For the Germans – Janu, Julius, and Laura

“What’s your Chinese name,” Julius asks
after I tell him that I’m Chinese-Singaporean
(and, no, we’re not all Chinese in Singapore).
I curl my tongue backwards and switch
on my mother tongue. I reply, “Xin Hui,”
careful to get the accent right, wishing
I had my mother’s tongue to negotiate
the awkward sounds tumbling off my rusty one.
Julius is none the wiser, but his German eyes
are wide open to the exotic world my name
has opened up for him. “How do you write it?”
With practised movements I trace out the strokes
Which years of disuse had made unfamiliar.

Laura leans over. “It looks pretty,” she says
as she scrutinises my disproportionate characters.
(In my head a sepia-toned memory resurfaces
of my grandfather making me copy the strokes
of his dancing characters uniform as print
and telling me that balance is the key to happiness.)
But my unbalanced characters are good enough
for the Germans, who ask what it means – to them
how it looks isn’t as important as what it represents –
so I tell them the story of how I got my three hearts;

of how, when I was born, my parents went
to the fengshui master, asking him to balance
my name and my life. “More heart,”
he said, “so she can feel the happiness and gratitude
you have named her for.” And so, I gained not one
but two more hearts – all the better to feel with
(or so they thought until the screaming and crying –
the soundtrack of my childhood played over
and over the slamming doors and broken furniture.
And in my teenage years I yearned to tear my heart
from my breast so I wouldn’t feel the aching.
When I couldn’t, I took on a new faith and a new name
but still my hearts bleed myself dry, emptying
my soul into the dark depths of the reservoir within
that overflows from my eyes every now and then –
Of course I did not tell them any of this.)

The Germans threw their heads back and laughed heartily,
tickled by the strange tale so far-fetched in its foreignness,
and, for the first time in a long while,
in a land where my name meant nothing more
than a name, so did I, for all of my hearts
had stopped working that day,
having finally felt enough.


Last character of my name, and the one that contains the 2 hearts. It’s a constructed character – no such character actually exists in simplified Chinese. My parents took the 惠 (which already contains a heart 心 at its base) and added the vertical heart beside it.


Based on a snippet from the conversation my tour mates and I had on our first night at the Jump House in Tullah, Tasmania.


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