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What’s in a Name?

The guys in my housing project gave me my first graffiti tag: OUT. I thought it was a random name, but it probably referred to how often I’d strike out in baseball. I wasn’t much better as a tagger. I was a toy, at least for the first few months, incapable of holding a chisel-tip marker correctly, at a forty-five degree angle so the width of each stroke remained consistent. Style was secondary to me. Getting up—that’s why I began writing, my name for all to see. I started with the school hallways.

On the first floor, there was a stretch of bare white wall, usually reserved for signs made of butcher paper announcing spirit week, bake sales, or some class president candidate. That day the wall was empty. I pulled out a marker from the sleeve of my jacket, the barrel of the marker zebra-stripped. I waited for the hallway to clear, then wrote my name billboard-size, reaching as high as my hand could climb and as low as my knees could bend. The “T” of my tag resembled a sai, the ends of the roof dipping down like prongs. But this marker wasn’t suited for colossal scale. My letters appeared as stick figures, sickly.


Dik Saang
My dad picked out my name, Dickson. It’s a true Hong Kong name. Parents from HK love English names that have “-son” as a suffix: Johnson, Jackson, Hanson, Henson, Wenson. My parents named my brother Benson. Girls got off lucky. My sister was named Cindy. My father chose Dickson in the hopes I’d become rich like the owner of a shop called Dickson Watch and Jewelry.

Kids in school had a field day with my name. Dickson. Dick. Son. Son of a dick. Dickey boy. Substitute teachers would read my name on the attendance sheet as Dickinson or Dickerson. They’d add letters for some inexplicable reason as though Dickson was not a legitimate name.

My father also chose my Chinese name, Dik Saang, a transliteration of Dickson. The first character of my name refers to an ancient general, and the second character means “nephew.” To a native speaker, these two characters combined result in an awkward phrase. My name sounds like a mistake. Perhaps my father had seen no point in giving me an authentic Chinese name. By the time I was born, my parents had already filed the paperwork to immigrate to the States—I would be a child of America.

There were several choices my father had for the dik character. Other words that make that same sound include the characters for “wash,” “cleanse,” “enlighten,” “guide.” Instead my father used the surname of the Song dynasty warrior Dik Ching. Early in Dik’s military career, like many common soldiers, he was forced to bear a tattoo on his face, a marker of his poor background, an attempt to keep him in his place. In spite of this, Dik rose up the ranks to become a general and was later promoted to the imperial court as the Minister of Military. If the story ended here, my Chinese name would serve as a reminder of my father’s wish that I become a man of bravery and nobility.

But when Dik Ching served on the Song Court, he discovered that other officials were distrustful of him, fearing the powerful general might one day abuse his military power. They fabricated rumors about the Tattooed Face General, even blaming him for natural disasters. Eventually they forced him out of office. Demoted, he was sent from the capital to another city. A year later, he died at the age of forty-nine. Perhaps his two sons and wife were at his side. Maybe they had moved with him to his new appointment, but I can’t find a record of this. It’s possible he spent the last year of his life isolated.

The first half of the Dik story represented the hopes that my father had for me, the second foretold his own fate—a father scorned.


One night when my mother refused my father’s advances, he threw her onto the kitchen floor and tried to drag her to their bedroom. To teach her a lesson, he pissed all over the bathroom floor and laughed when she got on her knees and scrubbed.

My father left San Francisco for Minnesota when I was ten. Snowy winters. Promotion to head Dim sum chef. No family. A fresh start.


The Lam Poem
Dozens of generations ago, my ancestors chose a name for me, embedded in a family poem. Each character in the poem was to be assigned to a specific future generation. Given names contained two characters, one chosen by your parents, the other predetermined by your family poem, by your ancestors. Fathers, knowing the position of their name in the poem, would give their sons names containing the next character. Sons would share this character with their brothers and paternal cousins. Daughters, however, were usually excluded from this practice.

After the end of the poem was reached, when all its characters had been exhausted, what remained was an abridged family tree set to verse. Clan elders could recycle the poem for future generations, or they could compose an entirely new one.

The Lam poem had been passed down through generations, spanning hundreds of years, but in my father’s generation, the poem vanished. My mother’s family poem was also lost. Though my mother recalls her grandmother showing her their family’s poem inked in a notebook, my mom’s parents now have no idea where this notebook might be. For all they know, they might have left it in Hong Kong.

It’s no accident that generation poems have lost their importance. When Mao Zedong came to power, he pushed to rid the country of its Confucian tradition. The sacred bonds of emperor-subject, husband-wife, father-son—all bullshit. These doctrines had produced a submissive nation, a kowtowing species that groveled to foreign empires.

