Nonfiction, Vol. 1.1, June 2007
I lived in Beijing, China from birth until my family moved to America four years later. In China, my preschool class consisted of twenty Chinese kids, but when I entered kindergarten at Northwood Elementary School in Ames, Iowa, I became the oddball, the only Asian kid in a class with twenty-five white kids. Every student and grown-up at school was white: all the teachers, the principal, the librarian, and the school nurse. With the exception of my dad’s Chinese friends and their kids, every kid and grown-up I knew was white. At the time, neither my classmates nor I recognized the differences in our skin color. Our thoughts revolved around the day’s lunch menu and the class hamster.
Though I didn’t acknowledge race boundaries at the time, I understood that some obvious differences existed between my white friends and me. In those days, all the cool kids brought lunch to school, whether in a brown paper sack or in a Disney lunch box. I never brought lunch to school because my parents never bought bread or lunchmeat; if I wanted to bring lunch, my mom would spoon leftover fried rice into a Tupperware container and place it in a plastic Cub Foods bag. During field trips, the teachers required all students to bring their lunches, so my dad would buy me half a dozen donuts and a bottle of water. Embarrassment oozed from the pores of my tomato red face as I opened my Dunkin’ Donuts bag and bit into the first glazed donut. Meanwhile, my peers unveiled their diagonally cut peanut butter and Wonder Bread sandwiches, Fruit Roll-Ups, and juice boxes. As I started to realize such differences, shame of my heritage crept in, and I longed to blend in with my white peers.
When I was in second grade, my parents and I moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey. During the eighteen hours in the U-Haul truck, I imagined my new school and new life in New Jersey. I realized that my success in emulating the white kids would involve complete assimilation, including adopting an American name. My Chinese name, Yin Yin, always stood out in the lists of Michelles and Erics. I had the same Cinderella backpack as my white friends, played the same games of Tag and Candyland, and read the same Berenstain Bears books. My blatantly foreign name was the only thing that differentiated me from my white peers. I searched for options in my dictionary’s list of names and fell in love with the name Alicia. Alicia could make me the true American I aspired to be. Looking in the mirror, I saw Alicia in my lopsided ponytail, chubby cheeks, and crooked smile.
I discussed my name change with my mom, who agreed that having an American name could help me blend in. When we arrived in Fort Lee, I was ready to leave Yin Yin behind and become Alicia.
Soon after settling in to the new apartment, my mom took me to register for school at the regional office. We followed some lady into her office and sat down in brown cushy chairs opposite her huge wooden desk. She peered over her glasses at me, her eyes scanning me from head to toe and back again before she handed my mom a stack of colored forms.
My mom started scratching away on the clipboard. The harsh sound of the pen against the board competed with the loud click-clacks of the typewriter in the office next door. The lady sat at the desk in her blue suit with her tight ponytail as she rifled through some files. My mom paused in the middle of one form, furrowed her brow, and said, “She wants to change her name to Alicia. Can we do that?”
“Aw, really? That’s too bad. Alicia?” the lady asked, her face dripping with disappointment. Horrified, I felt as if someone had knocked the wind out of me, and I could already feel the hot tears searing the corners of my eyes. Had I made the wrong decision? Was Alicia a bad name? Were Alicias the girls with head lice who sat by the wall reading chapter books during recess? Maybe I needed to do more research. Then, as quickly as the wrinkles and drooping lines had formed, the lady’s face instantly returned to normal as she replied with a smile, “Sure, just tell the teacher.”
“Oh, that easy?” my mom asked.
My mom continued filling out the forms and chit-chatting with the lady in her broken English for several more minutes. When she finished, we prepared to leave the office.
The lady walked us to the door. “Welcome to Fort Lee…Alicia,” she uttered in a sad voice. Then, suddenly, a huge smile and, “Bye, Yin Yin.”
“Bye,” my voice trailed off as my mom led me out of the office. My mind was a pile of confusion and mush. Didn’t white people like white names? Why wouldn’t they like Alicia?
“So you still want to be Alicia?” my mom said, interrupting my near hyperventilation.
“I don’t know anymore!” I pouted with a frown and bunched-up eyebrows.
“Well, you should know for sure.”
“I know, Mom,” I muttered, stomping my feet on the pavement and wiping my tears on my sleeve.
