A couple months ago, I went to a Chinese restaurant with a couple of friends, who were also Chinese American. The restaurant was called Happy China and it sat at a confusing intersection. I remember I missed the turn the first time around. One of my friends ordered our food in Mandarin. When the server asked if I would like some water, I reflexively responded Sí in Spanish, my most proficient second language.
My entire life, I’ve been treated by White community members as an expert on Chinese language and culture. I remember my first grade teacher asking me if Chinese people believed in God. Not knowing the actual answer, but knowing that I had seen the happy Buddha statues at the Asian market, I responded, “Yes, and they think he looks like a large fat man with big ears.” I felt so important as the newly-appointed representative for over a billion people that I had never met. But I was never really knowledgeable of Chinese language or culture. The first time I tried to say xiexie to thank my waiter at a restaurant, it sounded a lot more like ‘she-she.’ I didn’t even learn the characters for my Chinese middle name until I was in High School.
力文 or, Li-wen as it says on my birth certificate. If I asked my mother what it means, she’d say, “It means something like strong and smart.”
Chinese given names are a lot different than English ones. There isn’t a set of Chinese words that are just ‘names’ like Matthew, or John are. Rather, they are typically unique to some degree. They are wishes, forged together by loving parents, prayers for good luck, beauty, intelligence, and strength for their children. If your parents are creative, or maybe just bold, then you might be the only person in the world with your name.
My middle name, like my brother’s and my mother’s and my cousins’, is Chinese. Those two characters were chosen for me by my Adia, my grandfather. And part of my name died with him.
My mother, his daughter, grew up in the States. Mandarin was her first language, but by the time she had started preschool, her teachers had told my parents that they were holding her and her brother back by speaking Mandarin at home. After that, my grandparents only spoke English to them. My Ayi’s, my mom’s younger sister’s first language was English. By the time my mother was my age, her Chinese was a foggy distant memory. She could still understand bits and pieces, especially at restaurants, but that was it. She could never do something as nuanced as naming, so she asked her father, my Adia.
Once, in France, my mother accidentally mixed her rusty Chinese into her high school French and didn’t realize it. She laughed afterwards and told me that she should tell my Popo, my grandmother about it; she’d be proud, she said.
I still haven’t learned much Mandarin. Most of my cousins haven’t either. But it’s still sitting there in the middle of my name. Nicholas Li-wen Hatcher.
A lot of people don’t like to talk about their middle names because they’re embarrassing. They’re taken from old relatives and family friends and have collected dust. But my name was taken from me by a stroke and a preschool teacher.
As a filmmaker and wannabe media professional, I’ve had to decide what my professional name is going to be, the name that would be listed in the credits, on resumes, grant applications, in programs, and underneath article titles. For an artist, your name is your brand. But it was hard to pick something.
In my life I have been Nicholas Hatcher and 楊力文. How could I put them together? Did I want my name to be immediately coded as Asian? Did I want my name to be immediately coded as White? Actress and RUN co-founder Chloe Bennet described her own professional name change saying, once she changed her surname, she immediately booked a gig. And she’s not the only one to do so. If this is the tax that Asian Americans are paying, then I guess I’ve paid it too.
Eventually I decided on Nicholas L Hatcher.
I didn’t want to hear people mispronounce my middle name for the rest of my life. And I didn’t want to hear myself mispronounce it. Because in reality, I don’t know my name. I know what it says, but I don’t know the dreams my Adia had for me or the wishes this name was supposed to carry. I don’t really know how to pronounce the tones or the vowels properly and part of me is worried that I used the wrong characters in this article.
My mother’s Mandarin was plucked from her lips like oranges from a tree, and with it came mine, and my brother’s, and my children’s. I still like to think that one day I’ll be able to speak Mandarin, at least conversationally. If I have kids, I’d like for them to be able to speak it too, like so many of their wealthy White peers are ironically starting to do as well. But all trees take time to grow. All I can do right now is plant the seed, and water it as often as I can.
Last month my family got together to celebrate my Yigong’s, my great-uncle’s, 90th Birthday. We got Dim Sum at what was apparently the most popular Chinese Restaurant in St. Louis. Me and my cousins ordered nine bowls of shi fan and, in my own foggy, rusty Mandarin, I told our server that we needed two bowls without green onions. And he understood. I think the next time I visit my Popo, I’m going to ask her to create names that I can give to my children. Because even if I have a complicated relationship with my middle name, I’m still glad it’s there.
Editor's Note: February 21st is International Mother Language Day. The day celebrates the importance of multilingualism in all forms and the ways that language holds, celebrates, and is our heritage. However, it is especially important for those languages that, unlike Mandarin, are not officially recognized, that are being lost. February 21st marks the anniversary of the University of Dhaka protests during the East Bengal (now Bangladesh) Language Movement where protestors advocating for state recognition of Bangla were shot and killed by police.