Mao declared a change: “The Chinese people have stood up.” He banned foot binding. Out went ancestor worship. Women could seek divorce. Genealogy books and generation poems were patriarchal relics. This was to be a new China.


I leafed through the dictionary for a new graffiti tag, a name I’d choose myself. I began with aardvark and ended with zymurgy. I’d borrowed the idea from Malcolm X. To teach himself how to read and write, he copied the entire dictionary by hand in prison, back when he was still Malcolm Little.

I skipped over any word with more than five letters. Long words were a luxury of time we didn’t have. Skipped the definitions too. We prided ourselves as writers, but it wasn’t words that we loved. It was letters, how they looked, the way an “S” meandered. The letters of my name, O-U-T, were stiff and uptight, wallflowers. I needed letters that danced and jabbed.

Because of its sharp angles, its final letter punching and kicking, I renamed myself: RANK.


Bus Driver
Bus drivers were our adversaries. We tagged when they weren’t looking in the rearview mirror, when they’d lean into a turn, spinning the steering wheel, their eyes fixed on the road. Sometimes we’d get lucky, and a driver would have their mirror aimed away from us. When a driver caught us in the act, usually they’d just yell at us until we got off. But once, a driver called me up to the front like he was inviting me to sit down in his living room. We were the only ones left on the bus. He gave me a you-could-be-doing-more-with-your-life talk, which somehow didn’t come across as corny.

Another driver stopped the bus and charged at me and my homeboy sitting in the back. The two of us squeezed through a window—they slid open wide enough for skinny teenagers—and jumped. But the driver wasn’t deterred. He gave chase, on some superhero shit. He abandoned his bus, along with his passengers, in the middle of a one-lane street, cars honking, traffic stalled. I turned back after a couple of blocks. The driver was gaining. I didn’t think I had the stamina to elude him. As soon as I turned the next corner, I stopped while my friend continued. I leaned against the wall, creeping to the edge of the corner, listening for the footsteps of the approaching driver. When he drew close, when I could hear him panting, I slipped past him, speeding off in the opposite direction.

The man my mother had an affair with was also a bus driver. Their relationship started back when I was in elementary school. Willie, a Filipino guy, would come over during his lunch breaks while my father was working in the kitchen of a restaurant in Chinatown. Willie would have on sunglasses, dressed in a brown uniform. My mom would put on makeup before he arrived, heavy blush and blue eye shadow.

They’d go in her room and lock the door. Just looking at photo albums, my mom would say. When they were done, I’d see the guy in the kitchen sipping coffee, shades hanging from his collar. He had beady eyes, and the pockmarks on his cheeks made me uncomfortable. Looking at his face was like staring at a scar.

I was setup for a variation of the Oedipus complex: Willie, the father I had to kill. He drove the buses that I treasured. They carried my name. I knew all the bus routes, which ones went to which bus yard, how you could shut down the engine of a diesel city bus by flipping a secret switch located on the backside of the vehicle. I’d cut class to mark the city buses, some of which I knew Willie would later drive. I’d tag RANK on the windows, the ceiling, the back wall, the final stroke of my name, the front leg of my “K”—a slash.


Dik Ching commanded an army of thirty-thousand men and thirty generals. He’d ride into battle wearing a bronze mask. Combined with his long hair, unkempt and billowing in the wind, the bronze mask sent enemy soldiers scurrying. They didn’t see a man charging at them, but a demon.

Dik’s motivation behind wearing the mask, however, wasn’t solely to scare the enemy. It also hid the tattoo on his face, the reminder that he was less than. With the bronze mask, Dik discarded his past and became a deity.


Poor and Blank
The outstanding thing about China’s six hundred million people is that they are “poor and blank.” This may seem a bad thing, but in reality it is a good thing. Poverty gives rise to the desire for change, the desire for action, and the desire for revolution. On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written; the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.
      —Mao Zedong


Malcolm Little was his birth name, Little from his father. Detroit Red was his street name, red for the color of his hair, inherited from his maternal grandfather, a Scot. “Yes, that raping, red-headed devil was my grandfather!” Malcolm said after he shed his street name. “If I could drain away his blood that pollutes my body, and pollutes my complexion, I’d do it! Because I hate every drop of the rapist’s blood that’s in me!”

Malcolm X was his converted name, the “X” replacing the Little, the unknown erasing the scar. El-Hajj Malik Shabazz was the name he created for himself, the El-Hajj for his pilgrimage to Mecca, Malik for Malcolm, Shabazz as in the Lost Tribe of Shabazz. His new surname expressed not just his love for his people, the lost children of Africa, but Shabazz was also a solution to the unknown, an answer for the variable, a name that could be passed on to his children and handed down successive generations, an invented name but a pure one.


