I’ve always had two names. I have one whose hand I hold every day, who has been at my side for as long as I can remember. I have another one who is more like a long-lost childhood memory than a lifelong companion.
Some Asian Americans go by visibly “foreign” names. Some might go by English names. Others, like me, might have both, but only go by one. For example, my Chinese name is Kailin. Liu Kailin. My English name shares similar syllables, but is all around better known: Katie.
Every Asian American’s relationship with their name will be different and unique. Yet, the tangled feelings tying together a name and its owner remain complicated and bittersweet.
Going by foreign names has always carried difficulties. A struggle many immigrants in America often face is whether or not they should adopt an Anglo name, if they did not have one already. Taking upon Anglicized first names was often a move to better assimilate into a society that typically values American-sounding names over foreign ones.
In my own life, I grew up watching my friends with Asian names being pestered in class to clarify how to correctly pronounce their names, only to have the syllables butchered the day after. Some Asian students, like Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen, have been asked to Anglicize their names because they sounded like “insults.” Job applicants with ethnic names will often have a harder time finding employment than their counterparts with English names, a common struggle shared by multiple communities of color.
There is a prevailing idea that having an English name, or at least one that declares you American at first glance, will make life easier for you. It is the burden of Asian Americans to go by a different name for the comfort of those around them. It is their obligation to cut up their mother tongues for the ease of those who will not take the time to properly learn their names or their meanings.
While it is unrealistic and even unfair to insist that everyone gets the names they are unfamiliar with correct the first time, often, we are not even afforded basic decency and respect.
So, when I say that I sometimes wish I had gone by my Chinese name, I do acknowledge my privilege in that desire. Having always gone by an American name, I will have an easier time in professional and educational spheres than my fellow Asian Americans who might not be in my same situation.
At the same time, though, I often wonder if my own cultural experiences would have been different, had I gone by another name. I ask myself if I would have been more closely tied with my Chinese heritage at all, had I told people to call me Kailin, and only Kailin, rather than Katie.
Names hold so much power, for better or for worse. The sad part is, maybe I would’ve felt more shame too, in going by Kailin. Perhaps I would’ve thought my name was a burden: another stumble in the attendance sheet, another stifled sigh of frustration.
But that pride will always come with the bitter medicine. I think I would’ve worn my name proudly too – oddly enough, for those same reasons, that it is an enigma, that it is foreign.
Perhaps it’s naive to assume that I would’ve felt any more authentically Chinese, had I gone by an Asian name, but I still can’t help but wonder if that was a missed chance. If I had any method of taking one more step toward my culture, of gaining one more thing in common with my parents and their people, then I would’ve gladly taken it.
I am at the point in my life now where I do want to relearn my heritage. My name is one of those things: what it means and how to write it. I want to reclaim that part of me, the most basic unit tying me to my Chinese self, and I am willing to endure the strains that might come with that decision.
My mother came into my bedroom one day and asked me if I knew what my Chinese name meant. No, I had realized. I’ve grown up, and I have never once known what it meant.
She told me it means “victory bell.” While I don’t know enough about Mandarin or the characters to know with certainty, I do trust my mother. I trust her gift to me, private and unknown as it is.
For a moment, I thought I could understand that childhood memory a bit clearer. I thought that maybe someday, I could grasp it in my other hand and call it a companion.
I could put a face to that name, at last.
And that face was my own.
Photo: Brett Sayles via Pexels