I can still recall the hyperlogical conversation my parents had about giving me an Anglo first name. I was 5, and I had just immigrated to the US. It needed to sound close to my Chinese birth name (Tianyi Chen, 陈天依) because they didn’t want to strip me of my origins entirely. But it needed to be American, because they didn’t want me to suffer through the taunts and tied tongues of children who could not pronounce it.
My parents would not know the lifetime of delicate identity crises my two names would give me. My parents, like they always do, did what they thought was best. That meant being practical.
My dad even recruited his white college professor to help brainstorm a name. I still have a kaleidoscopic but sharp and funny memory of when they presented it to me: Tanya. It became funnier to me as I learned when I was older that this happened the year of the Tonya Harding scandal and, yes, that had an influence on the name they came up with.
Until very recently, I’d adopted an emotionally removed practice with how I used my English name. In classrooms and offices and parties and at the front desk signing up for a gym membership, I am Tanya Chen. On official forms and government documents, I am Tianyi Chen, for what I thought were purely bureaucratic reasons. I always feel inclined to tell the bankers at Chase that it is “OK” if they can’t pronounce my legal name quite right.
Last week’s mass killing of six Asian women, amid a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, swelled up so many thoughts and memories inside of me. I spoke to several Asian American women about confronting a lifetime of sexualized, racist jokes they’d heard. The country at large was waking up to 150 years of ignoring anti-Asian racism, and rallying pleas by Asian Americans to finally be seen and heard.
Brutal national events can instantly bring to light the small wounds some of us had carefully stowed away. I had rationalized my own first name as a small issue, but I was surprised and delighted to see something on Twitter this week: Asian people were encouraging one another to put their “other” names, their birth names or otherwise second native names, on their profiles.
“Was just asked to put the other name my parents gave me in my profile- and don't know why I didn't think to before! Feel free to join me,” tweeted Alice Wu, @thatalicewu.
Wu told me over DM that a woman from Portland named Jennifer Huang, whose Taiwanese birth name is Huang Hsin-Ping, had inspired her to tweet the message. Wu said she's trying to take any opportunity to stand more rooted in all of her truths.
"Part of the way I fight, whether growing up as an immigrant or eventually as a queer woman, is to burrow even deeper into the pride I feel surrounding whatever part of my truth is being threatened," she said. "To say, effectively, this is who I am, and whatever you do to me/us will not take it away. It's scary but freeing."
The woman who inspired the tweet, Huang, told me she noticed her friends starting to put their native names on social media, and she thought the simple gesture was “beautiful” given all of the recent events and conversations.
“Displaying our names is a way for us to show our pride in being Asian, something I had shirked away from as a child when I changed my name,” Huang said.
Huang’s parents, similar to my own, gave her another name to make her experience living in the US “easier.”
“When I got my US citizenship as a child, we changed it to Jennifer to make it easier as I was teased a lot as an ‘other,’” Huang said. “Jennifer was after all one of the most common names at the time, and [we] made Hsin-Ping my middle name.”
While so many Asian Americans are proudly wearing their “other” names online, many of them also have similarly sad stories of how their native names became othering.
Susan Kiyo Ito from Oakland told me Kiyo is legally her middle name, despite the fact that her parents had wanted to make Kiyo her first name.
“My parents had wanted to name me Kiyo after my late aunt, but then they changed their minds and decided to make that my less visible middle name because they didn't want me to be teased," said Ito.
Her father had a similar story about his own name.
“My father's name was Masaji (Mas), but white people struggled with his name, so he joked that they could call him Sam — Mas backwards — to make it easier for them to remember and pronounce.”
“Many of my Japanese relatives used English names in public for assimilation and white folks,” she added.
Siriporn Jenny Magee, whose legal first name is Thai but who has more commonly gone by Jenny, told me the rhetoric surrounding the attack last week prompted her to acknowledge her “Asian half” out loud. Growing up in Australia, Magee learned that her Thai first name was somehow difficult to acknowledge, and that white people felt entitled not to try to.
“I wasn’t always embarrassed by my first name, but I recall when I was in primary school in Australia, on the first day, my teacher would call out everyone’s names, including middle, at roll call. I remembered distinctly when he paused at my name and ignored ‘Siriporn,’” Magee, who now lives in Washington, DC, said.
Magee grew up with further taunts from grade-school kids because her name also had the word “porn” in it. “I have endured jokes about my name all my life, to the point I would make jokes myself to beat people to the punch,” she added.
These stories, about sacrificing a part of our identity of origin to appease white people’s comfort, and to protect ourselves from their discomfort, are a facet of being Asian in America. An Anglo first name means we can fit into white spaces more easily. But it also means that Asian people can become detached from and conflicted with what our leading names mean. (For me, I have Tonya Harding’s shadow floating behind and above me at all times, which is awkward and unfortunate. I haven’t ice skated in years.)
Asian Americans have long worn masks to protect ourselves and one another. So to wear our “other” or legal names alongside our American names is a simple motion to start to become more “visible,” as Ito put it. It also helps detangle the binary of being both Asian and American.
“This movement has inspired me...to show my pride in my heritage, to be more visible as an Asian American, and to not hide any part of myself,” Ito said. “I encourage all Asian Americans to be visible and proud.”
Magee said the online activism has deepened her connections to other Asian Americans in the country: “This simple movement helped me feel included and part of a community I never felt I had growing up.”
Huang shared with me that when she had children, it was imperative to her that they be called by their Chinese first names.
“While I struggled with my otherness and name as a child, I have come full circle as my children go by their Chinese names,” she said. “I have loved seeing so much #AsianPride on Twitter. It makes my heart full.” ●