More than a name: Parenting, cultural identities and baby naming

As my husband and I counted down to the arrival of our firstborn, we tackled our to-do list with determination. Buy a car seat, set up the nursery and pack a hospital bag. Check, check, and check. Deep down, we knew that we would never be fully prepared, so we covered the essentials. We left the rest up to fate and future late-night emergency runs to the drug store.

However, there was one task that required more time and effort than making a quick trip to Walmart or adding items to an online shopping cart. It was the daunting task of naming our newborn daughter. It is one of the most significant decisions of expectant parents, only rivaled by the choice of whether or not to bring a tiny human into this world. 

All of us can all appreciate the importance of a name. Our names are inextricably bound to our sense of identity and self. Not only can it influence how others perceive us and how we perceive ourselves, but it can also have an indelible impact on our confidence and job prospects. According to a Canadian study, job applicants with Asian names were less likely to get called for an interview than those with Anglo names.

We did not take this life-altering decision lightly. Other than considering the style and versatility, as well as all potential variations of nicknames and associations, we wanted to honour our heritage through the name. 

Asian mother holding daughter
Photo by Rui Xu on Unsplash

My husband is the son of a Cantonese father and a first-generation Cantonese Canadian mother, whereas I am the daughter of a Taiwanese family that moved to Canada when I was nine years old. With both of us growing up in Chinese households, our ethnic names serve as a connection to our family history and culture. They carry a unique story about us and the ones before us.

Coming to consensus on a baby name proved to be a practice in merging two sets of individual values, balancing tradition and individualism and discovering our role as parents in helping our future child to navigate her multicultural identity.

FIRST NAME, MIDDLE NAME AND CHINESE NAME?

Before diving deep into articles with titles like “Top Baby Names of 2020,” we began by discussing what the name would look like. Are we coming up with just a first name? Are we considering a middle name? Would they be Anglo or Chinese names?

My husband was given a first and middle name in English, as well as a Chinese name. I, on the other hand, adopted an English name after moving to Vancouver.

To provide our daughter with as many options as possible, we decided to go all in, with an Anglo first and middle name, as well as a Chinese name, starting in that exact order.

We had a preference for gender-neutral names, or ones with gender-neutral nicknames. As a woman, I felt strongly about raising my children without potential biases and gender expectations. I was glad that my husband was on the same page.

I kept a running list of names, even including food items and cities (sadly they were vetoed). My husband would look over the list, remove the names that he didn’t like and leave the rest on the list for future consideration.

Just a few days before her arrival, we settled on Rylee, a classic name which means “valiant” and “courageous,” and Skylah as a middle name, derived from “scholar,” which can be shortened to Sky

Like most parents, the names we carefully selected symbolizes the hope and aspirations we have for our daughter. Much like her name, our desire is for her to live her life fully, fearlessly, and freely without societal limitations.

FINDING BALANCE BETWEEN TRADITION AND MY VALUES

Finding the right name combination brought us a sense of relief and satisfaction. Feeling encouraged, we were ready for our next challenge.

This time, the hurdle was not having too many choices but rather our limited proficiency in Chinese. Every language holds unique nuances and meanings that may not be obvious to non-native speakers. Despite my proficient elementary-school-level Mandarin, I would have preferred to consult my parents for suggestions. Fortunately, help was on the way.  

I discovered that it was customary in my husband’s family for his paternal grandfather to choose Chinese names for his great-grandchildren. We wanted to continue this tradition to honour him as well as the values of family and respect for our elders. The gift of a name is one of the most precious gifts that a great grandfather can offer a beloved great-grandchild.

She was only a few weeks old when we brought her to meet her paternal great-grandfather for the first time. He quietly beckoned for us, as well as his son, to follow him to his office. He reached into his desk and pulled out a piece of paper. I felt a sudden rush of excitement and anticipation, as he pressed it tightly into the palm of his son’s hand.

On an unassuming piece of note paper, penned in his hand-writing, was my daughter’s fortune. The Chinese characters translate to “shining beauty.”

Cecilia Huang's daughter, Rylee, admires a tea set.
Cecilia Huang’s daughter, Rylee, admires a tea set. Photo submitted

I was immediately taken aback. It was a lovely and flattering name for a baby girl, but it juxtaposed with our core beliefs that we held as a couple through our choice of a gender-neutral first name. 

Traditionally, it is common to give babies auspicious names with gender-specific virtues, usually strength and success for males and beauty and elegance for females. Throughout Chinese history, women were often praised for their appearances and ying, or “soft”, qualities. 

While these are endearing features, I was presented with an opportunity to contemplate these virtues. While I hope to pass on our culture, what would be the gender roles and beauty ideals would I be instilling in her? By agreeing to this name, would I be perpetuating the idea that women should only aspire to be beautiful? What kind of conversations will I have with my future daughter about her role in this world?

Preserving culture can be a double-edge sword. As parents, we hold the responsibility of interpreting the history and customs that come with our heritage in a personal but authentic way, so our children can do the same for themselves. This is, ultimately, how a culture will continue to adapt and thrive for future generations.

The story that I will tell my daughter about her name is one about the deep love that her great-grandfather has for her, and the importance of family within the Chinese culture. 

A PARENTING LESSON

After the many sleepless nights of deliberation, reflection and dealing with a crying newborn, we were ready to put the naming debate to rest.

But when we opened the browser to the application page and began typing out our carefully-curated names into the form, we encountered another dilemma. Should we include the Chinese characters as part of her legal name, or should it be left off as an informal name? 

My husband suggested leaving the Chinese name off the document as his parents had done, but I was hesitant about this. Even though most people know me as “Cecilia,” my ethnic name is what appears on my legal documents. It was given to me at birth and ingrained into every part of my being. It brings a sense of familiarity and home, whenever it is used by my parents or relatives.

I feared that if my daughter’s Chinese name was not on her legal documents, she would not see it as a significant part of her identity.

Conflicted, I commiserated with an old childhood friend. He never conformed to an English name and kept his given name after immigrating. Students and teachers always struggled with the pronunciation, but he always displayed such pride about his identity.

To my surprise, he and his wife decided not to include their daughter’s Chinese name on her legal documents. “Just because someone has a Chinese name, it doesn’t mean that they will learn to speak Chinese,” he said.

This instantly pulled my head out of my cloud of illusions and preconceived notions. As parents, we have an ideal image of the life we want for our children. Yet oftentimes those grand ideas and fears are rooted in our own perspectives and life experiences.

Staff writer Cecilia Huang with her daughter, Rylee.
Staff writer Cecilia Huang with her daughter, Rylee. Photo submitted

The best gifts I can give to my daughter are to let go of my expectations of her (and myself as a parent) and support her on her personal journey of self-exploration, whether it is through her name, language, or customs.

No matter what, I believe that my daughter will find her unique way to shine her beautiful light on the world.

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