Manny Lee
My mother, like me, was fifteen when she named herself. She chose Maggie as her English name. When she married my father, she married into the Lam family, but, as customary, kept her maiden name. She remained Maggie Lee, but she wasn’t thrilled with her name. Maggie, she learned, was all too common.

My mom would later find a nickname, thanks to my homie’s baby sister. She’d mispronounce my mom’s name as Manny. All the kids on our side of the projects also called my mother this. It was a requirement. She’d tempt them with candy like an evil witch. She’d leave our door open, and in plain sight on the kitchen table was a gumball dispenser.

When a kid stopped at our door, my mom, with her makeup on—she never opened the door without it—would grab a gumball, show it to the kid then hide it behind her back. To get the candy, the kid would have to say my mom’s full name: Manny Lee. The kids would sit at our doorstep, and this would be the highlight of my mother’s day. She really needed a set of friends.

The first time she tried to get my homeboys to call her Manny Lee, I told her, “The name’s dumb. Manny Lee is a Dominican shortstop for the Blue Jays.”

“Me, I don’t care,” she said.


Strong as a Nation
My father renamed himself when he married my mother. The second name wouldn’t stick, something he tried out, then abandoned.

Chinese folks accumulated names over a lifetime. At birth you were given a nickname, a “milk name.” A month or so later you received your given name. When you started school, your teacher gave you a name to be used just in school, a “book name.” If you’re counting, that’s three names by age six. When you married, you took on an “adult name.” Later in life, you’d also have a formal nickname. If you were an artist, you’d have an art name, a pseudonym. And if you were part of the aristocracy, you’d be given another name after death. The posthumous name would reflect your reputation, either a way of praising you or a reminder to all that your life didn’t amount to shit.

My father’s given name was On Wah. Wah had a generic meaning: “relating to China,” but On meant “peaceful,” “safe,” “a harbor.” Combined, his name could be interpreted as Peaceful China or Peaceful Chinese.

Though the Lam family poem was gone, my great-grandma remembered bits of it, at least enough to tell my father that the character for his generation was bong, nation. My father decided to combine this with keuhng, strong, for his “adult name”: Bong Keuhng. Literally, it means “strong nation.” Applied to a person, the name could be read as “Strong as a Nation.” Sounded more kick-ass than Peaceful Chinese.

Though keuhng means “strong,” under its entry in the dictionary, the character that my father had chosen for himself, also has several additional meanings when combined with other characters, including “bandit,” “kidnap,” “rape.”


Writing Crews
I never left the house without a marker tucked in the waistband of my jeans. It might’ve been a marker with an aluminum barrel or one that was shaped like a deodorant stick, its tip as wide as a fist.

We’d hop on the city bus and tear off the advertisements that ran above the windows. Blank panels were revealed. We’d tag there, monikers we chose ourselves: LAKE, STEAM, SKY, FUSE, DRUM. Our graffiti names carried a dignity that our birth names—names chosen for us—lacked.

The first tagging crew I joined was PE, Public Enemy, named after the rap group. I’d imagined kids donning berets and paramilitary uniforms, my generation’s Black Panthers, but the leader of PE turned out to be a short white boy. Only a month after I joined, the crew died. Most crews never made it past a year. Not due to infighting or a power struggle. Motherfuckers just got tired of their crew name, bored of having to write the same letters next to their tag.

The leader of PE started another crew, TFB, Taking Frisco Back. It was rebranding. Most of the members in PE wound up in TFB. The ones who didn’t had quit writing. It was a revolving-door community. New writers were always being birthed.

Ten months later, TFB faded away, and the core members started KSF, Kings of San Francisco. I was one of the five founding members, though I could only trace our roots back two tagging generations. We were writers who didn’t record our past.


Paper Sons
One in three Chinese Americans are using a falsified last name, though they may not even know it.

When the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed city records in San Francisco, Chinese living here capitalized. Many of them lied, claiming they were citizens who had lost their birth certificates in the flames. It couldn’t be disproved. As citizens, these Chinese could now bring over their children, but why stop there? For a large sum, they’d pretend to be the father of someone unrelated to them in China, signing affidavits testifying to this. Paper sons, or in rarer cases, paper daughters, would ditch their family name and adopt the surname of the sponsoring “father.” The lie of the paper children would be handed down to their offspring.


Ghost Yard
We were the only ones in the Ghost Yard that night. No security guards. Just us and a fleet of dilapidated city buses. I stepped inside one, marker in hand. The scene was apocalyptic, holes in the floor, windows smashed, a seat uprooted lying sideways as if the Hulk had thrown it in a tantrum.

