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The Chinese American Without a Chinese Name
I walked up to the customs officer’s counter at Beijing Capital International Airport and blindly handed my passport to the customs officer. He then stupidly 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 providing him with an answer that he might like to hear, but he didn’t give me enough time to think about it and he replied that I wouldn’t. had to use my Chinese name anymore. My passport was returned to me with a smile. He then wished me a pleasant journey and directed me to the three long security checkpoints reserved for passengers bound for the United States. As I waited 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 that had 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 devotion to Mao without remembering him too much. 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 in the title, but her character is better known.) They are clearly gone too far in their quest, not only have most people misassociated my name with Chairman Mao, but most people simply don’t know the character who bears my name.
As a young child in China, it always surprised me if someone could pronounce my name correctly without being told first. I considered everyone who knew my name to be certainly the most knowledgeable and intelligent. Anyway, they often asked me how I got such a little-known name and I politely repeated the origin of my name, including that I only had one brother and didn’t know the poem about him. -even, just the title. I also endured many longer and more colorful dialogues about my name between my mother and other curious people. From time to time my parents would explain with apologies 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 America just in time to start 8th grade, and by then my Chinese name had been loosely “translated” phonetically into English. Now it doesn’t sound like my name, even when I say it. On a few occasions, I was completely unconscious when someone called 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 that was a great idea. The very first name she suggested was “Jenny,” and I said okay. Finally, I had a simple name, modest and above all, which does not draw attention to itself.
When I got married, as my husband is not Chinese, I realized that I would lose part 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 took me for their nanny. I kept my maiden name as my middle name. I love my birth surname. Most of the time, a middle name isn’t required, so on paper my name doesn’t suggest I’m 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 about the only carb I like. I’m also a big green tea drinker and rarely miss an opportunity to order stinky bean curd if my dining partner can tolerate it if not share it. After having my own children, it became even more important to accept 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 a great source of pride, and yes! math and science are more important than the liberal arts.
I also went to great lengths to teach my children fluent Mandarin Chinese in our predominantly English-speaking household. We were lucky enough to have the means to hire a full time Chinese speaking nanny for our children for 6 years. I read Chinese children’s books to my children almost religiously every night. My two children have been given Chinese names (the ones I like) in addition to English names and we use their Chinese names at home. We celebrate every major Chinese holiday, and for Chinese New Year I even throw a celebration that can somehow rival Christmas. They all dress up in their beautiful Chinese silk outfits on New Years Day, I put on a nice display of treats on our table for the kids to enjoy, and instead of the more traditional treats, I dress up mine with gold-coated chocolate coins, and snacks they love. After all, you have to enjoy the treats to enjoy the holidays. And of course, the red envelopes, which they appreciate more and more every year. Someday I think they might like better than Christmas gifts. I just have to be very generous with their red envelopes. But the most festive part of our Chinese New Year celebration is our annual pilgrimage to my parents. Where they learn that Chinese New Year is a big family celebration mixed with lots of meals, and no 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 fortunate to be a Chinese American. Because I fully embrace the benefits of two great cultures. Even without a Chinese name.
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