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The Chinese American Without a Chinese Name
I approached the customs agent’s desk at Beijing International Airport and without thinking, handed my passport to the customs agent. Then he thoughtlessly 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 was still using my Chinese name in America. With a blank look on my face, I started to consider giving him an answer he would like to hear, but he didn’t give me enough time to think and replied that I shouldn’t use my Chinese name anymore. They returned my passport with a smile. He then wished me a pleasant journey and directed me to the three lengthy security checks reserved for US-bound passengers. As I stood in line, I thought about my long-lost Chinese name and how detached I am from my Chinese name…
Born in 1969 in Communist China, my parents quickly decided to name me after something to do with Chairman Mao. Not that they considered him a great leader, but rather out of fear. They chose a little-known poem by Mao, which allowed them to show enough dedication to Mao without being too reminded. My name was the first character in 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 in the title, but her character is better known.) Clearly, they went too far with his research, not only Most people did not correctly associate my name with Chairman Mao, but most people simply do not know what character my name is.
When I was a small child in China, I was always amazed that someone could pronounce my name correctly without being told first. I considered anyone who knew my name to be the most gifted and intelligent. Anyway I would often be asked 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 brother and that I don’t actually know the poem itself, just the title. I also endured numerous longer and more colorful dialogues about my name between my mother and other curious people. My parents would occasionally explain apologetically that my name was chosen to protect me, but I’m sure my name never once protected me when I got into trouble.
I arrived in the US just in time to start 8th grade, and by then my Chinese name had been phonetically “translated” into English. Now it really doesn’t sound like my name at all, even when I say it. On many occasions, I was completely oblivious when someone was calling me. One day, my grandmother suggested to me that since I now live in America, it would be easier to have an English name. I thought it was an excellent idea. The first name she suggested was “Jenny”, and I said ok. Finally, it had a name that was simple, unassuming and, best of all, unobtrusive in itself.
When I got married, since my husband is not Chinese, I realized that I would lose some of my ethnic identity if I changed my surname, but I decided to change my surname anyway. The logic was simple: I wanted to have the same last name as my future children so that no one would confuse me with their nanny. I kept my maiden name as my middle name. I like my birth name. 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’s pretty much the only carb I like. I’m also an avid green tea drinker and rarely miss an opportunity to order stinky bean curd if my dining companion tolerates it if not sharing it. After having children of my own, it was even more important to embrace being Chinese. I wanted to pass on the great Chinese heritage and values to my children. They are taught to be respectful and obedient to their teachers at school, and that being smart and getting good grades is something to be proud of, and yes! math and science are more important than the liberal arts.
I also went to great lengths to teach my children to be fluent in Mandarin Chinese in our predominantly English-speaking household. We were lucky enough to afford the good trick of hiring a full time Chinese speaking nanny for our children for 6 years. I read Chinese children’s books to my kids almost religiously every night. Both of my sons were given Chinese names (which I like) in addition to the English ones and we use their Chinese names at home. We celebrate all the major Chinese holidays and for Chinese New Year I even throw a celebration that can rival Christmas. They all dress up in their beautiful Chinese silk dresses on New Year’s Day, I make a nice display of goodies on our table for the children to enjoy, and instead of the more traditional treats, I dress mine up with coins gold-wrapped chocolates and snacks they like. After all, you have to enjoy the treats to appreciate the holidays. And of course, the red envelopes, which grow to appreciate each year more. Someday I think they will like it more than Christmas presents. I just have to be very generous with their red envelopes. But the most festive part of our Chinese New Year celebration is our canceled pilgrimage to my parents’ house. Where they learn that Chinese New Year is a big family celebration mixed with lots of food, and more red envelopes for the kids. I tell them they are lucky to have more parties than most of their friends, because they are Chinese.
And I’m also lucky to be Chinese-American. Because I fully embrace the benefits of two great cultures. Even without a Chinese name.
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