I spent the remainder of the day agonizing over my name change. Did I really want to be Alicia? Maybe not, especially if people were going to look at me with that sad face when they discovered Alicia wasn’t my real name. I would have to keep Yin Yin a secret to avoid the sad face.
My indecision persisted for days. When the first day of school rolled around, I still hadn’t decided whether or not to change my name. However, my dad took me to school, and my fear of his short temper and impatience forced me to make a quick decision. Since he knew nothing of my impending name change, I decided not to tell him anything. I would stick to Yin Yin for now.
As soon as I walked into the classroom, I knew I had made the right decision. Instead of the twenty-five white faces staring back at me from the Northwood Elementary classroom in Iowa, this classroom held a sea of Asian faces. Relief washed over me. Since neither my dad nor my teacher, Ms. Benedict, knew about my brief rendezvous with the name Alicia, Ms. Benedict introduced me as Yin Yin to the class. Instantly, I fit in with the Soo Youngs and Se Hees of the class. At that age, none of us cared about our names, for they merely served as playground attention-grabbers. “Yin Yin, catch!” and “Yin Yin, watch this!” were the extent of my classmates’ use of my name. Adams and Johns constituted the minority in our Fort Lee world, so none of us Asian kids felt out of place with our foreign names. In our eight- and nine-year-old eyes, no race boundaries existed. Everyone was the same.
However, as we progressed into upper elementary school, our childhood innocence and naivete evaporated as we formed cliques, endured sex education classes, and learned about drugs. We saw different races, different body types, and different socioeconomic classes. We were no longer all the same. With these new feelings of loneliness and confusion, I once again desired to fit in better and used a change of name as a band-aid for my shame.
When I was in fifth grade, my family moved from New Jersey to Tennessee, and I once again seized the opportunity to change my name. I scoured my list of names for weeks, trying on every name for size. My new favorite, Annie, seemed to suit my goals and disposition perfectly. I imagined Annie to be the shy, chubby girl with multi-colored Keds and hot pink Lisa Frank fanny pack staring back at me in the mirror. Annie could be the spelling bee champion, the yearbook editor, and everything else I aspired to be in middle school.
When we arrived in Memphis, both my parents took me to register at my new school. In the car, we sat in silence as usual, staring straight ahead and listening to the murmur of the engine and bunk-lunk of the tires hitting the potholes in the road.
My mom, sitting next to me in the backseat, suddenly shifted her body to face me.
“Are you sure you want to change your name?” she whispered in a hushed voice so as not to provoke my dad’s impatience.
“I’m pretty sure,” I replied, more certain this time around. Truth be told, I had regretted not changing my name in second grade when I had the chance. In Fort Lee, due to the Asian majority, everyone revered the few white kids, often the subjects of elementary school crushes. Since changing my skin color was out of the question, I yearned for membership into the next level: the Asian kids with American names. They were the ones lucky enough to hang out with the white kids on the jungle gym while Soo Young, Min Jung, and Yin Yin played Korean jacks on a bench by the fence.
“Okay, but you should be sure this time,” my mom whispered back, interrupting my thoughts.
“I know,” I mouthed through clenched teeth.
Once we arrived at the wide one-story building, we walked in the blue front doors and entered the office. The secretary greeted us as soon as we walked in with a “Hi there, what can I do for y’all?”
She and my dad exchanged a few words, after which my dad stood at the counter filling out forms. Bored, I stood next to my dad, reading all the names and titles hanging by the cubicle entrances.
“What’s this?” my dad asked when he got to the middle name/nickname blank.
“Oh, y’all can add the middle name or nickname if she has one,” the secretary responded.
“She doesn’t have a middle name,” my dad informed her. Then, he turned to me.
“So, you want a nickname?” he asked hurriedly, anxious to go back outside to light up.
“Uhmm,” I hesitated, pretending to ponder possibilities I had not yet considered.
“Annie?” I finally muttered, almost embarrassed to say it out loud.
“Annie?” he echoed. “Annie. Okay, how to spell that?”
“A-n-n-i-e.” I watched as he wrote down each letter.
“Okay, that’s it?” he asked the secretary.
“Yup, that’s it. Her classroom’s the one right next to this office, the first door on the left in this hallway – Ms. Strickland’s class. Y’all have any questions?”
