What's in a name?



I once stumbled across a list of the most popular boys’ names from the 1960s, and found that my name and my brothers’ names were all near the top of the list. That didn’t surprise me. My parents, raising four Chinese boys in a very white New England town, wanted nothing more than for us to fit in. They gave us all-American names to serve as talismans in our all-American lives.

But although my name made practical sense, it was never the best fit. I’ve grown into it over the years — like a tight pair of shoes that stretched until they no longer pinched my feet — but it never felt comfortable while I was growing up. I had a Chinese name too, but my grandparents were the only ones who used it. And my mom had a pet name for me. Don’t ask. If I told you, I’d have to kill you.

Thank god for my last name. There I was, a chubby little Chinese boy lost in white America and searching for some identity I could be proud of. My prayers were finally answered with a badass, Kung Fu-master, movie-star role model — who shared my last name. Bruce Lee.  Bruce-f---ing LEE! I was sure we were related. Or at least that’s what I told my friends.

These days, naming a baby is much more complicated than it was for my parents. There are endless books and websites devoted to nothing else. You can search by gender, popularity, sound, meaning and origin. But usually, the thing that parents want most in a name is something my parents never even considered. Originality.

Gone are the days when kids were routinely named after relatives, celebrities and friends. Now we want names that sound unique. Special. One of a kind. First it was old-fashioned names like Iris, Stella and Augustus. After that, biblical names like Ezekiel, Delilah and Caleb. For a while, every new baby seemed to have a last name for a first name — a demographic tidal wave of Carters, Dylans, Ryans and Jacksons. But each new trend faded almost as quickly as it came.

The problem with uniqueness as a cultural ideal is that it creates its own obsolescence. It’s like the fashion industry: Last year’s hot new designer trend is this year’s Kmart special. Today’s parents have to come up with increasingly unusual names to stay ahead of the curve. Here are some baby names from an actual website: 

Luxxor. Galaxy. Banjo. Eleven.

Someday, we may elect a president named Banjo Finkelstein-Smith. Or Eleven Nguyen.

Maybe it’s time for us to back away from the originality arms race. After all, shouldn’t our names do more than set us apart?  Let’s revive the idea of naming kids for loved ones. There was a time when names connected us to our past, and to people who devoted their lives to giving us the opportunities they never had. 

When I was 8 years old, my father’s father died, and we traveled to New York for his funeral. The whole trip was unsettling and disorienting. I remember the heady smell of incense, the wailing of the professional mourners, the waxy face of Grandpa in his open casket, and my father breaking down in tears after the viewing. It was the first time I ever saw him weep, and also the last.

We followed the hearse out to the cemetery in a long caravan of cars, and stood around the grave while Grandma fulfilled her ritual responsibility by trying to throw herself in after the coffin. And that was where I learned, for the first time, that my family name should never have been Lee after all. The gravestone said “Lieu.” My grandfather had come to this country on forged papers, and had lived his life as a Lee. But he was buried with the name he was born with.

At first, I remember feeling cheated. The one part of my name that I loved — that really felt like mine — wasn’t mine at all. But I came to realize that my family name came to me by fate, if not by blood. It was forged out of my grandfather’s courage, and resilience, and his willingness to risk everything. It was his gift to my father, and to me. And now it’s the gift that I have passed on to my daughters.

The naming of a human being is a great responsibility. Each of us carries our name from cradle to grave, and hears it spoken about a half-million times along the way. It is shouted by our parents, whispered by our lovers, and written into our epitaphs. So when we name our children, it behooves us to choose carefully, and choose well. 

It’s the first gift we give them — but it’s the one they’ll never lose.


Jeff Lee is Bruce Lee’s third cousin once removed, and lives in Seattle. That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it.