The Story and Question of my Name

I was born in Taiwan. There is no reason my parents should have named me or my sister any “American” name. They gave us names that fit the context of our homeland, our culture, our ancestry. My parents named me “Hui-wen,” pronounced ‘hway-wen’ (though I usually get ‘hwee-wen?’ or is it ‘hue-wen?’). “Hui” means clever, bordering on mischievous. “Wen” means wisdom or literature. I have a mischievous streak and I love reading voraciously, so the name fits me well on many levels. 

Our family moved to the United States when I was one year old. We lived first in Nebraska, then in Ohio. Neither were places with large numbers of Taiwanese folks or with much exposure to the ways the spelling of Chinese names actually translated into American phonetics. Thankfully, I was generally too young to really feel my “otherness” as a young Taiwanese child immigrant growing up in the Midwest. I remember, however, being quite struck by the number of Asians that suddenly surrounded me when we moved out to Los Angeles by the time I was in elementary school.

I have lost track of the number of times I have corrected people in the pronunciation of my name. Lost track of the number of times I’ve been in a classroom with a teacher reading alphabetically through the roster of names, and I’ve felt myself tense when the teacher does that inevitable three-second pause and hesitatingly attempts a warped version of my name. Sometimes I correct them, sometimes I just quietly say, “I’m here.” Lost track of the number of times I’ve answered a phone call at work, “Hi this is Hui-wen, how can I help you?” and heard again that brief pause, “Hi… Leeland..? This is so-and-so…” Lost track of the number of times I’ve introduced myself and heard someone awkwardly say, “Oh, that’s… an… interesting name.”

When I was naturalized as a citizen in junior high, I remember sitting in an office as I went through the naturalization process talking with a kind man going through the paperwork with me. I remember him asking me what the National Anthem was. I was so nervous, I blanked out on the title but told him I could sing it for him, and started, “Oh say, can you see…” He smiled and said that was fine. The only other moment I remember was him asking me, “Do you want to choose an American name?” Come to think of it, I don’t know if that was a rhetorical question or if he actually had the power to change my name upon request then and there, from Hui-wen to….? Well? What would it be? What will you name yourself? I was wholly caught off-guard, though I remember the option feeling quite appealing as I was by then a very awkward junior higher who was very hyper-aware of my otherness. I wasn’t ready to rename myself on the spot, so I shyly, reluctantly declined and we moved on.

On I went through high school, college, graduate school, and more graduate school, correcting the pronunciation of my name, offering clever ways for people to remember it. “Just think, way-back-when!” I still use that little trick to this day when I introduce myself to patients and their parents, write my name on the board, and see their eyes flash with the most subtle discomfort. The little joke immediately puts them at ease and we all have a good laugh at my name.

There was a point where I almost officially, legally renamed myself. Before I met my husband, before I discovered that nursing was the profession for me, I did a brief stint as the assistant to the Director of Asian-American Ministry in a small Taiwanese seminary in Los Angeles. The director, my boss, wanted me to network amongst the Asian-American Christian community and promote our classes and workshops. One day early on in my time there, he sat down with me and gently suggested, “So you’ve told me you’ve thought about changing your name to a more American name. If and only if you still want to do that, this might be a great time for it. See, you’ll be doing all this networking, and you’re representing an Asian-American ministry, but your name Hui-wen is very… Asian. If you take on an “American” name, it’ll be easier for people to remember you in networking, and it’ll represent Asian-Americans better.” He had a point, and I had in fact still been thinking about taking on an “American” name, so I went about it. I looked on a baby name website and chose a name I liked for myself. “Alina.” I liked the sound of it, liked that it was unique, and felt it suited me. I would be Alina.

Some friends advised me that if I was going to change my name, I should make it a hard, swift, all-encompassing change, no compromise. I should insist that everyone, including people who knew and intimately related to me as Hui-wen since childhood, should call me Alina. As expected, my childhood friends balked and said they could call me nothing else but Hui-wen. I didn’t push. It felt weird to me to hear them call me Alina. But I introduced myself in new environments as Alina, and very slowly started getting used to it. So in half my world, I was Hui-wen. In the other half, I was Alina.

