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What's in a name?
Sharing (and embracing) the hilarity, irony, and drama surrounding my English name and my Chinese name in this three-part dramedy worthy of Shakespeare.
Act 1: The hilarity
When I was little, there was one particular song that the boys in my primary school would sing to me—or at me, to be more precise. It was ‘Help Me Rhonda’ by The Beach Boys and, at the time, I thought it was amusing and even a little adorable. After all, what did I know? I was only about seven or eight, and I’d only been in Australia for a couple of years. The subtleties of the English language were lost on me. Cute blond kid serenading me with a song that had my name in it? Great! I’ll take it! It wasn't until last year when my family and I were driving up the coast and we decided to play The Beach Boys in the car that I finally listened to the lyrics properly. And guess what? Rhonda is the rebound chick.
Well, Rhonda you look so fine (look so fine)
And I know it wouldn't take much time
For you to help me Rhonda
Help me get her out of my heart..
Growing up, I was never particularly fond of Rhonda as a name—as my name. Mostly because I always found it somewhat difficult to say. The two syllables simply do not roll off the tongue. I mean, try and say ‘Rhonda’ really quickly ten times, and you’ll know what I mean. For someone who was already struggling to learn English and who was desperately trying to blend in, I probably could’ve benefited from a gazillion other girls’ names out there. Like Jane or Ann or Claudia or Dawn or Kristy or Stacey. (The Baby-Sitters Club, anyone?) Even the Asian-sounding ones like Coco or Kiki or Gigi would’ve been easier to say than ... Rrrrrhonda. Which is probably why I’ve only ever met four other Rhondas at most in my life. And all of them were at least one or two generations older than me.
Which does beg the question: how did my parents end up with the name Rhonda? Were my parents secretly fans of The Beach Boys? Did I somehow have a grandmother or a great-grandmother named Rhonda? Was it a phonetic translation of some profound Chinese proverb? Or did my father just really, really like the cars manufactured by the Japanese company Honda?
‘There's no way your parents named you after a car!’
That's usually the response I get from people when I try to explain the origins of my English name. I don't blame them. Something like that would be too hilarious and too depressing to be true.
But sadly, sometimes the truth is both hilarious and slightly depressing.
As a kid, I thought my dad was joking when he told me he’d named me after the reputable Japanese car manufacturer.
As a grown-up, I’m just thankful it was Honda and not something more of a mouthful like Volkswagen or Toyota (which I know dad also loves) or Land Rover. Or Volvo, for that matter. (Gosh, that could’ve been so bad.)
Act 2: The irony
In traditional Chinese culture, women tend to keep their father’s surname when they marry. I’d always been aware of this, but never really grasped the history behind it until reading this article.
When Rick proposed in 2004 and I said yes, I knew immediately that I wanted to adopt his surname. Though I don't recall specifically asking my parents for their opinion on this, I also don’t recall any objection on their part. I do have a vivid memory, however, of thinking how cool it would be to have a more western-sounding surname, as I was a little tired of being pigeon-holed or stereotyped before people had ever met me. Plus, ‘Rhonda Mason’ had a nice ring to it, and despite the fact that ‘Rhonda’ was still running rings around me with the ‘rrrrrr’ sound, I was ready to make peace with my vehicle-inspired name since I could now couple it with a phonetically pleasing surname.
Now, in New South Wales here in Australia, it is reasonably straightforward to take on your husband’s name when you get married. All you need to do is apply for your legal marriage certificate, and once you have that in your possession, you can take that document to Service NSW—or the Roads and Transport Authority (the RTA) back in my day—and ask them to update your driver's license for you. Then rinse and repeat for other similarly important documents like your passport.
What can possibly go wrong?
Funny you should ask.
As I started getting my paperwork together in the months leading up to our wedding, I made an unexpected and startling discovery. A discovery that made me laugh so hard, I cried. Or the other way around, I can't remember which.
Despite going to all the effort of finding a name that rhymed so effortlessly with Honda, my parents never actually registered ‘Rhonda’ on any of my legal source documents. It wasn’t on my passport. It wasn’t on my certificate of citizenship. And it certainly wasn’t on my original birth certificate from Hong Kong. Essentially, I had been masquerading as Rhonda my entire life. A name I was never a fan of to begin with, and now I would have to shoulder the cost of officially registering it with the state. If Shakespeare was the master of irony, my parents were the muses he never had.