My parents and I traded glances, then shook our heads. “Thanks,” my parents said in unison with a smile and a small bow, even though we’re not Japanese. I walked out of the building a new person. I felt older and more distinguished, more important. I was Annie now.
Walking by Ms. Strickland’s classroom, I longed for classes to begin immediately so I could proclaim my name change to the world, but I knew I would have to modulate my mounting excitement for another several days. I had never looked forward to school as much as I did during the remaining days of that winter break. Every day when I woke up, the corners of my lips curled into a smile as I remembered my new name. I carefully wrote “Annie” in my best cursive penmanship on all my folders and practiced my new signature, sometimes with a round “A” and other times with a pointy, star-like “A.” I even sat all my stuffed animals down and practiced introducing myself as Annie.
After what seemed like months, winter break finally crawled to a close, and classes began on the Monday after New Year’s. That morning, I awoke before my Little Mermaid alarm clock beeped its annoying rendition of “Under the Sea.” I donned my new Wal-mart turtleneck and arrived at the bus stop early. On the bus, my toes danced in anticipation. Once the bus pulled into the school’s front driveway, my attempts to conceal my elation failed, and a grin rapidly spread across my face. First to exit the bus, I marched in the blue front doors and entered the classroom adjacent to the office. After the bell rang and everyone settled down, Ms. Strickland summoned me to the front of the classroom.
“Y’all, we have a new student with us from New Jersey. This is Annie,” she said, looking at me with a smile and a wink. This is it, I thought, the butterflies in my stomach fluttering at full force. But instead of feeling proud of my new name, I stood there shy and exposed in front of the sea of white faces, waiting for the guffaws and the pointing, for kids to yell, “She’s not Annie! She’s Yin Yin!” I waited, but heard only the shuffling of impatient feet and the turning of pages. The overhead fan whirred, and a car drove by outside the window. No one cared. Names meant nothing to these kids. They knew nothing of the agony I endured to arrive at that moment. I returned to my seat, both relieved and disappointed.
Within months, I ceased to acknowledge my Chinese name, discarding Yin Yin like a used Halloween costume. I felt equal in every way to my Caucasian peers and soon became ashamed of my Asian heritage. I spoke Mandarin only when necessary, strayed away from the Asian crowd lest I make any Asian friends, and refused to attend Chinese school. My parents argued with me for a while, trying relentlessly to continue teaching me new Chinese characters and demanding that I only converse with them in Mandarin. However, with me speaking English in school seven or eight hours a day and with both of them at work until 5pm or later, my parents eventually surrendered, relinquishing their efforts to help me understand and appreciate my heritage. Relieved of a huge burden, I ignored the sadness and disappointment in their eyes as I conversed with them in English.
In high school, I maintained solely Caucasian friends, with the exception of a Korean girl named Lauren who had been adopted by an American family in infancy. She too must have been struggling with her Asian American image, obstinately insisting that her hair was brown, not black. My futile attempts to explain that all Asians have black hair fell on deaf ears.
Unlike Lauren’s strategy of trying to deny her Asianness, my strategy involved simply ignoring my Asian heritage altogether. My shame hindered me from even acknowledging my Chinese background. I believed that mingling with the Asian crowd and speaking Mandarin would contaminate me with Asianness, as if it were a life-threatening illness.
Being Chinese offered me no advantages in America, sentencing me to endless hours of writing and rewriting the same Chinese characters and threatening me with feared phone conversations with relatives on the other side of the world. My parents often chased me around the house with the cordless phone just so I would say hi to my grandmother. My avoidance of Mandarin had left my speaking skills patchy at best, so evading all Mandarin conversations was my most convenient defense mechanism against embarrassing myself with my broken Mandarin. All in all, being Chinese had only made me feel lousy and inadequate.
I started to feel a hint of pride about my heritage toward the end of high school when my mom became a naturalized citizen. When I filled out my citizenship forms, I had the opportunity to change my name to Annie legally just by writing it on the dotted line, but I couldn’t do it.
“Why you don’t want to change it?” my mom asked, confused. “I thought you want to be Annie.”
“I do, I do,” I replied. “I just don’t know what to do with Yin Yin. I mean, I can’t just get rid of it.”
“What? I thought you want to be Annie Yang. You don’t need Yin Yin.”
