When telling someone your Chinese name over the phone, you have to describe the characters. In Chinese, this is usually accomplished by saying what radical(s) are in a character or a common phrase that it is part of. If you are being given a Chinese name by your language teacher or a friend, you should ask them how to describe it, too.

I’ve had my Chinese name since before I was born, but I didn’t learn how to break it down until I moved to Taiwan. I also had no idea that my name is both fancy and weird.


Me, weird? 怎麼可能?

My surname is pretty easy — it’s just “舒服的舒” (shū​fu​ de ​shū​, which literally translates into “comfortable’s Shu.” My surname is part of a common word, of course, and I often see it on packaging and advertising, especially for sports drinks, tissues, innersoles and maxi pads (I was actually thinking of doing a picture collection, but getting kicked out of stores for sneak-photographing their feminine hygiene products section is not my idea of fun). On the other hand, it’s extremely rare to see 舒 as a surname, so rare in fact that people sometimes ask me if it’s my “real name,” or one that I made up. I’m always tempted to say “yeah, I just went into 7-Eleven and picked a character.”

The last character is also fairly easy to describe. It’s just “凌晨的凌” (líng​chén ​de líng​, early morning’s Ling). Or I could say “兩點水的凌,” or “the Ling with the two-stroke water radical,” which distinguishes my 凌 from its fraternal twin, 淩, which has the three-stroke water radical.

But my middle character, 愷 (kǎi​), is kind of a doozy. It is rarely found in names… in fact, it’s rarely seen at all and I’ve met a couple of Taiwanese people who don’t recognize the character. To describe 愷, I say “左邊是豎心旁,右邊是 ‘豈有此理’ 的 “豈.” Basically, I say that the left side of the character is the vertical heart radical (豎心旁, shù ​xīn ​páng​); the right side is 豈 (qǐ), or a character that is found in ​豈有此理(qǐ​yǒu​cǐ​lǐ​), an idiom which basically means “ridiculous.” How fitting. But 愷 itself means “joyful, contented and kind,” as well as “love for one’s brothers and sisters.” Whenever my Mom told this to me, she’d add, “haha, but you are so mean to your brother!” 豈有此理!!!

Before I moved to Taiwan, I thought I had a run-of-the-mill Chinese name and it wasn’t until I heard comments about how rare my surname is or how hard the rest of it is to write (apparently 舒愷凌 is quite “stroke-y.”) in Taiwan that I found out that there was one more facet to my general weirdness. Kǎi​líng is a relatively common name, but my Mom and Dad told me that they wanted to find unusual characters, so they asked my aunt, an Asian art history professor at Williams College, for help. After all, they reasoned that their American daughter would never have to write her Chinese name or describe it on a day-to-day basis, so they figured they could go all out. As they put it, “how were we supposed to know that you’d move to Taiwan one day?!?” Thanks Mom and Dad! Seriously, I love my name, though. I’m proud to be a 舒, I love my 愷 and I’m very fond of my 凌.