Head held high


In Chinese, I guess because words are more drawn than written, they have a special kind of weight to them. A word in Chinese, particularly a written character, is an invocation. That’s why people hang up the character for “good luck” on the wall — the character doesn’t just indicate the word, it embodies it.

So by extension, names in Chinese can also carry a bit of freight. I like to think of them as wishes that parents make for their children and then hand to them to carry for the rest of their lives (no pressure). So you see lots of happiness, beauty, literature in names, things like army and navy, or, more poetically, stones and waves.

My Chinese name is Ya 雅 Lian 连. My mother and her elder sister thought of it together before I was born. They were doing this in Cantonese, of course, so on my birth certificate they spelled it Nga-Linh. When I asked my mother what it meant, she just said, “purity.” I will admit to being underwhelmed; that didn’t sound very interesting.

When I went to China, I was suddenly in need of my Chinese name. Nga-Linh meant nothing to my teachers, who were Mandarin speakers, so I asked my mother to fax me the characters (and that is another wonderful thing about characters; they are pure meaning, understood across all dialects, true as mathematical formulas). That is how I learned that my name , Ya Lian in Mandarin, actually means “Elegant Lotus.” Of course, my mother was right — the lotus is a symbol of purity because it can rise from the mud and flower, a sparkling and pure thing of beauty that transcends its surroundings. Suddenly my name seemed a lot more interesting.

I like to think that our children’s names also hold wishes in them, although their names are Turkish. Kaya means rock, and although I am not particularly religious it always makes me think of Peter (which also means rock, of course) and how Jesus said “upon this rock I will build my church” to him and he was the rock (no pressure). I feel like it is a dependable and strong name. Baki’s name means “what remains” which we gave him not only because there is a poet with that name (from the days before surnames, so he is known as Poet Baki) that Ali admires for having been able to work his own name into a couplet, but also because Baki the baby was calm and cool all throughout my long labor, his heart rate never fluctuating. But to me the name contains the wish of every parent: that our children remain on this earth long after we have been committed to it.

These are some of the things I thought about when I saw this lotus in the pond rising particularly high above its humble origins:



We are back in the garden at last! Four days in Istanbul was more than enough running around for me. It was so busy that I didn’t even have time to stand still long enough to wish all and sundry a very happy year of the dragon (or, for that matter, to thank anyone for their new year greetings).
Somehow, though, we did manage to sit down for a new year’s meal. My mom and I had experimented with making dumplings using lamb; while I was teaching in Harbin, I had really nice lamb and cabbage dumplings (and rather a lot of them too, at an establishment known as Eastern Dumpling King. While scarfing dumplings, you could flag down waiters with kettles of hot dumpling water to wash them down with. And I won’t even start on the black vinegar for dipping. I could bathe in black vinegar.)We picked a Chinese (Napa) cabbage from the garden, parboiled it, and made a dumpling filling with lots of ginger, green onion, a bit of sesame oil, soy and salt. We froze it raw and brought it to our friend Maia’s house, in my mom’s old neighborhood, Cihangir. Maia, in addition to making a dumpling wrapper (she’s something of an expert) made Georgian chicken with walnut sauce; our friend Ranit made Baki’s all time favorite super spicy Sri Lankan chicken drumsticks; and of course, we steamed a fish. We all pitched in with folding the dumplings. As usual, none of mine stood up, which spparantly means I am lazy (how true. The dumplings know the truth of it). It was a great way to start the new year: among good friends and good food.
I am also starting this new year with a new name. Three years ago, I began the process of applying for Turkish citizenship, and while we were in Istanbul I was finally awarded a Turkish ID card. I asked if I could use my maiden name, but that’s not allowed; you can only add it to your married name. So that’s what I did. And since we were in Istanbul to get Kaya his US passport, I applied for a US passport with my new name in it. I’ve had trouble traveling with Baki because our surnames are different, so I guess this might help.
A name is just words, but it is a bit like putting on a costume to assume a new name. I remember when I went to China, it felt strange to use my Chinese name, as if I were pretending to be someone else. In a way I was, since speaking another language is another thing that can remove you from yourself by a step or two. It also made me realise how strongly attached I was to my name, which surprised me. I grew into the name though, as I am sure I will into this one. And thankfully I get to keep my father’s surname as well, since I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to sever that tie.