“Of course I need Yin Yin!” I said, shocked at her suggestion. “That’s my name.”
“But your dad and me still know you are Yin Yin,” she said, still confused.
“Everybody else can call you Annie.”
“No, it’s not the same. It’s either got to be Annie Yin Yin Yang or Yin Yin Annie Yang.”
“Okay fine, whatever. You decide.” Even my mom couldn’t fully understand my dilemma.
In the end, I left the box for “Name Change” unchecked. My reluctance to drop Yin Yin from my name revealed my growing acknowledgement and curiosity about my Chinese identity. The heritage that once seemed useless and burdensome in childhood and early adolescence now seemed a crucial piece as I searched for hints of my identity before fleeing the coop for college and the real world.
However, this phase faded faster than it had arisen. After becoming a citizen, I continued to ignore my Asianness. During the last few months of high school, as I started parting with my circle of white friends, I went to prom with a white football player, hung out at Starbucks every evening with a group of white friends, and even started dating one of my white friends. At the end of the summer, I left for Philadelphia certain that I could secure a new group of white friends before fall classes started at the University of Pennsylvania.
During New Student Orientation, I kept my eyes peeled for potential Caucasian peers I could befriend. For the first few days, Meghan and I stuck together after meeting at a pre-orientation program. She was Caucasian with brown hair and long eyelashes and fit my target friend description perfectly. At the annual house barbecue, Meghan and I stood together, uncomfortably crowded on all sides by the swarms of other new freshmen packed into the courtyard for the promise of free food. Snippets of conversations saturated the air around us, but Meghan and I stood silent. When our eyes accidentally met, we smiled and quickly looked away.
Later, in the food line, a perky Korean girl named Crystal greeted me. Crystal was one of those never-gains-weight types that most girls envy. After finishing her seconds, she saw some other Asian girls she’d met earlier. Together, the six of us went upstairs to Crystal’s room, where she showed us her stash of kim-chee. Everyone laughed and nodded knowingly as Crystal joked about offending her roommate with her stinky jars of Asian food.
I sat on the corner of the bed laughing along with them, feeling right at home amidst this group of strangers. Though I had known Meghan for almost a week and these girls for only a few minutes, I knew that Meghan and I would never be as close as I felt to these girls. We connected instantly through our shared experiences and Asian heritage, the same heritage I had been trying to hide for nearly a decade. I thought these Asian girls would talk about Korean pop music or the upcoming Asian dance group performance. Instead, they laughed and joked about the same things that my white friends and I talked about. They were bananas and Twinkies, just like me—yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
Though I continued trying to make white friends, by the end of my first semester, all my college friends were Asian, all with American names. When I returned to Tennessee to visit my high school friends, I felt out of place. My first night back in Tennessee, my friends and I went to the Spaghetti Warehouse for dinner. We sat at a table near the center of the giant room. As I looked around, I saw only white faces: white families with two-year-olds slurping spaghetti in high chairs, white high school girls hanging out on a Friday night, and white waitresses asking for our drink orders. I was painfully aware that I was the only non-white person in the entire restaurant. No one treated me any differently than when I had lived in Tennessee, no one laughed or called me a chink, no one seemed to notice. The only thing that had changed was my perception of the situation. In high school, I felt white, dressed white, and talked white because I had convinced myself that I was white. That night at the Spaghetti Warehouse, I still dressed white and talked white, but I certainly did not feel white. Sitting across from my white friends, I knew they would never truly understand. Along with everyone else, they knew I was Asian long before I did and accepted me as such. All those years, I was only fooling myself.
Once I returned to Penn, I felt more Asian than ever before. To my parents’ utter surprise, I became so proud of my Asianness and so passionate about rediscovering the culture I had ignored for so long that I registered for a Chinese reading and writing class during my sophomore year. Within the walls of that classroom, I responded to Yin Yin eagerly and was proud for the first time in years that I too had an authentic Chinese name. In that classroom I realized that my name has a history and a meaning connecting me to millions of people who share my language and experiences. Though Annie connects me to the culture in which I currently reside, Yin Yin gives me the roots that connect me to my family and to my past.
No matter what I add, remove, or change in my name, Yin Yin will always be a part of me. I have struggled for so many years to fight her, but from now on, I will fight to keep her.