What's in a Name?

This article was written by Carolyn Chen and originally posted on TheOtherBlog.org. This article has been syndicated with permission in order to continue sharing the crItical lessons and message this story conveys. If you are interested in syndicating articles for ECAASU Editorial, please contact the Managing Editor, Kate Pangilinan at kate.pangilinan@ecaasu.org.


I am a Chinese-American. And just that word alone describes the conflict I sometimes feel about belonging to two very different worlds, and therefore neither. To make matters easier for my teachers, my parents unofficially changed my name to “Carolyn” when I started grade school.

But every year on the first day of school, I would watch the teacher sail smoothly through the first few names on the roll call before pausing and squinting at mine. The teacher would hesitate and then finally ask, “...Zeeli?” In a way, “Zilai” represented everything that was utterly foreign about me. And sometimes, I wished that only “Carolyn” would ever exist.

Up until the fourth grade, I had never really thought much about my background or my identity. There were two sides to “Carolyn”, and the moment I entered the front door of my house, I was no longer her. It was “Zilai” who entered the house, who chatted non-stop with my parents and grandparents in Mandarin about my day.

As a child, I wanted to keep the two sides of me strictly separate. But one day in fourth grade, my teacher assigned our class a homework assignment to draw a family tree. The assignment itself was fairly simple; so simple I did not think that it would be such a problem until I took it home.

It finally dawned to me while sitting at my desk that almost all my relatives had Chinese names. Even when writing down the English form of the Chinese character, or pingyin, I would have a long list of exotic sounding syllables that seemed to defy the abilities of the tongue. By the time I had scrawled down the names of all my relatives, “Zilai” was beginning to sound quite tame.

The next day, as I prepared to deposit my homework in the bin, the teacher suddenly announced that everyone could share their family trees to the class if they wished. Many of my classmates squirmed with excitement. I squirmed with growing dread.

The first person to share stood up and began, easily identifying her relatives by their first names. All had simple, commonly-heard ones. A few other students shared their trees as well, until the Joes’ and Jacks’ and Johns’ seemed to blend together. As sharing time was winding down, I looked at my paper at the profuse number of X’s and Z’s present. I really did want to share. But there was also a gnawing sense of anxiety that my paper was just another reason why I didn’t really fit in.

At last, I told myself that it was no big deal. I raised my hand boldly into the air, and stood up when I was called on. The lights overhead seem to suddenly blaze down upon me, illuminating my pin- straight, coal black hair. My mouth opened, my tongue like lead, as I spoke the names of all my relatives with the thickest American accent I could muster, making each character sound flat and limp. Each syllable that I stumbled on seemed to mock me.

Why couldn’t my grandmother be named “Sarah” instead of “Feng Er Ying”?

My classmates stared at me curiously, their eyes wide with surprise and confusion. I wanted so desperately to stop reading and just disappear. The whispers started after I was finished.

For a while afterwards, I was angry at myself that I had not simply made up the names of my relatives. I was worried I wouldn’t be looked at the same again. And for a few days, there were some snickers and “ching-chong” comments behind my back. But more importantly, there were also classmates who told me that they thought the names on my family tree sounded cool.

From the experience of sharing the names of my Chinese relatives, I began looking at my Chinese name differently as well. In seventh grade, my parents finally legalized my name to “Carolyn.” But I decided to keep “Zilai” as my middle name, connecting a gap of 7,000 miles from the West to the East.

In all cultures, names give a sense of identity and are painstakingly chosen. Looking back, I realize that having two names, speaking two languages, and experiencing two cultures are the best gifts I could ever wish for.