A few months into unofficially taking on my new American name, I met Stephen. He met me as Alina, though he knew the story behind my name. We fell in love pretty quickly, and he felt very much like home to me, but it was admittedly strange to have someone I was falling in love with call me by a name that I was barely beginning to emotionally identify with. When we started talking about building a long-term future together, I figured this was perfect timing. I could just change both first and last name with marriage.

As it turned out, it wouldn’t be as easy or efficient as I thought. I put in the application to change my name to Alina Sato, but Social Security replied stating I could not change my first name with marriage because there were no existing documents already identifying me with the first name Alina. I would have to go through an entirely separate process, including placing an announcement in a local newspaper about my intention to change my name from Hui-wen to Alina, to making a court appearance, not to mention doing all the paperwork again. Buried in wedding plans, I figured I’d get through the last name change and deal with the first name change later.

After Stephen and I got married, the process of changing my first name fell very low on my priority list. Life took off and I just didn’t pursue it, though I continued to introduce myself as Alina in all new church and social settings. My legal name remained Hui-wen, however, so I used that in all my official contexts such as school and work, which brought me into nursing school and then my current place of employment with Hui-wen on my ID card. I continued the conversations at work, “Oh…no, it’s not “hwee-when.” Yes I know that’s not how it’s spelled. Yes I know it’s tricky. Just think way-back-when!” Over and over and over, the conversations continued.

Then came my TEDxTalk opportunity. I couldn’t believe I’d been accepted to give a TEDxTalk, and knowing it would be public, I went with the easier name to remember – Alina. We prepared and prepared for the talk until a dress rehearsal, where some coworkers (who knew me as Hui-wen) came to be my mini-audience for the rehearsal. They kept referring to me as Hui-wen, and finally the TEDxPasadena director, Heather, broke into the conversation and asked, “OK which is it? Who are you? You’ve been using Alina but they all call you Hui-wen.” She looked at my coworkers and asked, “Who is she?” One by one, they all quietly said, “Hui-wen.” Passionate about her TEDx speakers speaking from a place of strong identity, Heather looked at me and said, “We have to decide today. Which name is going with you into perpetuity with this talk?” I had to go with Hui-wen. It was still my legal, given name. And as my public platform has grown, I’ve continued to struggle with the fact that the “harder name to remember” is still the one attached to all my public work. Some people can’t tell if I’m male or female unless my profile picture is connected to the work. I know it makes the platform harder to build for numerous reasons I probably can’t even fully name.

And so, to this day, I remain split between the two. I don’t blame my parents in the least. They gave me a perfectly legitimate name, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a tricky one to navigate living out here. I don’t have strong excuses for why I’ve procrastinated this long to legally change my first name to Alina, or at the very least, make it my legal middle name. There are some patients and families who I can still tell would prefer I give a name that’s just easier to remember. I tire of the same explanations, the same laughter, about my name, though I try hard to keep a sense of personal security and a sense of humor about it all. And yet there are some people as of late who have said, “I’m glad you kept your legal name. Some people change it just to fit in better,” and then I have to ashamedly confess that actually, I’ve got this other name I go by, you see…

A Mother’s Day poem and prayer, for mothers of children under 5

These Are the Days

They tell me these are the days

I will miss when you are a teenager, a young adult, a grown woman perhaps with a family of your own.

These days that blur mindlessly, sometimes too heartlessly, into one long Groundhog’s Day

Waking, shepherding, feeding, cleaning, driving, fussing, feeding, hugging, cleaning, feeding, shepherding again

Negotiating all the same arguments, navigating all the same demands, cleaning all the same messes.

Have we grown at all since yesterday? Last month? Last year?

I don’t see it until I look up from the drudges and see you. When did the baby

Face, voice, squishy cuddles, innocence

Disappear into yesterday’s hazy memory?

…..

These are the days

I still light up your eyes so effortlessly.

