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What Does God Call Us

The following is an excerpt from a blog post I wrote for Princeton Theological Seminary’s Center for Asian American blog. The entire article was used for Elder training at the Session meeting on March 20, 2024.

 

My parents named me 秋葉, anglicized, it is Zhao Qiu Ye. Zhao is my family name. Qiu Ye means autumn leaf. There is a family connection as all of my paternal cousins have the 秋 (Qiu), meaning “autumn” in their given names. In our little town in southern China, where most girls’ names contain words for flower, moon, or jade, my name was unique and evocative. As a child, my nickname was 小葉子, meaning little leaf. Neighbors and relatives called me that while my parents stuck to (Qiu Ye). It was adorable when I was a toddler and preschooler. When I began elementary school and full names were used however, my name stood out and brought teasing and I wondered why my parents did not name me something more common. I did not yet understand the depth of meaning, beauty and family connection that my name represented. 

 

When I arrived in Canada at the age of nine, I lost my name. My well-intentioned relatives, who had lived in Canada and the US for years, declared my name unpronounceable to English speakers and advised using an English name. In the daze and confusion of my first weeks in Canada and the rush of beginning school, my name became Julia Zhao, a name I chose because it sounded nice. 趙秋葉 remained, but only on official documents and only in the anglicized version as Qiuye Zhao. This combination of letters did indeed look unpronounceable, even to me and lacked any of the recognizable meaning or connection that my name had in China. ….. 

 

And yet, in the back of my mind, there was a sense of confusion. As I became a Christian and learned that God called me by name, I wondered which name it was…… 

 

A few years ago, I began to write out my name as Julia Qiuye Zhao. A few months ago, I began adding 秋葉 to my signature on emails. It is a subtle acknowledgement of the name that my parents gave me, but also of the multiple layers of identity and history summed up in my name. Linguists and educators have identified additive bilingualism, in which the second language develops simultaneously with a student’s first language, rather than in its place, as in subtractive bilingualism. Perhaps something like that can happen with names and by extension, identity in immigration. Perhaps the country of arrival can become an additional home and the new name, or variation/s on one’s name, can become an additional aspect of one’s identity. Where immigration contains trauma and discrimination, it is difficult and can seem impossible. My proposal is not meant to downplay the trauma and difficulty but rather to offer the possibility of hope. For this hope I look towards the God who calls the people God created and redeemed by name. By what name does God call us? 

 

Names are important in the Bible. God names Adam after the earth from which he was created and Adam names Eve as the mother of all the living. When God covenants with Abram and Sarai, God changes their names to Abraham and Sarah as a sign of the covenant which has begun in their names. Jacob is named Israel by the angel with whom he wrestles and he is marked as the one who wrestles with God and prevails. 

 

But there are many more name changes and variations that are less intentional. Esther’s Hebrew name is Hadassah. Esther is a Persian name, probably related to the goddess Itster.1 Daniel’s friends Hananiah, Mischael and Azraiah, are better known by their Persian names Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. In times of exile, migration and domination by others, God’s people, like many migrants today, also used names to facilitate assimilation, and God knew them by those names as well as their Hebrew names. 

 

In the New Testament, at a time of colonization in first century Palestine, nearly everyone in our stories had a Greek name, or Greek version of their names. Simon, John and James, for example, were the Greek versions of Simeon, Jonah and Jacob. Through the centuries of translations and transliterations, even more versions of these and other names have appeared. Even the name by which we know our Lord, Jesus Christ, is a transliteration of a Greek translation of a Hebrew name.2 God knew all of them, by all of their names and all the circumstances through which they acquired their various names became situations in which God had been intimately involved and which had facilitated the transmission of the Word of God to us. 

 

Love and blessings, 

 

 

Pastor Julia 

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