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The Chinese American Without a Chinese Name
I walked up to the customs agent’s counter in Beijing International airport, and mindlessly handed the customs agent my passport. He then mindlessly did his thing with my passport. It was supposed to be a quiet transaction, but he broke the silence when he looked up and asked if I still use my Chinese name in America. With a blank look on my face, I began to consider supplying him with an answer he might like to hear, but he didn’t give me enough time to think and he answered for me that that I must not use my Chinese name anymore. My passport was handed back to me with a smile. He then wished me a pleasant journey and pointed me to the three long security checkpoints reserved for US bound passengers. While standing in line, I thought about my long-lost Chinese name and how unattached I am to my Chinese name….
Born in 1969 in communist China, my parents promptly decided to name me after something that had something to do with Chairman Mao. Not that they thought of him as a great leader, but rather out of fear. They picked a little known poem by Mao, which allowed them to show enough dedication to Mao without being reminded too much of him. My name was the first character of the three character title of this poem. (They actually needed to have three children to qualify for Mao’s poem, but they stopped at two. My sister’s name was the second character of the title, but her character is better known.) They clearly went too far with their quest, not only did most people fail to associate my name properly with Chairman Mao, but most people simply don’t know the character that is my name.
As a young child in China, it always surprised me if someone could pronounce my name correctly without being told first. I regarded anyone who knew my name as certainly the most learned and intelligent. They would often ask anyway how I got such a little known character as a name and I would politely repeat the origin of my name, including that I only have one sibling and that I don’t actually know the poem itself, just the title. I also endured numerous longer and more colorful dialogs about my name between my mother and other curious people. Once in a while, my parents would apologetically explain that my name was selected to protect me, but I am certain that my name had not once protected me when I got myself in trouble.
I came to America just in time to start 8th grade, and by then my Chinese name had been loosely “translated” phonetically into English. Now it really sounds nothing like my name, even when I say it. On quite a few occasions, I was completely oblivious when someone was calling for me. One day, my grandmother suggested to me that since I live in America now, it would be easier to have an English name. I thought this was an excellent idea. The very first name she suggested was “Jenny,” and I said okay. Finally, I had a name that is simple, modest, and best of all, does not call attention to itself.
When I got married, since my husband isn’t Chinese, I realized that I would lose part of my ethnic identity if I changed my last name but I decided to change my last name anyway. The logic was simple: I wanted to have the same last name as my future children so that no one would mistake me for their nanny. I kept my maiden name as my middle name. I like my last name by birth. Most of the time a middle name is not required, so, on paper, my name does not suggest that I am Chinese American.
In real life, I am a Chinese American–a proud one, I might add. I am fluent in spoken and written Chinese. My favorite carb is rice, in fact, it is pretty much the only carb I like. I am also an avid green tea drinker, and rarely miss an opportunity to order stinky bean curd if my dining partner can tolerate if not share it. After I had children of my own, it became even more important to embrace being Chinese. I wanted to pass down the great Chinese heritage and values to my children. They are taught to be respectful and obedient to their teachers in school, and that being smart and getting good grades is a great source of pride, and yes! math and science is more important than liberal arts.
I also made great efforts to teach my children to be fluent in Mandarin Chinese in our predominately English speaking household. We were fortunate to afford the neat trick of hiring a full time Chinese speaking nanny for our children for 6 years. I read Chinese children books to my children almost religiously every night. Both of my kids were given Chinese names (ones that I like) in addition to English ones and we use their Chinese names at home. We celebrate each major Chinese holiday, and for Chinese New Year, I even stage a celebration that can sort of rival Christmas. They get all dressed up in their beautiful silk Chinese outfits on New Year’s day, I arrange nice display of treats on our table for the kids to enjoy, and instead of the more traditional treats, I disguise mine with gold-wrapped Chocolate coins, and snacks that they like. After all, one has to enjoy the treats to appreciate the holiday. And of course, the red envelops, which they grow to appreciate more and more each year. One day, I think they might like it better than the presents during Christmas. I just have to be very generous with their red envelops. But the most festive part of our Chinese New Year celebration is our annul pilgrimage to my parent’s house. Where they learn that Chinese New Year is a great family celebration mixed with a lot of eating, and more red envelops for the children. I tell them that they are lucky to have more holiday celebrations than most of their friends, because they are Chinese.
And I am lucky to be an Chinese American too. Because I fully embrace the benefits from two great cultures. Even without a Chinese name.
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