These are the days

I can still fix most of your problems with a long hug, a kiss, a Hello Kitty band-aid,

And reassurance that Mommy is here.

These are the days

You still want to tell me everything you do, and love, and discover and want.

These are the days

We are still so simple in who we are to each other, you and I.

…..

These are the days.

Don’t let me wish them by too soon.

 

“So teach us to number our days,

That we may get a heart of wisdom.”

Psalm 90:12

My heart, at 5 1/2 months

What I currently love about you:

How you wake up in the morning and the first thing you say is your tentative attempt at “mmmaa…mmma!” Ÿ

How your little hands wrap around my forearm when I’m changing you and you pull me into you Ÿ

How your eyes light up with a half-moon smile and your arms flail excitedly when you see me coming to pick you up

How you grab my finger and gnaw incessantly at it with your gummy gums

How you don’t really get what “hi-five” means after you roll over but you’re smiling big because you know it’s something good

How you teach me to be silly and playful even when I’m sad, and you help joy return to a real and deep place in me

How you don’t care a lick that you have to wear a helmet or that people notice because you’re still so beautifully free from insecurity

How you know to anticipate something fun when I say “I’m… gonna…get…YOURR…” Ÿ

How you study my face when I’m talking with your daddy

The sweet coo of your voice as you’re learning to make new sounds

How your arms wrap around my neck when you have the sleepies and I’m holding you close

How I can feel your breathing slow as you fall asleep on me, and for awhile we become one being again

Don’t grow up too fast, baby girl. 

my heart, at three months: part two

Who could imagine that a 3-month old child could have such power to transform a 30+ year old adult. It goes beyond a greater willingness than I ever thought I had to give up sleep for the sake of savoring the moments you want to babble with me at 3:45AM. It goes beyond a willingness to settle for a messier home. It goes beyond new time constraints. It is so much more than these things.

You show me the wonder of everything I take for granted. I have never marveled at hands, feet, eyes, ears, and cheeks, like I marvel at yours. I never knew it could be so fascinating to peel a mandarin orange, take note of its citrus fragrance, and behold the act of peeling the pieces apart and popping them into one’s mouth. But it is fascinating, isn’t it! I never knew how curious and brilliant it was to have so many different cooking utensils to serve specific purposes. Absolutely brilliant!

I never knew I could feel a love so intense for another person. I have never desired the well-being of another person like I desire your well-being. I have never felt more protective, more amazed, more captivated, more hopeful, more fearful, than I feel towards you. I sense that you have the capacity to hurt me in a way that no one else can, and yet I find I am unable to build up the same protective walls that I might build towards other people in my life. I am incredibly vulnerable with you.

I feel more threatened by the world than ever. Disturbing cultural trends, bad drivers, boys, guns, germs, strangers, they all pose more threat than I ever felt before.

I feel more threatened by myself than ever. My temper, my selfishness, my lack of filter when I am tired, my weaknesses, my often frazzled ways. I am so afraid to hurt you, and it is terrifying and sobering to know that this is inevitable, to some degree.

You make me question everything I do, because I know you are watching me, and I know one day you will ask why one thing is important and not another. You will ask why I became angry, why I became sad, why I became so overjoyed, why I sacrificed one thing for another, why I do or don’t do certain things. You will know whether the things I preach with my lips are the same things I live out at home. You will want to know, and as a result, I need to know.

All of these things humble me before our loving, sovereign, merciful, intimate God in Heaven. I realize I can’t protect you, not fully, from the world, from myself. But you are loved that much more intensely by your perfect Father in Heaven who can bring good from evil, who can redeem the broken, and who always has your best in mind. I realize all the more that our hope is in our Savior who gives us forgiveness and healing for our sins and shortcomings, who helps us show grace when we hurt one another, who refines us and moves us forward in our growth. You make me so thankful for our Heavenly Father’s love for you and for me.

You are teaching me about love, wonder, forgiveness, integrity, truth, simplicity, intimacy, presence.

You are teaching me about God. 

my heart, at three months

You are three and a half months old, and I don’t know who is changing more, you or me.

