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By Ann Cheng
WHEN MY mother’s mother fled Eastern Europe for the U.S., she was on her fourth last name — the Jewish one she was born with, the non-Jewish one her family chose in the late 1930s, the French one from a fake marriage staged to escape Communist Hungary, and finally the recently chosen, intentionally non-Jewish last name of her actual, Jewish husband.
When my father’s mother stayed in the U.S. after receiving a cryptic warning from her relatives in China following Mao’s victory in 1949, she was on her second, but sort of third, last name — the Chinese one she was born with, the transliterated version she adopted after arriving here for graduate school, and the transliterated last name of her new husband. This is where I get ‘Cheng.’
Legal names, then, in my family, carry little personal significance, symbolize no family tradition, and no one is attached to them — instead, they are simply cultural artifacts like any other, inherently bound up in histories of patriarchy and racism. So to me, Raphael, my son’s name, is largely a set of letters that make a sound I like, and that is why I chose it. To my partner, Seth, this is a name about healing, and that is why he chose it. Raphael comes from the Hebrew root rapha (רפא), meaning to heal or to cure, associated with a set of roles that are often gendered feminine. Meir, Raphael’s middle name, honors Seth’s late grandmother Maxine. And the parts of his surname, Cheng-Pearce, come from both of us in sort of equal ways and yet are names that come only from our fathers.
My mother was an incredible nicknamer. When she died before meeting our child, I was scared that I wouldn’t know how to nickname him. But my mother knew something (actually, many things) that I had not yet realized — that children change so quickly that given names, with their prescriptive and permanent quality, are insufficient. Nicknames, on the other hand, are responsive, flexible, adaptive. Raphael already has dozens. What we hope, then, is that we have not only had the opportunity to choose a name, but that we, along with Raphael’s community and he himself, will have the chance to keep naming Raphael as he grows and changes.
We are delighted to have given, in all of its meaningless meaningfulness, its chosen unchosenness, the name Raphael Meir Cheng-Pearce to our only (and favorite!) baby.
Ann Cheng is a Chinese-American and Jewish mother, university administrator, and writer living in Brooklyn. The 2016 Eastern Iowa Review featured two of her essays, one of which was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.