Editor's note: Today's Blogwire contributor, Justine Drennan, reflects on the quandaries of naming (and re-naming) in her piece about her grandmother, Pei-Fen Koo, who immigrated with her husband and children from Amoy, China, to Seattle in 1949.  Justine is an intern in one of NAM's summer youth programs, and will return to Princeton University for her junior year this fall.  Justine writes:
 
“1945 after war end, Nancy born,” Popo says. Everyone calls my grandmother Popo. Ten years ago, one of Uncle George’s children who was studying Chinese in college pointed out that “Popo” means maternal grandmother. Still, they all continued to call her Popo, too.

“Nancy we name Ping-You - dummy bon.”

“What?” I ask.

Popo is a hundred and one years old. Her hearing is half-gone and she didn’t learn English until her forties. She reads the paper every day, and sometimes asks to check her stocks when a family member brings a laptop to her house.

"A dummy bond," she repeats, twice.

Atomic bomb.
 
It takes at least five more minutes before I understand that Popo is talking about uranium. The “you” in my aunt’s Chinese name means uranium, in honor of the atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Japan – the bombs that ended the war, allowed my grandfather to go to America, and let Popo, Uncle George, and Aunts Helen and Nancy move from their inland refuge in Changting back to the coast.

I realize that I have heard this story before, years ago, and probably only vaguely, as I waited impatiently for Uncle George to cut the sponge cake or throw me a tennis ball. I remember that when Nancy learned the meaning of her Chinese name, she hated it.

Many in my family have learned names slowly, through misunderstandings in both languages. On the boat taking my grandfather to the United States, someone told him that Sherman was a very popular name in America.

“Luckily,” Mom says, “someone else convinced him that Ted was better.” Mom is Linda, Ping-Lin.

I forget what Mom’s Chinese name means. I’m embarrassed that I haven’t made the effort to remember or ask again. Until a class assignment compelled me to write a personal story about war, I’d also never braved the miscommunications and waded through Popo’s whole story.

Popo was born in 1908, before the end of the Qing Dynasty. She studied biology at Amoy University and there met my grandfather, my Gon-gon. After graduating, she took a position as a lab assistant. A faded black and white university photo shows her standing stiffly beside Gon-gon and thirty or so other men: she was the only woman in the biology department.

In 1937, after Popo and Gon-gon married, the Japanese invaded China, and the entire university moved inland to Changting to avoid the war.

“While war, George born. Japanese come inland. Then Helen born.”

I remember this. “She was born in a bomb shelter, right?”

Popo hasn’t heard my question, so I repeat it.

It turns out that Helen was not born in a bomb shelter, but the family often had to take refuge there.

“Japanese there in the sky, airplanes in the sky. Dropping bombs, just go past.” Popo could hear the bombs falling outside: “Woo-woo.”

The university stayed open, but the Chinese government, aware that no one could get a good education in the war-worn country, sent forty scholars to study abroad. One of them was Gon-gon, who left for Seattle after the war ended.

Popo, pregnant with Nancy, moved with George and Helen back to Amoy, which the Communists had already claimed from the Nationalists. In the United States, Gon-gon realized that the Communists would win the war and decided he had to get his family out of China. He took a job as a fishery researcher for the United States government and, after many months, finagled the government into giving his family visas to join him. They would fly to Seattle via Hong Kong and the Philippines.

In the airport before the flight to Hong Kong, Popo went to the bathroom and left four-year-old Nancy with George and Helen. When she came out, Nancy was gone. “Didn’t you watch her?” Popo asked George and Helen.

Their eyes got big, and they said they would go find her.

But Popo stopped them. She didn’t want to lose them too. She thought about the stories they had heard recently about men kidnapping children and selling them as slaves.

Finally, they found Nancy outside, crying. Popo still has nightmares that Nancy is gone.

They stayed a few weeks in Hong Kong, sleeping on the floor of a friend’s house before flying in a cargo plane to the Philippines. There, an American doctor forbade them to leave for the United States because Popo had a parasite. “Every day for a month get a shot,” before the doctor let them fly.

When they arrived in Seattle, Popo spoke no English. She had three children and soon an unexpected fourth on the way.

She was forty-one years old, but her visa said she was thirty-seven. No one found out before Gon-gon died why he entered Popo’s age incorrectly.

Back in 1949, however, forty-one was old to be pregnant, old to be learning to drive. “Gon-gon thinking driving car is easy. He said you use sewing machine so well, why can’t drive? He sometimes make me very mad.”

But she missed him every summer, when he worked with the fisheries in Alaska. Alone in an unfamiliar country, Popo managed buying groceries, cooking, and sewing clothes for her children, whom she sent to school. George was eleven years old when he arrived and spoke no English. Seven years later, he would be attending MIT.

They didn’t have money for many toys, so Popo had to be creative – she made her own butterfly nets and used her knowledge of biology from her university days to educate her children about the insects they caught.

Gon-gon was in Alaska when Popo gave birth to Mom. As Aunt Helen tells it, when Popo returned from the hospital, she flung herself on the bed and cried.

Mom complains when Helen tells this story: “I don’t love hearing how sad Popo was that I was born.”

Popo says she cried because Mom was premature. She didn’t know how to take care of such a delicate baby, whom she named Ping-Lin. Sometime, I need to ask Mom again what that name means.