From the start, my grandma has always hated my using the name Yan Ge. Ten years ago, when I published my first book, she pointed at the cover and asked me, “Why are you calling yourself Yan Ge? What’s wrong with your real name? Isn’t it a perfectly good name for a writer? Why would you want a pen name like this?”
Of course, she would say that. She gave me my name. “Dai Yuexing.” My real name. It comes from the poem Returning to My Farm by the Jin dynasty poet Tao Yuanming: “I weed the fields before dawn, and I carry my hoe home under the moonlight.” Dai Yue Xing means walking under the moonlight.
“Dai Yuexing is a wonderful name! It’s perfect for a writer!” She pointed at the cover of the book and the name “Yan Ge” with disgust.
She didn’t know the trouble that name had caused me. All throughout my childhood, I hated being the wretch singled out as the teacher called out from the register: “Dai Yuexing! Is Dai Yuexing here… … Oh, it’s you. What an interesting name you have. Come and do this sum.” And so on and so forth.
How I wished I was just a Jane Smith or Jo Bloggs, a name that could hide in the middle of the register, that no teacher’s eye would ever light on. So I called myself “Yan Ge”, and introduced myself to people like this: “Yan Ge, Yan as in colour, Ge as in song.” It was all very simple. But Grandma wasn’t buying it. She said, “What is this colour, what’s this song? What on earth does it mean? It doesn’t have any significance at all!” With a frown she threw the book down on the table, and sighed as she looked at the words “Yan Ge”.
But in the end she grew used to it, and as the days passed, she would even occasionally mention it to other people: “Oh, yes, I’m Yan Ge’s grandmother.”
But she never imagined – and I never imagined – that there would come a day when no-one in the world called me Dai Yuexing any more. In English-speaking countries in particular, “DAIYUEXING” has turned into an unpronounceable string of letters. So I’m left with no choice. All I can do is tell people: “Call me Yan Ge, or even simpler, Yan.”
This afternoon, we talked about language, we writers and translators. We talked about syllables and the meaning that syllables represent, and about the gap between them. “Language is just form; it has no substance.” Saussure made this bold and tragic proclamation many years ago.
Of course, my grandma doesn’t know about Saussure. She doesn’t even know anything about my turning into “Yan”. It was too long ago now. I can’t explain to her my unhappiness, vexation and disappointment. Like a witch in a primitive society, I turned myself into “Yan Ge” or “Yan” over and over, so often that as I played her, I turned into her. Saussure never could have guessed that with just two syllables, I could change my own substance.
Like other children far from home, I only tell my grandma things that would make her happy. I will tell her that The Hague is a very beautiful city; I will tell her that every person I’ve met here is friendly, warm and brilliant. What I won’t tell her is that when I woke in the early hours in this strange hotel, I saw an email from my father. He says he dreamed he and I were out walking by the seaside, then he couldn’t find me and he awoke with a start. He couldn’t get back to sleep.
Later, I actually did go out for a walk. It was not yet eight o’clock, and there was thick fog in the streets, as if there was no-one else – just Yan Ge and me. I had no choice but to go on living with her.
I walked a long way before turning around.