Embracing Asian Identity
Reading Time: 4 minutes
The first word someone hears in the morning as their parent wakes them up. The eager call of a friend after reuniting after summer break. Taking attendance in a classroom at the beginning of the school day. All of these events have something in common—a name. Names are more than just strings of letters and sounds; they can be symbols, have hidden meanings, or be passed down through generations. Some people love their given names. Other people despise them and end up changing what they are called. Others might even have nicknames or more than one name to compensate for different cultural backgrounds or relationships. In the Asian American community, in particular, people often find themselves in two cultural spheres. The uptick in hate crimes against Asian Americans has only highlighted the different identities Asian Americans place in their names.
Freshman John Fang’s Chinese name is Fang Jianye. “The first character in Chinese names is the surname,” Fang explained. “The second character in my name, Jian, means to build. The last character is Ye, which means success.” His name is a symbol of the success his parents hope he will aspire to. “They want me to have a successful life,” Fang said. “My parents chose for me to have a name that means ‘build success.’” Fang’s name affects him very deeply in his day-to-day life: “I like my [Chinese] name—I like the meaning behind it. It kind of motivates me to live up to that name, since my name literally means to build success. It makes me strive to be a better person.”
Senior Yume Igarashi shares a similar sentiment. “My mother loves a certain manga company named ‘Hana to Yume’ in romaji. Some of her favorite manga series and childhood memories involved that company, and she knew that the ‘Yume’ part would be a perfect name for her daughter. She also loved the fact that we would both not only have the same initials, Y. I., but the same first syllable,” Igarashi explained. “Yume” is also the Japanese word for “dream” and “Igarashi” can be translated to “fifty storms.” Yume muses that even though her name does not connect to her on a literal level, it reminds her of her rich cultural background every time someone says her name. “I am often awed by the elegance that can be found in Japanese, where a complex, abstract concept could be represented with one symbol,” Igarashi explained. Through her name, Igarashi is able to connect with and take pride in her Japanese heritage.
Freshman Henry Ji also shares a similar sentiment. Ji’s Chinese name, Ji Minyu, means to remember Yu the Great, an emperor who was known for his ability to control the Huang River. “I really resonated with this because I just thought it was really impressive that someone was able to engineer and create structures to stop and regulate an entire river. I feel pretty proud that my name is a tribute to him because I think he was an impressive figure,” Ji said.
But beyond their birth names, some students have chosen to anglicize their names in hopes of better fitting into American society. Fang has gone by his anglicized name, “John,” ever since his first-grade teacher gave him the name for easier pronunciation. “I think America really likes white-sounding names, and in a workplace, they would probably want someone with a less-minority sounding name. My culture is really part of my identity, but my parents want a successful life for me,” Fang explained. Many people in the Asian American community have felt pushed to either assimilate into American culture or get stigmatized for being too foreign. Fang goes by his anglicized name due to pressure from his teacher who made little effort to try to pronounce his birth name, a pivotal part of his identity.
Ji also has mixed feelings about his name. “Henry” doesn’t exactly resonate with Ji because it lacks the uniqueness and cultural significance of his Chinese name. However, he appreciates the convenience it brings. “At the same time, I do really like it because it just feels very simple and like something normal, where I don't have to fuss about people mispronouncing it,” Ji explained. However, he can not totally escape mispronunciations, especially when he uses his Chinese name. “[Non-Chinese people are] always confused about how to say it right and always ask me to give me a correct pronunciation, and sometimes still mess it up,” Ji expressed.
This mispronunciation of names has had a profound effect on a lot of Asian Americans who have had their names called out wrongly and changed by others. With the recent spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans, more and more students have begun to proudly wear their name and culture. “I’ve realized how it is especially during times when confusion, ignorance, and fear have rotted into potent discrimination and malice that we must all both individually and collectively value and be proud of our own identities and what we can offer to the world and ourselves,” Igarashi expressed. She believes that through pride in their identity, including their names, Asian Americans can tackle racism and hate. “I think my name holds more meaning for me now than before all of this started, ” Igarashi said.
For many Asian American students, their names have brought them pride as well as frustration. It is often a constant battle between appreciating the beauty and the cultural value of their identity while also living in a society that has only begun to scratch the surface of anti-Asian bias. But through it all, students continue to wear all their names with pride, embracing them as beacons of their beautiful uniqueness.