You used to just stare at your toys as I pointed out colors and shapes and patterns. Now your hands reach for them, awkwardly but so intentionally. You are beginning to discover what your hands can do, and I see your desire to explore, to feel, to grasp, to hold. You are learning about your very self.

You used to live in just three states: asleep, awake and quiet, or crying. Then you began to smile, that gummy, curious smile, awakening to your own emotion and to relationship. Then you began to coo, and my heart was undone. You go back and forth between just a few vowel sounds but I am constantly fascinated by the range and depth of expression on your face, the movement of your eyebrows, your pauses between cooing as if you expect an appropriate response from me to what you are trying to say. And then came the day when we heard you laugh out loud for the first time. We were driving to a wedding and mama was being silly with you in the back seat, and you burst out laughing! Nothing else in the world could have impressed me more at that moment. You are developing emotional expression in relationship to me and your daddy, and nothing could be sweeter to mama than your young laughter.

You used to awaken every 3-4 hours to eat or to demand that we hold you. Now, you wake up once or twice at night to eat, but otherwise you sleep essentially from 7pm-7am. You are discovering how the world around you works, and you are developing a cycle in sync with your world.

From what I can tell, you are a mellow, go-with-the-flow, laid back personality. You are not overly excitable but you are content and sweet. You are an observer. You warm up to gentle personalities easily. I think you are an introvert, like your parents.

You are growing and changing so quickly, right before our eyes. How you are changing me, I have yet to fully process. But you are, and I am better for it. How is it that I went 30+ years living my life, and now I can hardly picture what that all was without you. Yes, you are changing me, and I am so much better for it.

letter to baby, at one trimester

I wasn’t sure for a long time if I wanted you. No, that’s not quite it. I just wasn’t sure if I could be the mommy you deserve to have. Life was so unrelentingly full with big things, unusually big things, some good things and some really sad things, and I was scared that I couldn’t give you the attention and priority and love you would need. Your daddy was so patient with all my crazy fears and our God was so gracious. And now here you are. We saw you, heard your little strong heartbeat, and there’s no turning back. Your head is huge and your legs and arms are still forming. I think you look ridiculous and adorable and amazing and just perfect. I can’t believe you are inside of me, connected to me, depending on me to take good care of you because right now, you are literally a part of me.

I can’t help but wonder if you have any conscious thoughts at this point. Do you mind that I still sleep on my stomach sometimes at this point, or is it annoying? Do you feel ravenously hungry when I feel ravenously hungry? Does it startle you when I sneeze? Did you hear the music I was making on the keyboard this morning? I hope you are comfortable and happy and safe in there. I think you have your daddy’s gas.

I’m eating a whole lot these days because of you. You sure do like all things potato, egg, and orange. Apparently you hate mushrooms and green beans, and the taste of coffee is a bit much for you (which makes me wonder if you’re really my child). You’re making my relationship with food really complicated.

I take care of a lot of sick kids at work, and it’s scary for me to know that you are not necessarily exempt from any of the things I have witnessed. You belong to God and your life is in His hands, and that is a good place to be. I hope to make good choices that will give you only the best quality of life at the end of the day. If you are healthy, which means you are running around and babbling and exploring and getting messy and sometimes screaming incessantly, I hope to not take that for granted too much when I’m exhausted and longing for peace and quiet.

I pray to grow and stay rooted in enough security in Christ and humility before Him that I don’t let my ego get wrapped up in your future behavior, your future success. I don’t want to raise the pastor’s kid. I just want to raise you. He is weaving your heart and mind and being together in my womb, and I hope to nuture you well so that you might know your Creator and live for Him, with all the gifting and passions He’s putting in you. Even if you and I have completely opposite personalities, interests, everything. I hope to value you well for all you are.

Well, enjoy it there in my belly for the next few months. The world is a big place and you’ll have a lot to take in. I don’t know if you sleep sometimes, but if you do, sweet dreams, little alien baby. Mommy loves you, and mommy’s praying for you.