Say My Name

Illustration by Laura Yau.

First name: Yong-Yi

I used to beg my parents for a more “American” name. My parents would scold me and tell me how beautiful and meaningful my name was. My name, combined with my sister’s name, means “forever happiness.” But it was hard to find my name beautiful when it made people so uncomfortable.

The first day of school was always the hardest. I would wait anxiously for the teacher to reach my name on the roll call list; her face would begin to cringe as she hesitantly attempted to pronounce my name. When I politely corrected her, she would respond with, “Do you go by an alternative name?”

These sorts of microaggressions followed me throughout my life. The message was always painfully clear – my name would only be accepted in an altered, simplified form. These variations were never my choice but rather up to the discretion of others. People would decide to give me nicknames instead of attempting to learn my name. I was not only deeply ashamed of my name but I also felt the incessant need to apologize every time I introduced myself – for my name’s complexity and for its unfamiliarity. And I learned to enunciate every syllable of my name in the hopes that I would only have to say it once.

It has been a lifetime’s work of trying to find my name beautiful again. There are days where I am tempted to revert to my old ways, days where I still see it as a source of discomfort, a word too foreign even for my own tongue, but I am working tirelessly to unlearn this.

Last name: Chiang

My mother did not change her last name when she married my father. While she herself was never one to follow traditions, she did not apply this same mentality to my upbringing; she never once questioned that my sister and I would take on the last name of our father.

In retrospect, taking on our father’s last name made no difference; up until I was in 10th grade, my parents were still seriously considering having another child for the sole purpose of passing on the family name. My sister and I knew that the preservation of our family name was very important to our grandfather and that as women, we could not fulfill this role, a convention that conveniently fails to acknowledge the contributions of women in childbearing.  

While it deeply disturbed me that my mother would even consider having a child at a less than ideal age, I felt that it was also ridiculously unfair to bring a child into this world on the premise of such an outdated concept. Never mind the possibility that the child could be a girl! And even if they were successful in having a son, the stress and anxiety of producing a son would only continue with each generation to come.

This cycle made clear that my sister and I were ineligible to pass on the family name.

As women, our last names were not ours. Our last names could only be legitimized and valued by men in the family.

Every day, I am striving to reclaim my first name in a Western culture that continues to devalue the beauty of my language. And every day, I am working to reclaim my last name in patriarchal culture that continues to devalue my gender. I hope that one day, I can say my name confidently and know that it is my own.

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