And so, at the tender age of twenty-four, I paid one hundred and nine dollars to add ‘Rhonda’ to my name. Or more accurately, I paid one hundred and nine dollars to change my name to Rhonda. Then and only then could I pay another fifty-seven dollars to apply for our marriage certificate with the name Rhonda. And then another three hundred and twenty-five dollars to update my passport. In other words, I paid almost half a grand to make official the very name that was the source of all my dinner-party jokes.
Shakespeare would’ve had a field day.
Act 3: The drama
While the Aussie boys at school were crooning away to me in the locker area between lessons, back at home, my parents called me Ho Yee—a phonetic translation of the second and third characters of my Chinese name. According to my parents, ‘Ho’ means vast, and ‘Yee’ means harmony. This had always appealed to me—far more than the realisation that Rhonda was simply ‘Honda’ with an extra letter at the front. In fact, I used to write out ‘Ho Yee’ in rapid strokes over and over again because I’d been taught that repetition is a virtue in Chinese calligraphy. Plus, it was therapeutic for me and, as an introverted child with no siblings, it was quite a pleasant way to pass the time.
In 2006, I brought Rick back to Hong Kong so that he could meet my extended family. We flew with Cathy Pacific and enjoyed all the perks of economy class, including complimentary salty peanuts, multiple decks of playing cards, and pretty decent Chinese airplane cuisine. We stayed with my Aunty Eight in Shatin, a quiet neighbourhood in the eastern New Territories of Hong Kong. My mum came from a family of ten children, and Aunty Eight was number eight—she was also my mum’s closest sister, and I had always been close to her growing up.
For an entire month, Aunty Eight welcomed us into her home, introduced us to amazing restaurants, took us sight-seeing, and arranged for us to meet up with the entire family. My mum was in Hong Kong at the time as well and, together, we visited The Peak, Ocean Park, Causeway Bay, Stanley Beach, and various other tourist attractions. We also frequented Café de Coral (one of my favourite places to eat), and we spent a great deal of time returning to my favourite place to shop: Granville Road in Tsim Tsar Tsui. Back then, I loved going shopping in Hong Kong, and I look back now with horror at how much stuff I managed to acquire on that one overseas trip. I also feel quite bad for Rick, who spent an inordinate amount of time studying the questionable bamboo scaffolding that surrounded about a third of the buildings along the street—not because he has any particular interest in bamboo or scaffolding, but because he had nothing else to do while he stood outside endless clothing stores, waiting for mum and me. If nothing else, the trip to Hong Kong made me realise what a patient man I’d married.
Apart from eating, shopping, and visiting relatives, I had one other important task I needed to accomplish in Hong Kong that year: apply for my Hong Kong identity card (otherwise known as HKID). The regulations surrounding this identity document may be different now, but, back then, if you were born in Hong Kong, you were eligible to apply for HKID even if you permanently resided overseas. This was probably the one aspect of the trip that I dreaded. Mostly because I knew from the paperwork debacle of 2004 that this was not a process to be taken lightly.
Still, I was hopeful.
Having spent hours reading all the material online, and having completed all the necessary paperwork, Rick, mum, and I caught the minibus, the train, and the Metro one fine day and arrived at the Immigration Tower on Gloucester Road in Wan Chai. The building's exterior was dark and grey, but, inside, it was bright, clean, with plenty of natural light. The wait was long, and, because there were no smartphones or social media, we chatted mostly to pass the time. Eventually my ticket number appeared on the small TV screen, and it was with great relief that we headed over to one of the counters.
The lady that greeted us was friendly and spoke Cantonese. I, too, speak Cantonese but at a somewhat conversational level, so I was thankful my mum was there to help fill in the gaps. We handed over the paperwork and answered all the requisite questions, and all was going well up until the point she tried to enter my name into the system.
‘There seems to be a problem,’ she says in Cantonese.
Oh no, I think to myself. Not again.
‘What problem?’ my mum asks calmly, blissfully ignorant of the multiple alarm bells going off in my head.
‘Um, I can't seem to register your daughter’s name as it’s not on the system.’
I grip my husband’s arm with panic. ‘Is everything okay?’ he asks. He, too, is happily unaware of my growing anxiety, as he does not understand Cantonese. I shake my head, then turn back to the counter.
‘Not on the system? How can it not be on the system?’ my mum repeats.
‘Well, this second character of her name is not on here. I can find the first and third characters, but not the second one.’
‘Why would it not appear?’ I chime up. ‘Could it be an error in the system?’
‘No,’ she says, and then pauses. ‘It’s because the character does not, um, exist.’
‘Doesn’t exist …’ I repeat, trying to steady my voice. ‘Can you explain to me what you mean? The character is written right here on my birth certificate.’
