Tiger Lily moved to the city: A personal essay

Photo of a tiger lily
Lee Xuan/Senior Staff

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Tiger Lily, moved to the city/ She just turned twenty-one.

I felt myself freeze when George Ezra’s newest single, “Anyone For You,” first started playing from my Release Radar on Spotify. It was nothing too dramatic — my jaw didn’t drop; my tablet stylus didn’t fall out of my hand; and there was certainly no heaven-sent crash of thunder outside. It was a blue sky day, and I remained perfectly still, my eyes shifting just very slightly off of the paper I had been annotating for my Economics 100A assignment.

The song itself isn’t really anything out of the ordinary from Ezra; it’s catchy, it’s cheerful, it has all of the dancing-in-the-rain, singing-around-a-bonfire character of his usual music. It sounds like travel — three minutes and seven seconds of feeling like you’re somewhere else, somewhere better than here. There was just one small thing that gave me pause:

Tiger Lily is my name.

It is in a way, anyway. Almost exactly 21 years ago, my grandmother named me 萱 (romanized as xuān, pronounced “shuen”), as in 萱草 (xuān cǎo) — the orange daylily. Some also know the tiger lily by that name.

There were moments, growing up, when Tiger Lily tasted bad on my tongue. While I have a one-character name, most people back home in Singapore have Chinese names that are two syllables long (monosyllabic names are, perhaps, more common in China; even there, they are far less popular now than they were in ancient times). Because of that, it has always been easier to go by my full name, Lee Xuan. Although easier, though, it has by no means been convenient — there has been no short supply of confusion. People say my name with the wrong intonations, or think my name is Lee Lee Xuan when I try to explain that Lee is my last name.

And then, of course, there were the names I thought were prettier than mine, such as 素贞 (sù zhēn), a name that means “pure and chaste” and calls to mind the mythological Lady Bai, the main character of one of my favorite stories growing up. At age 14, I felt a sharp twinge of envy in my stomach when a new classmate introduced herself to my Spanish teacher, who then answered, “Ah! Estelle. The name of a Queen.” Sometimes, I feel that twinge still — seven years later, the phantom pain still haunts me from time to time.

When I was 15 years old, I asked my grandmother what my name meant. It wasn’t an entirely innocuous question. I had spent my entire life explaining my name — explaining myself — to people, wondering why I couldn’t just have had a normal two-syllable name like literally everyone else. And then I had just heard somewhere that xuān cǎo was a bitter-tasting plant, traditionally used for medicinal purposes. I couldn’t help but wonder if my grandmother, who had always favored my older brother for being a boy, had named me with bitterness in her.

My grandmother’s answer was one I did not expect. She told me I had been named after a flower associated with motherhood; that I had been named to be my mother’s daughter. It turns out that the orange daylily is China’s carnation. These days, the idea that I was named to honor my mother is one that brings me to tears. Although my mother did not choose my name, it is, to me, a reminder that the woman I am is a reflection of the woman she is; that she has taught me everything I know; that all of the love I have to give was first given to me by her, and that means that I carry her affection with me no matter how far apart we may be.

I am is a reflection of the woman she is; that she has taught me everything I know; that all of the love I have to give was first given to me by her.

Last year was the first time I wasn’t home to celebrate her birthday; to make it up to her, I arranged for a bouquet of flowers to be delivered as a surprise. Lilies also happen to be my mother’s favorite flowers, so I picked a bouquet with an orange daylily as the centerpiece. That day, I received, on WhatsApp, a picture of her beaming with the bouquet, my dog in the bottom corner of the photograph trying to catch a whiff of the flowers. Smiling down at my phone 13,579 kilometers (about 8,438 miles) away, I took comfort in the knowledge that I had not missed her birthday after all.

I have been asked, on numerous occasions, what my “white name” would be if I had one. Over the months, there have been a few suggestions posed to me by friends and family alike — Alex, Aubrey, Sheila. While the last one struck me as particularly out of the question, none of them have ever seemed to fit on me. Only my name, unusual as it might be in California — and even sometimes in Singapore — feels right. My name has always been and will always be Xuan: tiger lily, my mother’s favorite flower, an anti-inflammatory plant used in traditional Chinese medicine and thought in history and mythology to ease a troubled soul.

So every time I meet a new person, I go over my name with them time and time again until they get it right. It is, quite often, an ordeal, and equally painful for both parties; I’ve been enrolled here a year and a half, and it is scarcely any better. Xuan. Shwaan? Xuan. Juan? Xuan. Les Schwab? Xuan. Shrek? (These are all real things real people here have called me.) When my friends asked me, last year, why I put myself through this, I would shrug and say that anyone who can’t spare the effort to learn my name isn’t worth befriending anyway.

My name ties me to my family, to my home and to who I am; it reminds me of who I want to be; it is a part of me that I could never give away.

That is still very much true. After having been here for a few months, however, it has become clear to me how core a part of my identity my name is. It is more than an inconvenience, and I will not change it just so that things can be quick or simple. My name ties me to my family, to my home and to who I am; it reminds me of who I want to be; it is a part of me that I could never give away. Before I came to Berkeley, I was home, surrounded by people with names that sounded like mine, and I hadn’t known just how much meaning my name could take on. Today, it is something I cling to, desperate not to forget who I am. I suppose this is just another part of growing up and self-discovery that going to college, especially in a foreign land, puts you through.

It isn’t often that I hear a song about a girl with my name. I love Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” One Direction’s “Diana” and Panic! At The Disco’s “Sarah Smiles,” but the reality is, just as I rarely see myself in white women on screens big and small, I simply don’t hear myself in these songs. To hear George Ezra singing my name, a first in a little more than two decades, was refreshing and oddly reaffirming. Far away from home, surrounded by people who don’t sound like me, I felt spoken to; and more than that, I felt heard. As if my name was finally being said back to me. As if somebody had finally understood.

Tiger Lily moved to the city/ She just turned twenty-one/ And then I said, “here’s my number; hit me up/ If you’re needing anyone.”

Lee Xuan is the deputy Weekender editor. Contact her at [email protected].