My Name: an-hwei
From time to time, when I am asked about my middle name, An-hwei, it’s usually one of two questions or both: “What is it?” and “What does it mean?” An-hwei is Mandarin Chinese for peace (“an” is pronounced the way it looks) and fragrant orchid (“hwei” is pronounced as the PRC’s pinyin “hui,” sounding like “hway”), specifically, the Coumarouna odorata; related phrases are huiyu or jade orchid and jinghui or serene orchid.
So, my name is Karen Peace Fragrant Orchid Lee.
I value peace, but frankly, as a girl I sometimes felt ambivalent about being named after a pretty flower, implying one is fragrant, delicate, herbal, and easily trampled. Sometimes I wished my middle name meant “woman who is pure dynamite – watch out!” or “woman who leads revolutions – salute her!” Or how about “woman who utters earth-shaking prophecy in a world that considers her, alas, a fragrant plant – huzzah!”
However, a professor in college once reassured me that serenity is a revolution in itself. And what’s wrong with fragrant orchids, after all, with their various healing or medicinal properties? Additionally, the “hwei” in my middle name comes from the “hwei” in my grandmother’s name. My grandmother’s ideogram hwei is favor, graciousness, or a gift from above. A location in our ancestral Fujian province is called hwei an, the same an I have and hwei my grandmother has in her name. My mother added crosses over my grandmother’s ideogram to signify a female root, so I am proud to inherit hwei in addition to peace. Orchids, besides, can thrive under adverse conditions, and are in fact quite strong.
I also discovered in my adult years that the Coumarouna odorata is also known as the tonka or tonqua bean tree – bearing wrinkled black-skinned pods with an intense vanilla perfume — which grows in South America. Moreover, it is no wee plant. It can grow to over a hundred feet high; the bean pods may grow to over two feet long. Terrible misfortune to be knocked on the head with a giant pod while one is passing casually underneath the tree! I have no idea how the etymology of my name hopscotched from orchids to tonka bean trees, but I consulted several dictionaries which confirmed these definitions, citing either species of fragrant orchid or Coumarouna odorata.
Is the tonka bean tree a type of orchid? Vanilla, after all, is a genus of orchid. Mischievously, I rather enjoy the idea of a hundred-foot tall orchid with giant black-skinned pods big enough to conk unsuspecting folks on the head, like rolling pins or mailing tubes falling out of the sky.
One fourth of my name remains a mystery perhaps you will unravel. (Dear reader, I will also say to you, sotto voce: What Karen means, with its etymological Greek root Aikaterina, if you will, is a whole other story, and I’ll save Lee for a rainy day.)