The first time I realized that my mom was not Mom, I was five years old. I lived in Oshkosh, and in the park across the street, the recreation department put on summer programming for children. I asked Mom if I could go, and she said yes, so I ran across the street.
The leader started signing me up. “What is your mom’s name?” she asked.
I was confused. “Her name is Mom.”
The woman smiled. “What is her real name?”
Something deep inside me tremored. “What do you mean?”
“Go back to your mom and ask her what her real name is,” the woman said tenderly.
I ran back home in tears. Mom’s real name? Who was she if she wasn’t Mom? Was she an alien? Was I really her daughter? I dashed into the house, the door slamming behind me. “What is your real name?” I cried.
“What do you mean?” Mom asked. “And who asked you this?”
It was true: Mom was not Mom. The tremor exploded inside of me, and I broke down in sobs. Mom took me in her arms and gently explained that the entire world does not call her “Mom”. She told me her other name and walked me across the street to register.
I, too, have another name. My English name is Crystal Melinda Chan, but that is not my full name. When I was born, my dad – who is Chinese – gave me a Chinese name. It is Meisaan, which means “Beautiful Coral”. He grew up in Hong Kong, an island surrounded by coral. I grew up in Wisconsin, surrounded by land and have never seen coral in my life. My name does not fit in the Midwest. And my name physically doesn’t fit, either: On my birth certificate, because they do not have the space for additional names, my dad had to hand-write in the traditional characters of my Chinese name. My dad called me by my Chinese name only when I was in trouble – other than that, my name was hidden, a secret.
When my novel BIRD came out and started to be published around the world, my agent wanted to see if they could get my book into the Chinese market. She was a little hesitant, then said, “I’m so sorry I don’t know this, but do you have a Chinese name? It could be helpful when we pitch the book to the Chinese publishers.”
My heart tremored again. Could there actually be a place in the world for my Chinese name? It was such a deeply hidden part of me, and it so rarely had the chance to surface, to have a purpose beyond people’s idle curiosity. But maybe there was a place now, a place for all of me, with all my names.
“Yes,” I told my agent, my voice thickening. “I have a Chinese name. I’ll write it down for you.”
Crystal writes under her Chinese name, Meisaan Chan, for her blog at www.curvingtowardthecenter.com