Reading

Names and Identity

What does your name say about you? Use this essay by Chinese American teenager Jennifer Wang to explore the relationship between name and identity.
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At a Glance

Reading

Language

English — US

Subject

  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • The Holocaust

In this essay, 17-year-old Jennifer Wang, who came to the United States from Beijing, China, when she was seven, reflects on a time when she had to introduce herself to a group of strangers at a new school.

Something about myself? How do I summarize, in thirty seconds, everything which adds up and equals a neat little bundle called Me? 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 . . .

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. . . . I hated the noise, the crush of bodies, the yells of mothers to fathers to children to uncles to aunts to cousins. . . . 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 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.” 1

  • 1Jennifer 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.

Connection Questions

  1. What words or phrases does Jennifer Wang use to describe her identity? What words or phrases does she use to describe her attitude toward her identity?
  2. What does Wang mean when she says “the ‘Jennifer’ clashing with the ‘Wang,’ the ‘Wang’ fighting with the ‘Jennifer’”? What examples does she provide to support this description of her name?
  3. What might your name tell others about your identity? What stories about you or your family might your name reflect? What about your identity is simplified, hidden, or confused by your name?

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History and Ourselves, "Finding One's Voice (Modified)," last updated May 12, 2020.

 

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