According to American author Ralph Ellison, “It is through our names that we first place ourselves in the world. Our names, being the gift of others, must be made our own.”1 Indeed, when we meet someone new, our name is usually the first piece of information about ourselves that we share. What does our name reveal to others about our identity?
At the age of seven, Jennifer Wang came to the United States from Beijing, China, with her family. At 17, she wrote an essay called “Orientation Day” that explores the relationship between her name and her identity. It is a response to a familiar experience: introducing oneself to a group of strangers. Wang writes, in part:
Something about myself? How do I summarize, in thirty seconds, everything which adds up and equals a neat little bundle called Me? How do I present myself in a user-friendly format, complete with “Help” buttons and batteries? Who am I, and why do I matter to any of you?
First of all, I am a girl who wandered the aisles of Toys “R” Us for two hours, hunting in vain for a doll with a yellowish skin tone. I am a girl who sat on the cold bathroom floor at seven in the morning, cutting out the eyes of Caucasian models in magazines, trying to fit them on my face. I am the girl who loved [newscaster] Connie Chung because she was Asian, and I’m also the girl who hated Connie Chung because she wasn’t Asian enough. . . .
During that time I also first heard the term “chink,”2 and I wondered why people were calling me “a narrow opening, usually in a wall.” People expected me to love studying and to enjoy sitting in my room memorizing facts for days and days.
While I was growing up, I did not understand what it meant to be “Chinese” or “American.” Do these terms link only to citizenship? Do they suggest that people fit the profile of either “typical Chinese” or “typical Americans”? And who or what determines when a person starts feeling American, and stops feeling Chinese?
I eventually shunned the Asian crowds. And I hated Chinatown with a vengeance. I hated the noise, the crush of bodies, the yells of mothers to fathers to children to uncles to aunts to cousins. I hated the limp vegetables hanging out of soggy cardboard boxes. I hated the smell of fish being chopped, of meat hanging in a window. I hated not understanding their language in depth—the language of my ancestors, which was also supposed to be mine to mold and master.
I am still not a citizen of the United States of America, this great nation, which is hailed as the destination for generations of people, the promised land for millions. I flee at the mere hint of teenybopper music. I stare blankly at my friends when they mention the 1980s or share stories of their parents as hippies. And I hate baseball.
The question lingers: Am I Chinese? Am I American? Or am I some unholy mixture of both, doomed to stay torn between the two?
I don’t know if I’ll ever find the answers. Meanwhile, it’s my turn to introduce myself . . .
I stand up and say, “My name is Jennifer Wang,” and then I sit back down. There are no other words that define me as well as those do. No others show me being stretched between two very different cultures and places—the “Jennifer” clashing with the “Wang,” the “Wang” fighting with the “Jennifer.”3
- 1 : Ralph Ellison, “Hidden Name and Complex Fate: A Writer's Experience in the United States,” in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 192.
- 2 : In addition to its dictionary definition, chink is also an offensive, derogatory term for a person of Chinese descent.
- 3 : Jennifer Wang, “Orientation Day,” in YELL-Oh Girls! Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American, ed. Vickie Nam (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 199–200. Reproduced by permission from HarperCollins Publishers.