I Keep On Forgetting My Name
by Arabelle Sicardi
1. I keep on forgetting my name.
2. I have three names: my last name, Italian, with the bounce of even syllables. The Mandarin first name. The second Taiwanese. Two Asian names for two different moments of beginning: the one my mother gave me at birth, and the one I gave myself in school when I had to relearn my native tongue. I don’t like it that much, actually — translating Italian into Mandarin is a failed enterprise that sounds like coughing. I forgot how to write half of it out of shame. (Shame is one of the only universal languages in the world.) The shortened form is what I take with me back to my homeland.
3. In Taiwan, I leave my father and my home and my English behind. I become my mother’s daughter, my grandmother’s awkward houseguest who doesn’t really know how to pray. Who looks around in the temple unsure of what to do, except how to write names on the prayer papers: this I do with hopeful relish, as if it I write it small enough my shaking characters will validate themselves. It is here that I’m not Arabelle so much as YingMei, and even that comes with a delay. The relearning: the intonations, the tongue curled slightly upwards. It rhymes with the Chinese word for “because” — Ying wei. My name translates to “English Beauty.” I find the play on words both hysterical and imprecise.
4. Imprecise in reference to location of origin: there is little English in me even if it is the power I speak through. Shouldn’t it have been American beauty? I call my mother to discuss the specifics of my name in an effort to provide clarity. I’m humiliated at the prospect; I’m a writer who can’t write the two words that define her without her mother close behind. She doesn’t answer the phone.
5. I’ve had to relearn my names a thousand times before. Sometimes I don’t know my name even when I try — the characters refuse to solidify in my head and I sit in fog. This is hysterical, but in the old way, when women are too much and men don’t know how to help. I don’t know how to help myself.
6. Names as historical figures point out ownership and narration. We are given a history, we claim our own with great struggle. What’s in a name but who has come before? What does it mean when we change it to suit who we are? In Asian languages, this context and the act of creation are everything, in the text and on the tongue. Many schoolchildren learn language the same time they learn history and learn art: this character looks like a tree, two are a forest. A play on art and puns.
7. A proposal: a picture is worth a thousand words. Execution: the Chinese took this concept and created some of the oldest art and stories in the world. No character is without a process in strokes, a word in the gesture itself. Even amateur eyes can detect a mistimed line, the order jumbled into something else. It looks wrong because it is wrong; it’s traveling out of time and space, disrupting the pace of the story. I have filled journals sliced red from writing my name out of time and rules, afternoons in summer yellowed on the page with failed attempts at shortcuts. I’d write my name wrong for pages in my practice book in my rush to run for the fading sun. But time is half the gesture, you see. There are no shortcuts.
8. Maybe being illiterate can even be considered unpatriotic. (I speak for myself.) Maybe I’ve betrayed my blood. My only real skill is writing but I can’t write in Taiwanese. There are words I will never grasp by the roots and radicals. People have said that the traditional language is a book itself, a historical empire contained in a block. In that case I have no clue how to enter. An old teacher instructed me once that the posture of a character brings you to the moment: the stroke is a spine, and you must be careful. I guess I have sloppy fingers.
9. Bhanu Kapil on bodies, on herself: “I like to analyze the slow motion gesture / posture / event that brings a body to the world floor. The body’s capacity to stop time’s forward movement or progression interests me.” Do you ever wonder how much time it would take to learn an entire language? We’d die before we could. We will never conquer. (Maybe we conquer too well.) Languages die out faster than we can learn them. Time, in this way, stops. When we learn language we step forwards in it, backwards, outside of it, both. Some linguists call Chinese a “futureless” language because it has no future tense. It is a language that exists on old bones: the marrow is every title and name and connection that existed before. The more of it you learn, the bigger the world grows, not just in possibility but in the depth of what we have already lost. And of course, new words are born all the time. Chinese isn’t futureless, it simply sees time differently. You’re forced to reformat your conception of where words and bodies go. You can’t move forward without understanding what you’ve lost. This is a politic that defies Western thought.
10. I learned Chinese in stops and starts. My mother tried to teach me as a child, and I did go to Chinese school for a while. But I was the whitest girl there, from out of town, and so learning was a battle on all fronts. Proving you belong somewhere over and over again wears you down. I associated learning with isolation and difference in a way that dealt blame to the language rather than the real cause: shame. I forgot my name soon after. My mother taught me every time she came home. It never stuck.
11. I learned my newest name in high school. This was aggressive relearning, reconnecting the wires. I knew the Chinese alphabet only because the song I had to sing in elementary school, my muscle memory filled in the blanks on the paper when my frontal lobe forgot. In this way, I learned in piecemeal: retracing the steps I purposely made difficult for myself as a child, trying to find new pathways to things I had left behind willingly — gratefully — relieved to let it go. I didn’t know then what I know now: that names can be so much like water, can slip through your fingers, can whip you, can break towns with brute force. My first memory in Taipei was a monsoon. I don’t know the word for monsoon in Chinese, but I know the word for crying. It sounds like a baby’s coo.
12. I know to distrust translations — how they are removed from the nuanced gesture. I don’t want to be removed. I want my language to rub against itself in a place where it belongs.
13. And now I know: I can never go home again. Home is two places, distilled into two passports: one green and one blue. If passports are permission to be alive and be owned by a country, to own an identity, I am afraid to admit I lose track of my home, my names, my language. On my last visit back to my homeland I had a passport in both pockets, but I’d forgotten which one would permit me entry back home. Which to give to the guards? I was terrified, like I was smuggling drugs. Nationhood is a narcotic people die for all the time. I imagined that they would think I was a fraud for daring to exist in two places at once, I felt that my existence was criminal. I imagined every outcome; the refusal of my entrance, the disposal of my passports, my way out to/from home. I had sweaty palms. Green or blue?
14. I chose a name and a country and a language. I shouldn’t have to choose.
Arabelle Sicardi is a fashion and beauty writer for the likes of Rookie, Teen Vogue, Refinery29 and The Style Con. She likes makeup, cyborgs, and bad fashion puns.