Name

Written by Celene Machen

Celene Machen is a sophomore at BU studying English and Philosophy. She's from Carlisle, MA and enjoys playing tennis in her spare time. One of her biggest writing inspirations is Jhumpa Lahiri,

an author who is also a BU alum.

My Chinese name is 马子菲. This was something I treated like a burden growing up, something that I felt the need to shamefully hide. The pinyin of my Chinese name, Zifei, is used as my legal middle name, and as a result, whenever there was a reason to list students’ full names in class, I’d feel nothing but embarrassment and disgrace, from the scarlet red blush of my cheeks down to the base of my clenched fists. I’d wait for the shifting eyes and puzzled looks to pass as the teacher read off a horrible mispronunciation, thinking there would never be a more humiliating moment. Looking back, it seems completely stupid of me to be so afraid, but at the time, this was a part of me that I’d kept locked away and concealed for the sake of conformity. The reminder of my heritage might as well have been a reminder that I was a permanent deviance from what was considered ‘normal’ — something that I only later understood wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

My mother calls me 妹妹, or ‘little sister’ in Chinese. Whether it was in stories told to our aunties and uncles or spoken directly to me during family dinners, it was natural for my mom to call me this. When we were younger, my brother used to call me this as well when we were playing in the backyard or building forts out of sofa cushions in the living room, but that was before either of us had entered elementary school, and he took to referring to me by my English name instead. English speakers are usually perplexed, as they assume my mom should call me daughter, since we’re not siblings. But ever since I was a child, I never believed it to be odd, nor did I dwell upon it too much. While Americans tend to refer to those in their family by their individual names, in Chinese families, it’s rather customary to refer to one another as who you are in relation to your family. I’m certainly not my mother’s sister, but I am my brother’s little sister—it’s simply who I am, and who I’ll always be.

Later on, when I was catching up on all the years I’d spent suppressing an entire part of my life, I took an interest in our family trees and all the names my relatives and ancestors proudly donned. My mom always told me I was named after one of her favorite singers, 王菲, but upon realizing that the meaning of my name was a sweet-smelling flower while my brother’s name, 子谦, meant modesty and humility, I angrily demanded that my name should be changed. “It’s very sexist,” I told my mom, “to have his name define his personality and character, while mine is merely a pretty plant.” She sighed and relented, so we spent days pondering the most suitable name — one that could express my nature or my intelligence — and decided upon 马陈知非, agreeing that my name should include both my parents surnames in the same way my English last name does. I was elated by my new Chinese name, as its meaning was based on a Chinese proverb and it meant to know the difference between right and wrong. Of course, when my parents are still furious at me, they always shout my original Chinese name, but I was more than pleased with both names, seeing as after so much time wasted on shameful hiding and rejection, I was proud to finally include and accept them as a part of myself.

My English name is Celene. When I was younger, I used to despise it, the way it was never spelled “correctly.” I don’t think anything made my 7-year-old self more furious than seeing the little dotted red line underneath my name every time I was in Microsoft Word on those white, public school-provided Macbooks public schools . I’d always tighten at the inevitable autocorrect asking, “did you mean: Celine or Selene?”, and go back home to my parents, whining that they had made a spelling mistake when filling out my birth certificate. My parents would just roll their eyes and tell me that they named me after Celine Dion, but purposefully chose to change the ‘i’ to an ‘e’. “It’s much prettier that way,” my mother would say contentedly. I disagreed at the time, immaturely irate over the people and technological devices that told me my name is an error. But now, years later, my English name has become a part of my identity that I find beauty in and treasure, through and through.

Once I got to college, ‘Celene’ slowly began to morph into the ‘Cece’. The nickname was one that I probably would have deemed as far too cutesy in high school, but gradually stuck after unexpectedly being coined by my eventual roommate’s hometown friend. The first time I heard it being used was during the summertime quarantine, where each day seemed monotonous and unending, and a simple Facetime call wasn’t quite enough to cover the vast distance between me and those I missed most. “Just call me Celene.”

I had said between laughs, thinking it was so abnormal to shorten the name I’d had for 19 years. Though it was said as mirthful teasing, hearing the nickname being applied to me almost sounded unseemly or faulty, as if I was putting on a coat that didn’t fit quite right. Originating from a playful joke — but invigorated by the increasing number of people who became accustomed to calling me Cece — the nickname steadily grew on me and became something that I associated with a new page in my life, a new and ever-growing part of who I was.

When I turned 19, I had been at home for a couple of months. I missed seeing all the new people I’d befriended and longed to hear the thunderous rumbling of the T as I walked down Commonwealth Avenue again, anxiously waiting for the ‘walk’ signal so I could hurriedly cross the street and rush to my next class. But I was also more than happy to be at home with my family again, watching summer bloom from previous spring showers as the sun-saturated the sky, its honey-like orange glow lingering a little longer each day. I always used to feel fragmented, as if I had to lead multiple lives that were like oil and water—they could never converge with one another. It felt alien to hear my name being spoken out of the wrong mouth, in the wrong setting, since I’d defined my boundaries so deeply. It was exhausting, to have to maintain such a splintered self. But on that day, as old and new friends called me, sharing laughs and sending their wishes, and my family celebrated with me later in the night, devouring mango vanilla cake while taking pictures at my mother’s request, I felt whole.