chinese professor in Shanghai said it back to me, emphasizing the different “x,” and I began to understand that, from the start, the obfuscation of my name had not merely come in taking my Chinese name away from me, but in giving me back a falsehood. Later that week, she taught me and my classmates how to shape our lips and place our tongues to say it correctly, and I practiced silently for the next week.
               When I returned from China, I continued taking Chinese classes. With my newfound knowledge of my parents’ misunderstanding, I asked them if they wanted me to teach them my name. No, they told me, we’d only mess it up. I deflated with the sudden awareness that, without intention, I had expected them to want to learn their daughter’s name.
               In the correct version of my name, 荣 can be “honor,” or “glory,” or even “prosperous.” When I started using it again, it felt wrong. I felt dissonant. I felt bursting at my seams. I had opened the door, and my name, my heritage, my trauma came crashing into me, the deluge of another life trying to fit into a body already filled. I wanted to feel like I was doing something right by continuing to learn after so many years. But overwhelmingly, beneath the excitement of going back to China for the first time in my life, I felt shame.
               At first, when confessing my shame to others, I had only the words to explain that I felt so behind, so irreparably, irrevocably behind. That even if I tried for the rest of my life, I could never get back the time I lost to squandered opportunities. Each person told me there was no reason to feel ashamed, and I knew that they were right, if only that had been the whole truth. I did not yet know how to explain that it wasn’t merely the shame of not knowing what I felt I should have already known, or even the shame of wasting opportunities to return to and claim my Chinese self and heritage, but the deeper shame of lying to myself. Not just about my name, but about the significance that it held to me. That this was a deep break within me, and I could try to survive without setting it, but it would remain splintered inside. That I needed to wrench the pieces back into place if I could ever expect to heal. That this seemed like too great an ache to bear fully and honestly, and so for years, I didn’t. I turned away from its importance and turned away from myself.
               The first time I was able to say these words to anyone was to my thesis adviser. I was twenty-one, and I sat in her office, the door mostly slid shut behind me. She had a notepad in front of her and her pen poised loosely over the paper in a way that suggested that she was ready to write at any moment but that her attention was on me. We were discussing the final changes necessary for my thesis on racial adoptee identity formation in Chinese-American adoptees, and I found myself falling into a tangent about names. In a defense of its inclusion in my thesis, I began telling her about my own name, about how I used the wrong name for years. When I finished, I felt lightheaded, like drinking too much tea on an empty stomach. The room felt lighter, clearer, than before, as if it sensed a revelation had occurred. We continued to discuss my thesis, but before I left, she asked me if I could help her learn my Chinese name.
               At first, I didn’t understand. It was my name, she explained, and therefore, it was important to know how to say it correctly. She offered me a large sticky note, and I began writing the characters, then realized that they would mean nothing to her, so I added the pinyin below. Then I realized that without further explanation, she would make the same mistake my parents had, and I would once again become Gao Shao Rong. I told her how to make the “x” sound, then wrote out instructions for where to place and move the lips to produce it. I added instructions for tones, then explained and demonstrated how they differed. When I was finished writing, I handed her the sticky note, and she studied it for a moment before telling me that it would take some practice, but she was determined to learn it.
               When I left her office, I wanted to cry. It had been such an easy thing—for her to ask, for me to explain, for her to promise with full intent that she would learn. If it had always been so easy, how could she have been only the second person to ask? The first, I realized, was my middle school Chinese teacher, although I had not been able to recognize at the time. I wished I could go back to my younger self, sitting at her wooden kitchen table, and thank her for asking, thank her for not showing disappointment when I couldn’t answer what to her was an easy question. But if it had always been so easy, why had my American parents refused to even try?
               Over the next year, I became Kim | 高小荣, or sometimes Kim (高小荣). I began telling people that I will respond to either name and offering to teach people who were receptive. Old friends and new friends, even new acquaintances, responded with eagerness to learn and some- times even offers to switch entirely to 高小荣. Each one brought validation for a name lost for so long. Each one brought grief for the years it had been lost, for the juxtaposition between their efforts and my parents’ that grew starker with each instance. I met a Chinese tattoo artist who agreed to help me write my Chinese name back into myself after my American parents wrote it out, and they wrote it with inky needles down my sternum, next to my heart.
               I still picture myself sitting across from my American parents at that red metal kitchen table, pen and paper between us. I imagine myself in a shirt that covers my sternum, waiting for them to write the Chinese name they never learned. When they fail to fulfill my request, I imagine telling them that the shame I held for so long is not mine to bear alone. Their failure was not only their ignorance. It was also facing their responsibility and the power of choosing what to learn, the power inherent in a name, and choosing to stay stagnant and not learn their own daughter’s. I do not often picture their response, but I imagine they would maintain they could not be blamed for not knowing. I think about my adviser’s words, about my middle school Chinese teacher’s offer, about how an earnest attempt, even if a failure through mistake, is better than a failure through omission.
               Today, I am Kimberly Christine Rooney, I am 高小荣. Although I am no longer Gao Shao Rong to myself, I am to my American parents. Even if I weren’t, I would still carry her with me like a twenty-year old ghost. In another twenty years, I will be 高小荣, I will be Kimberly Christine Rooney, I will be ____.

Kimberly Rooney (高小荣) is a Chinese-American adoptee from Jiangsu Province. They now live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and their writing has appeared in The Offing, Jellyfish Review, and The Pitt News. They have also contributed to Pittsburgh Magazine and The Review Review. When they aren’t writing or working, they enjoy cooking, singing, and crocheting.