Zìjǐ Xiězuò (自己寫作) I Write for Myself: Ugly Chang

ORIGINAL CONTENT – HARRY POTTER BOOK SERIES SPOILERS (So if haven’t finished the series come back when you’re done)

Unexpectedly, I was on a 3-hour layover in Chicago and I was simply looking for something to pass the time. This was the days before smartphones and free Wi-Fi. I saw a huge display in the airport bookshop of the Harry Potter series. Apparently the first two books were 20% off in anticipation of the release of the third book. I had heard so much hoopla that I thought, why not – I have nothing to do for the next three hours anyway so might as well see what all the fuss was about. So I purchased both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

This was the beginning of my descent into the magical world of all things Harry Potter, Hogwarts, and Sorting Hat. I loved the books, the story, the mystery wrapped in magic, family, and friends. JK Rowling is a maestro, effortlessly and elegantly guiding us readers into a fictional world which we collectively want to will into reality. She arranges her words with such cadence that lures me to read on, ‘one more chapter,’ I would say to myself. ‘A few more pages,’ I would promise myself. ‘Another paragraph or two,’ I would continue to negotiate with myself. And before I knew it, it was 0230 and I had to get the boys ready for school in 4 hours. It was an escape from being the mom, the wife, and the household CEO. It was as if I was invited to temporarily indulge in the lives of these characters which I just could not abandon in their hour of need. Rowling is a true artistic master of the written word and with such regards, established an air of perfection – whether true or not.

On September 8, 1999, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was released in the United States. I forego to lines of Harry Potter fanatics and waited until after work to pick up my copy. Despite many not particularly fond of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it was my personal favorite. I intensely identified with Harry with his longing for family and against all odds, crossed paths with Sirius Black – his feared champion against a cruel world. Perhaps I was even a bit envious of Harry as I had to grow up being my own champion.

The third book in the series was also the introduction of the one and only Chinese character, Cho Chang. Cho was introduced during the Ravenclaw verses Griffindor Quidditch match.

“The Ravenclaw team, dressed in blue, were already standing in the middle of the field. Their Seeker, Cho Chang, was the only girl on their team. She was shorter than Harry by about a head, and Harry couldn’t help noticing, nervous as he was, that she was extremely pretty. She smiled at Harry as the teams faced each other behind their captains, and he felt a slight lurch in the region of his stomach that he didn’t think had anything to do with nerves.”

JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I remember how excited I was that a Chinese character was going to be a part of this world. Cho was the perfect combination of intelligence, athletic, and pretty. If I had a bone to pick, I would say her name had always bothered me. Although Cho was described as “extremely pretty” her name disappointedly failed to reflect that. For many years I wasn’t sure if Rowling was being clever or just ironic, ironic in terms like nicknaming Hagrid ‘Tiny’ or Gregory Goyle ‘Einstein.’

The name “Cho” to a native Chinese (Mandarin) speaker can be interpreted to two very common words and neither are flattering. The first is “Chǒu” (醜) with the “ǒ” in the third tone, meaning “ugly” as in Ugly Chang. The second is “Chòu” (臭) with the “ò” in the fourth tone, meaning “smelly” as in Smelly Chang. I had considered that perhaps Rowling was confused and had intended for “Cho” to be the last name, as traditional East-Asian names often are arranged with the last name first and the first name last. So if Westernized, it would be Chang Cho – Change being the first name and Cho being the last name. However, that is not what Rowling had written or how Cho Chang was introduced. Granted, Google didn’t launch until 1998, but I can’t imagine that any amount of research would have avoided such a peculiar choice.

Perhaps Cho could have been Zhūbǎo (珠寶) Chang. Zhūbǎo (珠寶) is a rather common girls’ name meaning “jewels” as in the child is the parents’ precious jewel, which is a lovely sentiment. Or better yet, perhaps Cho could have been Měilì (美麗) Chang. Měilì (美麗) is also a very common girls’ name literally meaning “beautiful” and easily Westernized to “May Lee” or “May Li.” Perhaps those were too common or too ordinary or even boring. However, the main character’s name is “Harry” which was ranked 30th most popular boys’ name in 1994 and had never fallen out of top 50.

So if commonality is not the concern then I can’t help but wonder why Rowling felt compelled to emphasize a Chinese character in such a manner. Names likes Emily Chang, or Sarah Chang, or Olivia Chang seem not to be quite Chinese enough. It certainly seem to be a misguided notion that Chinese characters have-to-have a traditional Chinese name in order to be Chinese enough. It all seems a bit thoughtless. It also leads me to speculate whether Rowling have any Chinese friends or acquaintance or even someone at the Chinese take-out to bounce names off of before going with “Cho.”

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