We found lead pipes and swung them at windshields, cracking them. We climbed onto the roofs of buses, hollering at the moon: “Errrrrayyyyyy!”

With only the moonlight, we could barely see what we’d tag, though I could feel the tip of my marker against the surface of the bus, wiping away layers of dirt and dust. All around my tag were faded names, names we didn’t bother to read in the dark—our graffiti forefathers.

One day, we too would be unread.


What Do You Write?
We introduced ourselves to another graff writer by asking, “What do you write?” Though we understood our writing had no future, we knew nothing as sweet as mobbing deep, going to work on a bus with the urgency of a pit stop crew, filling the inside of the bus with our tags, as if it were an autograph page of a yearbook—rocking it. The only thing better was seeing the same bus again, our names floating by, more points on the scoreboard. If the bus was stopped at a light, we’d marvel at our work from the sidewalk, sometimes running across the street just to get a peek. A moment had been captured, marking a particular occasion, an opening for a story: Oh, that was when—.

How long a bus would run in its current graffitied state was unpredictable. Some tags lasted months. Others half a day. The more we crushed a bus with our tags, the more likely the cleanup crew at the bus yards would take notice and buff away our tags sooner rather than later. Though none of us wanted to see our names erased, we relied on buses to get buffed. Without the removal of prior graffiti, we’d have no space to tag. To write was to accept your own erasure.


I retired from graffiti the summer before my senior year of high school. I sensed the ride was nearing the end and began to keep a journal. The first entry: Aug. 8—Wood got sprayed w/mace by clown.

It was a literal clown, makeup and all. He was sitting near the front of the bus. Hollywood had just tagged his name on the window that day, and before I had the chance to do the same, the clown said, “I saw that!” He stomped toward us with a painted grin. Hollywood stood up to confront him, and the guy pulled out a small device, which at first I assumed was some kind of clown gadget, like a squirting flower, until he sprayed Wood in the face with a mist of mace. He pointed the can at me. “You want some, you punk?” Some of the initial shot had somehow reached me. My eyes began to burn. I grabbed Wood, got us off the bus, and we staggered into a sporting goods store. Fortunately, the manager, a Black guy, let us use their employees-only bathroom. We told him the story, and he gave us his card. Said he could get us jobs, but neither of us wound up calling.

The entries in the journal only last for nine days, taking up just a page and a half of a small notebook. I included a crew meeting, a fight at a park, a truce struck on the bus, two all-nighters I pulled, one tagging up a bus yard. My final entry in the journal had nothing to do with writing. It was about school, senior pictures, me in a rented tuxedo. The rest of the book is blank.

Retirement came early for taggers. Seventeen seemed to be the cut-off, a year after you were eligible for a driver’s license, a year before you’d be tried as an adult. I knew hundreds of writers, bus-hopping fanatics, but only one over seventeen who was still active.

The next time I’d carry around a marker, they were for dry-erase boards. I was a first-year teacher at a school designed for kids on probation. My new monikers were: Lamborghini, Lambambino, Laminator. My favorite: Lamskino. The student who gave me this name explained from the back row, “Lam is your slave name, Lamskino is your hip-hop name.”


A Reversal
I’m still a writer, but I labor over words now, not letters, sentences, not tags. Maybe I became a literary writer, a memoirist, for the same reason I became a graffiti writer: to be remembered. A graffiti writer, through a tag, screams to the public, “I will not be forgotten!” A literary writer says the same through stories, though is less in your face about it.

As a memoirist, I seek ways to reassemble the past. I composed my own generation poem, combining characters from the names of my relatives. Mine is a reverse generation poem, not constructed to name but from names. It contains blood from both sides of my family, women and men. No hierarchy exists, the characters and generations jumbled. Twenty characters in all, following the form of the Mao family poem, a quatrain comprised of two couplets, each line five characters. I allow myself to cheat once. I don’t use the character 甥, saang, from my name, too hard to fit “nephew” into the poem. I break that character in half, only using the radical 生, “to be born.” Since it’s also pronounced saang, a homonym, read aloud, my character can still be heard in the last syllable of the verse.


A jade phoenix has superior grace.
A swallow carries luck and peace.
Wipe the contract clean, replace, and foster truth.
Tomorrow, radiant flowers will bloom.

Dickson Lam earned MFA degrees from the University of Houston and Rutgers-Newark. His work appears in The Normal School, Hyphen, PANK, The Good Men Project, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He has received fellowships from VONA and the Millay Colony for the Arts.