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My Name is Not Emmaline Swallow

My name is not Emmaline Swallow.

In Chinese characters, my name is one too many strokes for a five-year-old to write. I cried and cried while I wrote out each stroke of the three characters painstakingly.

The first character is my family name, and the second and third are my first name.

But my mother would not let me stop, even if it was past my bedtime. She said we don’t start something without finishing it. Whenever I wrote my name from then afterward, the memory came to call.

In Chinese, my name meant inadequate, an illusion, a fake hope —according to some boys.

These boys had clapped eyes on my name before I made my appearance. Upon meeting me for the first time, they would tell me how disappointed they were with me, seeing the real me. “Your name sounded so beautiful! I was full of expectation! But when you appeared, well…”

This was followed by snickering.

The first character of my first name actually means “something good, beautiful”, the second character means rose.

Good and beautiful, but strong enough to protect yourself, my mother had wished while holding me in her arms when I was first born.

The second part of my mother’s wish came through and through. As if self-fulfilling a prophecy, my soul grew thick and sharp thorns that manifested in a sharp tongue.

“Well, it’s good that you look just like how your name sounds — insignificant, and boring,” I said casually. Now the boy who had made fun of my name turned red, while others howled with laughter.

I determined to never show any weakness. I wrapped myself with thickets of thorns, with the fragile little girl in the middle of it all. This way she would be safe.

Yet, part of me was afraid that no one would ever bother to brave the thicket to get to know the real me inside. Throughout middle and high school, I crafted one pen name after another, and wrote letter after letter to strangers, thinking that maybe if my names were special enough, they would draw someone in.

Some of them were pretentious. I don’t blame that boy in Italy for never writing back to a girl who called herself “Cold Moon”.

As time aged me and after I found the love of my life, the desperate desire to have someone understand me, and to know me, was not there anymore. My inner world now is a sacred place I guard fiercely.

I started liking anonymity, finding comfort in its safety blanket. I began longing to blend in and become the background noise.

Let me be something as insignificant as a granule of sand. Let me be the face you can’t remember as those movie extras that are only props or passing scenery.

I’m happy to be a rock sitting here watching, as the world whirls by.

When I set out to write online, creating that safe anonymity was a must for me. How else could I safely write my heart out if someone who knows me in my real life is reading it?

I long to be free.

The city of my hometown where I grew up, had a nickname as the City of Swallows.

Here you would find flights and flights of swallows swooping, flying, and standing on the power lines, chirping, chattering, and warbling. Tens upon tens upon tens.

They created quite a ruckus. When you were walking underneath them, you could hardly hear each other.

I always joked to first-time in-town friends that, while you are in my city, you really need to watch out, because the percentage of you being pooped on by a bird is higher than 90 percent.

The joke was funny until one time not soon after I told the joke, a bird poop landed on my head.

The local people view the birds as a nuisance. But I live thousands of miles away across the ocean. I have come to miss these grey birds with “scissors” tails — the way my elementary school teacher taught me how to recognize them when I was young.

The way they come out before it rains in flights to eat the tiny insects we can’t see, swooping and dipping gracefully in the air as if gravity has no grip on them.

The way they soar freely through the wind, rain, lightning, and thunder like they are scissors, cutting through danger and throwing caution to the wind.

I like the lightness and the symbolic tie to my hometown they have come to represent in my life. It’s part of my origin. I decided Swallow would be part of my nom de plume.

How about Emmaline? It was actually not my first choice. I first picked the name Emily. It’s beautiful, it has three syllables to complement the word “swallow” perfectly.

I like that there are so many Emily’s around, I could be one of them. But once I googled the name “Emily Swallow” and got The Armorer in The Mandalorian series, I wouldn’t touch the name with a 10 foot-pole!

The Armorer is such a badass and there is no way I could live up to the name.

Emmaline came as a second choice as it has the same three syllables. It was also a name my husband rejected when we were naming our daughters, so I thought I would use it instead for my new identity — someone who writes and is on a journey to preserve memories and life through words.

My name is not Emmaline Swallow.

I’m more than a name. I love art, beautiful things, nature, and all the good things in this world. I love words, writing them, and reading them. I love pure classical music more than the human voice.

I was born and raised in Malaysia by my parents who are second generation of Malaysian Chinese. I speak five languages: Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay, English and some Japanese. My next goal is to learn Spanish.

I tend to ponder about life a lot.

The meaning of it, and with it, death. In 2020, life decided to throw me a third-stage cancer diagnosis before the pandemic broke the world. My cancer is now in remission, but we’re still walking in the wake of it with its PTSD.

I write as a form of therapy. Chemo altered my brain to a degree that sometimes my sentences come out broken, so I started writing poems.

I also do Jazz and tap dance. Recently I have begun playing with mud — learning to throw pottery on a wheel and hand-building it.

My name is Emmaline Swallow.

There are parts of me that are good and beautiful. I have learned to tame my tongue over time. But most of all, I live my life trying to sow good and beautiful things. My mother’s wish did come true after all.

I don’t have a lot of knowledge, I am not an expert in anything. What I have are stories, lots and lots of stories. Teeny tiny stories.

But that’s what our lives mostly are: tiny, tiny stories. If you like stories, please stay and read, and leave me your thoughts.

I am Emmaline Swallow. I’m not too young, or too old.

Grace Paley wrote in one of her short stories, A Conversation With My Father, “She’s only about forty. She could be a hundred different things in this world as time goes on.”

I try to remember and go by that. If time is kind to me and will let me.

I can still be a hundred different things in this world.

(This article was first published on Medium.)


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