This is how I know my teachers have come to my name on the class register: a pause. A squint so fleeting across their faces, I only don’t miss it because I’ve been watching for it. Their lips forming half-whispered shapes as they try the unfamiliar sound of my name in their mouths, and I sit with my own mouth full of my own silence, wondering if it tastes to them like it does to me.
My professors in England have the hardest time saying my name. I get used to hearing every possible rendition of it. A soft C, I tell people, making the ch sound for them. I get used to spelling it. I get used to repeating it again and again until it sounds strange even to me, in the way of your reflection looking increasingly unfamiliar the more you stare at it. Did I always have that line in the corner of my eye? Did my smile always quirk up a little more on the right side of my mouth? Did I always stress the first syllable of my name that way, straining to make it sound less exotic for ears unused to it?
The worst thing I get used to is not being called anything for an entire semester. No one can fault the practicality of this solution. My name cannot be misspoken if it is not spoken at all. The worst thing I get used to is the anchorless feeling of not being seen.
What if I just make it easier for everyone, call myself something else? My sister and I talk about it, my friends and I talk about it, all of us with difficult Chinese names. If we were to give ourselves English names, what would we pick? In secondary school, I make up my mind. I’m sitting at a desk by the window with a name scratched into a corner, and another on top of it. The field outside is awash in tropical rain and fallen frangipani. Singapore has [End Page 145] two seasons, people say: hot and wet and hot and dry; but today it feels like all three at once, wet outside and hot in the classroom and dry at the back of my throat. My head is pillowed on my forearms, and I’m tracing crossed-out letters with a fingertip.
Jennifer, I decide.
But it’s so common, everyone tells me.
Yeah, I point out. No one will ever ask me how to say it.
Years later, I will sit in another classroom, continents away. York in autumn smells of browning leaves and the earth on the soles of your boots, seasons turning full circle, and my lecturer will pause again and I will press my knuckles into the table top and think of Jennifer, of all the names I could have been called instead. I will never find my name carved into a desk. When I open my mouth to say it, I am carving it into that space between us, letter by letter.
This is how I know what I’m going to be when I grow up. I have spent a lot of time in libraries and bookstores, and I think I know something about writers. The writers I love are called names like Enid and Ann and Judy. Even Chinese writers, I see, are called Amy and Catherine, and so when I am eight years old I am solemnly certain I’m not going to be a writer when I grow up, even if I quite like writing. I accept this as the way of the world. I think maybe I will become a teacher, because they are called names like Mrs. Toh Mee Lin and Miss Tan Hui Yan.
“So,” asks a friend in university, “when are you going to publish your first novel?”
He’s serious. I demur and laugh. I make a joke about being the next J. K. Rowling one day. “You can be C. F. Chen,” he says.
I try to imagine it on the spine of a book. I can’t wrap my mind around even that...