Confessions of an Asian-American

| March 30, 2016 | 1 Comment

Teacher: Class, I’d like us all to give a warm Mayflower Elementary welcome to your new classmate Jing Jang!
Jing: Jing Wang.
Teacher: Jing Wang! He and his family recently moved to our neighborhood all the way from China!
Jing: San Francisco.
Teacher: San Francisco! (Sees hand raised) Yes, Timmy?
Timmy: My momma says Chinese people eat dogs.
Teacher: Now be nice, Timmy! I’m sure Jin doesn’t do that. In fact, Jin’s family probably stopped that sort of thing as soon as they came to the United States!

~ Excerpt from American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang

You wonder why, of all the things you had to leave behind when immigrating, your parents decided to take your name with you to the United States. Well, part of you understood. As far as you were concerned your name was something that could never be changed. It could be substituted, like Elizabeth going by Liz or Beth or Isabel. It could be added upon, like spouses taking their partner’s last name after marriage. But in your mind, changing your name on any other occasion was just like changing your identity, and you had no idea why people would want to change something that’s uniquely their own. 

So when you land in Seattle and the immigration officer asks you to state your name, you reply in Chinese, hoping that it can stick with you for the rest of your American life.

Alas, your real name was never meant to be spoken in English, and after two months of correcting teachers and classmates and strangers, your patience is running thin. Deep down every butchered pronunciation feels more painful than it should, and though you can’t fault them for trying their best, the sound of your own name starts to sour. At the same time, you begin to hear the struggles that other immigrants have in assimilating to United States culture. You learn about racism, and realize that there is a juxtaposition between what society promises and what they enforce. You hear your name intertwined with insults and slurs and stereotypes, and realize that being Chinese is holding you back.

You grow to hate your Chinese name and the context that it brings.

So taking a page from celebrities like Jackie Chan and Jet Li, you choose an English name to go by instead, making sure that it’s familiar and well-known. On your eighth birthday, you’ve decided to call yourself Michael, the namesake for several great people (Jackson, Jordan, Keaton) that everyone else recognizes.

You test it out. Michael Chan, Michael Chan, Michael Chan. Say it over and over and over until you start responding to it. Michael Chan, Michael C., Michael. Cross off your old nametags and rewrite it all in black sharpie. Michael Chan, Mike Chan, Mike. It reverberates inside your head; slowly at first, then confidently, and after a while it even sounds right. And you realize you can begin again.

In the oncoming weeks everyone is surprised (and probably relieved) to hear this new development, and everyone is quick to emphasize your name just as much as you are. It roots itself into your well-being and fills that blank space on registration forms and contact lists. You realize that being “Michael” gives you more opportunities and acceptance, and less of the embarrassment and insecurities. Your parents still call you by your Chinese name, and you start responding to it less and less until you convince them to stop altogether. You reason that it is important to downplay that aspect of yourself if you are to succeed as an American.

And so your Chinese name, once a precious identity and the only thing you were called, starts to fade away. It rusts from being something passed down from your grandparent, to a middle name, then to an initial, and finally into a word so obscure and forgotten it is hard to remember if you were ever that person at all.

Jordan, Jackson, and this guy who played Batman. photo credit: Michael Keaton via photopin (license)

Jordan, Jackson, and Batman. photo credit: Michael Keaton via photopin (license)

Whenever I think about my name, I always find myself asking questions about my identity and about who I really am. And truthfully, I’m not sure if I have an answer. Identity politics have always stressed the importance of being proud of who you are, and I confess that I see myself more as an American than an Asian; partly because I do align more with American culture, but also because the heritage I was born into now feels foreign and disconnected. Not to say that cultural assimilation is synonymous with the betrayal of your own history, but I can’t help but realize that I have lost a lot of the qualities that made me Chinese. Most of all, I feel guilty that–at one point in my life–I desperately wanted to be something else.

I used to think that I could be authentic once I separated myself from the stereotypes and stigmas placed upon me, that I would belong when I aligned with the dominant subculture–or in this case, acted more “White”. But conformity only brought bitterness and self-loathing, and it made me confused. I desperately wanted to belong within a cultural sphere but couldn’t really fit in with either one. The frustration made me a bully too, especially towards my Asian-American peers. At best, I would remain silent at the ignorant remarks or laugh with the people who made them. At worst, I lambasted anyone that reinforced a stereotype, like a F.O.B* student speaking their native language. And for a long time I was angry at and afraid of that image, because I thought it would ruin my self-worth in relation to my non-Asian peers. 

I managed to brush pass these feelings of association when I finally realized that I can’t ever escape my Asian and Chinese roots–no matter how hard I try to be White. The past few years have been a journey of reconciliation, forgiveness, and ultimately, acceptance. At times, I think of my grandparents in Hong Kong and lament at how our phone conversations could’ve been more meaningful, more memorable had I’ve not been so quick in my wanton embrace of Mike. But then I listen to stories passed down from my Mom and Dad’s childhood, or see pictures of my own past, and the emptiness is a little less painful. Someday, I hope I can learn to accept myself for who I am again. For now, I will settle for claiming myself as an Asian-American, and the important discussion that carries.

Featured image credit: Hello, my name is anonymous via photopin (license)

*F.O.B = Fresh off the Boat. A pejorative term used to label Asian foreigners and/or recent immigrants.

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Category: featured, Philosophy and Religion, Poetry, Prose and Comedy, Reflections, Social Activism

Mike Chan

About the Author ()

Mike graduated from BU in 2016 with a Elementary Education major and Mathematical Statistics minor. He is from Washington (the State) and a avid football fan, so don't be surprised to see him bunkered down by the television on Sundays. He's likes music, long naps, movies, Doctor Who, video games, and making people feel great (and sometimes altogether at once). If he is not writing here, he's probably busy rambling on Reddit or cooking something exotic. Follow his Twitter @karatemanchan37. You have been warned.

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  1. Huey Wu Huey Wu says:

    ! Excellent treatment of a tricky topic.

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