Placing a Name
by Richard Woo
As I was preparing to join Bill Ruckelshaus and Daniel Kemmis in the opening plenary of the Philanthropy Northwest Conference about Puget Sound and the importance of place in philanthropy, it occurred to me that part of my own identity was place-based.
I am fourth-generation Chinese American. Being bi-cultural, I have both an English and a Chinese name. Although my parents were humble people, they gave me the bodacious name of Richard, which is derived from the Germanic language and means "powerful leader," as in Richard the King of England. My grandfather chose my Chinese name Woo Gwa Ming. Before I explain that name further, let me share a little about my family history.
My grandfather, Joseph Woo, was an asparagus farmer in the early 1900s in the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles, California. He was the father of 19 children, including my father, William, who was the first born son. My dad often said jokingly that "grandpa had all of us kids to avoid hiring farm workers." In fact at age 17, my father was forced to leave high school before graduating to run my grandfather's cotton farm in rural Central California, 500 hundred miles away. In the 1950s my brother and I were born and raised by our parents, William and Patricia Woo, in that small Central Valley farm town. Oh by the way, I am the first born son.
While I try not to subscribe to the hierarchy attached to one's birth order or gender, there is no denying the influence of those forces in both traditional and contemporary society. So too is the power of place. And therein lies the meaning of my Chinese name, Woo Gwa Ming.
Woo is my last name, which is stated first in identifying oneself. Gwa means "of the country," which was my grandfather's way of placing my name in the context of a farming landscape. Ming translates to "great leader" in Cantonese, the particular Chinese dialect of our family. So my place-based Chinese name is "great leader from the country."
Birth names can be powerful symbols both for the givers and the recipient. Apparently, my ancestors held high expectations for me. While they are no longer here to witness what I am doing with my life, I believe they would appreciate my efforts to live into the name they gave me and the places it’s taken me, including Semiahmoo and the celebration of regional philanthropy.