Poetry Recording Work

How A Girl Got Her Chinese Name

On the first day of school the teacher asked me:

What do your parents call you at home?

I answered: Nellie.

Nellie? Nellie?

The teacher stressed the l’s, whinnying like a horse.

No such name in Chinese for a name like Nellie.

We shall call you Nah Lei

which means Where or Which Place.

The teacher brushed my new name,

black on beige paper.

I practiced writing Nah Lei

Holding the brush straight, dipping

the ink over and over.

After school I ran home.

Papa, Mama, the teacher says my name is Nah Lei.

I did not look my parents in the eye.

Nah Lei? Where? Which Place?

No, that will not do, my parents answered.

We shall give you a Chinese name,

we shall call you Lai Oy.

So back to school I ran,

announcing to my teacher and friends

that my name was no longer Nah Lei,

not Where, not Which Place,

but Lai Oy, Beautiful Love,

my own Chinese name.

I giggled as I thought:

Lai Oy could also mean lost pocket

depending on the heart

of a conversation.

But now in Chinese school

I was Lai Oy, to pull out of my pocket

every day, after American school,

even Saturday mornings,

from Nellie, from Where, from Which Place

to Lai Oy, to Beautiful Love.

Between these names

I never knew I would ever get lost.

Nellie Wong

©1997 Nellie Wong

How A Girl Got Her Chinese Name was first published in Dreams in Harrison Railroad Park, Kelsey St. Press, Berkeley, CA