When I was in the seventh grade I was complete anime trash. I mean, okay, I still am, but it was a lot worse back then! As I considered myself a budding author I would look up “Japanese names” on internet translation sites and it was all very embarrassing. I wanted my original characters to have names like beautiful springtime flower or angel of light because ‘Emily’ or ‘Marissa’ were way too mainstream for my 12 year-old novelist self.
I was recently talking with my friend, who is Japanese, and I asked if he could translate the name that my orphanage gave me. I wanted to know if there was meaning lost when translating between Chinese and Japanese. He said he could, so I gave him my name. He made a comment like “your name is badass” and I immediately got defensive. I was used to telling people my name, having them type it into google translate, and lightly make fun of the English translation.
陈铁露 (Chén Tiě Lù): “陈 (Chén)” being my surname, “铁 (Tiě)” meaning iron, and “露 (Lù)” meaning dew. Basically, my name is Iron Dew. It’s also my American middle name, so when I used to swap school IDs with friends there would always be Lily Tie Lu Rau written in bold Arial text across the card.
Of course people would ask “Tie Lu?” pronouncing “tie” as in “tie your shoe” (its actual pronunciation being closer to Tia). I would correct them and easily brush it off by saying “Yeah, Tia Lu. It’s the name my orphanage gave me.” That usually shut them up.
But not always. Sometimes they would ask for more: “What does it mean?” And I’d sigh and tell them “Iron Dew.” Depending on the situation I used to try to elaborate more, but at this point in my life I’m just done dealing with it…
Because it’s not just iron dew, it’s so much more. Because that’s the way Chinese names work. My mother used to tell me what the orphanage director told her about my name at the time of my adoption:
“Lily, Tie means iron, as in you have the strength of iron. Dew represents beauty and softness. So your name is your two personality traits. Your strength that always shines through, contrasting with your beautiful personality.”
I just kind of sighed and went along with it. In high school, my Chinese teacher from Taiwan translated my name into generally the same English meaning. Looking back, I think she just wanted to simplify my Chinese name for my 14 year-old intense person. When I studied in China this past summer, my three Chinese teachers had a slightly different view of my name. First of all, they were confused as to how an American got such a “real” Chinese name. Second, they loved it. They all described it in their own way (in Chinese, of course), but there was a general baseline –
“Tie Lu is not meant to be read as two separate parts of a name, but as one. On one hand it does represent the dichotomy of heavy iron used to build railroads and the fleeting beauty of dew drops that cling to grass as the sun rises. On the other, when read as one name, it represents eternal beauty and unconventional strength. Beauty that lasts as long as iron; iron strength that is hidden behind beauty.”
I loved this explanation. It just stuck with me. It seemed more like a name to me, instead of a set of separate characters. The issue is that when I tell friends what my name really means, it’s just confusing. Iron Dew doesn’t sound so cool in English.
And so that’s where my seventh grader leaves off and my adult rant officially begins. I’m tired of non-Asian people not understanding Asian names! No, you can’t just name your story characters beautiful wind from the forest of happiness because that’s not how Asian names work. Chinese names are everyday characters that are put together to create something more. They are not direct translations that are beautiful in English. In all honesty, a lot of Chinese names that I’ve heard just sound awkward when directly translated into English.
It took me a long time, but I love my Chinese name. I love the way it sounds, and I love the meaning behind it. I love that there are variations of it depending on who is deciphering it. I love that it represents personality traits that I got from a mother I do not know.
My seventh grade self is guilty of wanting to create original characters with “pretty” Japanese names – and honestly I still suffer secondhand-embarrassment when I go back and re-read stories that I wrote when I was 12. It took eight years, and a study abroad trip to China, but I’ve come to appreciate the beauty and power and nuance of my Chinese name.
I’ve come to own my Iron Dew self.