The lady across the counter starts to reply and then stops. I can sense her discomfort at what she’s about to say. ‘I can see it’s handwritten on your birth certificate. But it mustn’t be a real character, because all existing Chinese characters were digitised a few years ago and entered into our centralised system.’ She hesitates again. ‘If it’s not registered on the system, then … it mustn’t be a real character. I’m so sorry.’
My mind goes blank. Don’t panic, I tell myself. Just don’t panic. Somewhere, faraway, I hear my mum’s quiet voice. ‘Can it be added to the system?’ She still sounds so calm. How?
‘I’m afraid not,’ the lady replies. ‘Only real characters can be added to the system.’ She shoots me an apologetic look. Clearly, she feels bad for me.
‘What’s wrong?’ Rick asks. I look over at my husband and realise he’s still oblivious to the bombshell that’s just landed. ‘Apparently, my Chinese name doesn’t exist.’ The confusion on his face mirrors my own. Before he can respond, I attempt to address my mum with as much composure as I can manage.
‘Um, mum …’ I’ve reverted back to Cantonese to ask the million-dollar question. ‘Where exactly did you get that Chinese character from?’
Finally, it’s my mum’s turn to look uncomfortable.
‘Well … there was this old man who wrote out the character for us …’
‘An old man? What old man?’ I ask, my voice rising slightly. ‘Where did you find him, and where is he now?’
‘Eeerr, well, I don’t think he’s alive anymore,’ my mum replies sheepishly. ‘I don’t even remember who he was, actually. We found him in an alleyway somewhere.’
As I stare numbly at my mum in disbelief, she exchanges words with the lady, who by now is surely desperate for her ten-minute tea break.
The rest of the afternoon is a blur. We must’ve left the Immigration Tower at some point. Most likely we went to Café de Coral afterwards to sit down and debrief. Did I cry? Did I laugh? I don’t know. All I remember is the shock and the dull sense of emptiness at learning that my name wasn’t real. That it was made up. By some old guy who was no longer alive, in a dark alleyway which probably didn’t even exist anymore. The only real record left of my name was the ink on my birth certificate, and even that was fading away.
I saw a lawyer later that week. He prepared a document which officially changed the second character of my name to one that looked similar, sounded the same, and actually existed. It felt surreal, as if I was signing over a part of me that I would never get back.
Still later that same week, we returned to Gloucester Road in Wan Chai to complete the application for my HKID. It was a different lady who assisted us (no doubt the other one needed a holiday after our encounter) and, this time, my paperwork was accepted and processed without a hitch.
We stayed on in Hong Kong till after Chinese New Year, and then we flew back to Australia. In many ways, the trip was a success. Rick was a hit amongst my relatives, and it was my first time seeing cousins, aunties, and uncles in almost ten years. Every day for four weeks, we ate food that made my heart (and taste buds) soar, and it was the first time I’d spent so much time with my mum since Rick and I got married two years earlier. Most of all, I enjoyed showing Rick a part of my identity and my childhood which I’d never been able to before.
Still, a piece of myself was lost on that trip in 2006.
The part of my name that meant ‘vast’, the second character that I loved so much, the strokes that I would write over and over again as a young girl who was keen to master the calligraphy of her own name—all of this disappeared in one fell swoop on that warm sunny day in Wan Chai.
If only I hadn’t bothered with my HKID.
If only the Hong Kong governmental departments hadn’t bothered to digitise their central database.
If only my parents hadn’t wandered down that dark alleyway.
If only that old man, whoever he was, had stuck to the Oxford Chinese Dictionary—or any Chinese dictionary, for that matter.
Seventeen years on, I still miss my old Chinese name.
I have no emotional connection with the new one, and even to this day, I haven’t bothered to learn how to write it. Instead, I send my dad a text message whenever I need to use it: ‘How do I write my name again, dad?’ Not a question I ever thought I’d be asking my father at the age of forty-two, but it is what it is.
Deep down, I know I still think of my old ‘fake’ name as my real Chinese name. I guess I am who I am, and not even a piece of paper drawn up by an expensive lawyer in Hong Kong can change that.
It probably explains why I’ve never contemplated changing my name from ‘Rhonda’ to any of those gazillion other names out there. Even knowing that my parents named me after a car, I still think of myself as Rhonda.
These days, you could even say that I’ve learnt to embrace my English name. Because, these days, when I meet someone new, I have my introduction down pat:
‘It's lovely to meet you. I'm Rhonda. That’s “Honda” with an “R”.’