Some people have asked me what the red word to the left of my name means. It’s my dad’s chosen last name. In Cantonese it’s pronounced “wing,” but it means “eternity.” He chose it when he left his family (a story too long to tell in this post. If you want to know the details, they take up about half of Eternal River, Vol 1) because he associated it with flying away from Confucian slavery to the kind of freedom that this country represents.
The Chinese have a family name, a generational name (so when someone’s introduced people know exactly where they’re placed in the genealogy of the clan), and a given name. “Wing” is a Chinese first name, not a last name, but “Tom” is a last name, so when my dad, Thomas W. Wing, was questioned about his name by puzzled Chinese, he simply told them his other name was Wing Tom and they were satisfied.
My generational name is wei which means “literary.” My children’s is tao, which means “way.” There’s a book somewhere (probably back in the village in China) where the names for all future generations have been written, but by the time I wanted my grandchildren to have their generational names, the only person who would have known the word was an elderly auntie who had advanced Alzheimer’s. I did not feel I could trust her for information.
Traditionally, the eldest in the family chooses a name for each child. There is usually a uniting theme. In Mom’s family, the theme among the girls was “fragrant.” She was Fragrant Moon and a sisters were Fragrant Cloud and Fragrant Ice. If you really want to do it right, you consult astrologers, check the date and time of birth and other details such as the direction the bed was facing when the child was born. I really wanted my grandchildren to have Chinese names, so I asked someone from China and she said I could choose for my family, but you have to be careful because the combination of words can mean something bad. You’re supposed to observe the child and then describe the good character you see (to reinforce it), or balance what gives you concern. A selfish child needs a name such as “Generous.”
Each part of the name needed to be carefully scrutinized for overtones and ramifications. For example, if you name your daughter “Rose,” it will carry with it not only the sense of beauty, but of a sharp and prickly personality. You have to really think about these things!
So I chose “Heart” for the unifying theme for my family and a Scripture for each one. My parents approved. There were no surprise twists to the combinations. And since my grandfather had not given me a name (I was born right after my father changed his), I chose my father’s adopted name for the other part of my name. It reads “Eternity Heart.” My Scripture is from Ecclesiastes: He has put eternity in their hearts.
The word for heart in Cantonese is sum. You may recognize it from the popular dim sum restaurants that serve all those fabulous tea cakes. It means “touch the heart.”
One last word. After I spent months agonizing over the names for my family, after they had been written in beautiful calligraphy and presented in a little ceremony at my parents’ house, only then did I realize that my name in Cantonese is Wing Sum. Sounds like Wing Sum, lose sum. Oh well. You can’t think of everything…