Episode 13: In celebration of May (APAHM), this episode is decided to our names. You’ll hear from four guests about their cultural and personal connections to their names, the meaning behind their names, and the pride they have in them. The music throughout this episode is from pixabay.
Guests: Marie Stebbings, Hamy Nguyen Huynh, Simran Chugani, J Nguyen
Yoko Vue: Hello everyone, welcome back to New Narratives: dispatches from Minnesota that highlight the stories of Asian America. My name is Yoko Vue and I’m the storyteller intern for Asian American Organizing Project. Growing up, people would often ask me how I got my name, if I was Japanese, what my name meant, who named me, if I knew who Yoko Ono was and that she broke up The Beatles, the list goes on. I’ve looked up the meaning of Yoko multiple times, and just in case you’re curious, to my understanding it has a few meanings: ocean, sun, and child. When I would tell people that I’m not Japanese and that I’m Hmong, the questions usually continue. And that speaks to the Hmong diaspora. My dad chose my name because of a Japanese actress in a movie. It came from the media content he was consuming in a country that didn’t yet know who the Hmong people truly are.
Because of this, I didn’t like my name growing up. It felt so different and isolating. I didn’t fit into the Jennifers, Emilys, and Hannahs. I wondered why I couldn’t have a western name like my sisters. I thought it would be easier somehow. Lots of emotions as a young Hmong girl growing up in white America. Emotions that are similar to those that I spoke with for this episode. Today, you’ll hear from four amazing individuals, each with their own story to tell.
Marie Stebbings: My name is Marie Eun Jeong Stebbings.
Hamy Nguyen Huynh: My name is Hamy Nguyen Hyunh. In Vietnamese my full name is Nguyễn Huỳnh Hà My.
Simran Chugani: Yeah, my name is Simran.
J Nguyen: So my name is J.
Yoko: We’ll be starting with Marie, the new Fellows Program Coordinator of AAOP. This was my first time meeting Marie and I got the wonderful chance to know more about her through this interview, and so will you.
Marie: I have had a very tumultuous relationship with my name. Ever since I was a little kid, there have been lots of ups and downs. When I was a little kid, I didn’t think that critically about my name, but I had a speech impediment, so I couldn’t pronounce my R’s and I couldn’t pronounce my S’s. And when I tried to introduce myself, it would be like, “Hi, I’m Maw-re Stcheub-bings,” which was very embarrassing. I was very self-conscious about the whole thing. So that really impacted how I felt about my name for a long time. And then as I grew older, I began to become more aware of how my name interacted with my ethnic identity and role as an adoptee and I had some complicated feelings around that, which I’m sure we’ll get into.
Yoko: As Marie said, we’ll get into those complicated feelings, but first let’s hear more about her name.
Marie: Marie is a family name. It’s my mom’s middle name. My aunt is called Mary. One of my second cousins is called Marie. So it was just kind of the traditional choice to go through. My mom’s family is also Catholic. So my name is derived from Mary mother of Jesus, they loved the biblical interpretations around the name of purity and life-giving and the symbolic importance in the Catholic Church. So I think that that was definitely a contributing factor to it.
I think I realized I didn’t want to change my name. And I became more and more grateful for the thought that my adoptive parents put into it, the more I reflected on it, and appreciative of the fact that they wanted to pass me down on my dad’s side, the surname Stebbings, and on my mom’s side, a different family named Marie, because they wanted to incorporate me into their community and family. And I think that led me to just be like, “This is who I am. This is what people call me, I’m cool with it.” But there is an element where I’m always constantly questioning and aware of how my name impacts my life too. I don’t think I’ll ever fully be okay with it. But I don’t think I’ll ever fully be not okay with it.
Yoko: Marie has a middle name that was given to her as a baby.
Marie: Eun means grace, and Jeong means beauty. So Eun Jeong is actually my middle name. So it does– I do retain some of that culture already. And I think my parents were very conscious about that decision. But I’ve never considered going back to being referred to as Eun Jeong. Or some Korean elders used to call me Eun Jeong-a. Because I just don’t have that strong of a tie to the Korean community. And I don’t speak the Korean language. So because of that, I think it would be a little bit out of place for me to just start referring to myself by this name that no one has called me for basically 18 years.
Yoko: To better understand Marie’s relationship with her name, I asked her about her adoption journey.
Marie: I was adopted from South Korea as a baby. I was about nine months old when I came to the U.S. But before I was adopted, I spent about four months in the foster care system in South Korea. During my early childhood, my parents really tried to keep my cultural connections strong. They took me to Korean cultural camps, the Korean Institute, they hired a Korean babysitter, they tried to find me lots of Korean friends. But this felt really really forced to me, so over time, I began to reject it. I was like, “Why are you making this my sole identity when I live in America and I go to school with a bunch of– at the time white people.” It felt very isolating, as they were trying to bring me into my home community. And I had the whole phase of “I want to be white. I was born into a white family, white people seem to have it so much better.” And that lasted for a regrettable amount of time, I think about a year. But gradually, over time, I’ve definitely come around to being a Korean American adoptee and seeking that cultural connection on my own. So lately, I’ve been trying to better understand and reach out to Korean culture and community, and also adoptee Korean culture and community as well.
Yoko: One way that Marie is seeking cultural connections is through a community class on the history of transnational adoption where all her classmates are Asian adoptees.
Marie: One thing that’s really cool about being in the adoptee class that’s related to names is that almost everyone in my class has a very European name. Like Smith or Park, Park is actually very Asian, strike that one. But they have a lot of European last names and so we’re a community of Asian people, but our names look like a generic white people meeting, which isn’t empowering on its own, but I find it really funny. And it’s kind of the basis for how we understand each other. I think by talking to Asian adoptees, you realize that your own experience isn’t unique. It isn’t uncommon and that while the times you’ve spent feeling isolated or alone or in a weird, liminal space are valid; there are so many other people who went through the same thing and will uplift you and support you through that process.
I think it’s also been a really good experience for me because a lot of my peers in the classroom are much older than me. And they have often gone through extended journeys back to their culture, whether that is literally changing their name back to their birth name, for some of them, spending an extended amount of time in their birth country. They have gone through that journey. They’ve navigated that for themselves. And while that’s still an ongoing process, having that wisdom from them and that guidance, and the opportunity that they kind of create in my mind that it is possible to reconnect has been probably one of the most empowering parts of it.
Yoko: Oftentimes we feel alone in our struggles and when we find a community that understands our pain, it is very comforting. Especially when it can be a space to explore hard questions and discussions.
Marie: There’s one part I have to mention here when talking about adoption and the class, which is the class is empowering because it lets us talk about the Imperial legacy of adoption without being judged for being ungrateful to our birth parents, or being ungrateful to the country that took us in. Adoption has a super complicated history, that’s really hard for people who aren’t adopted to understand and unpack. And so being able to have those honest conversations about kind of the negative impacts of transracial and transnational adoption, is a very unnecessary space.
I mean for South Korea, the adoption industry really started during and after the Korean War; and I call it an industry because it was literally a market for Korean babies to be brought to the US. There’s a complicated history of missionary work and democracy promotion, Christian promotion that’s entangled with it all. And I also think that in our modern age, while we aren’t completely separated from the very real structural history of imperialism, we’re also raising a lot of new questions about whether white parents should be raising children of color, when just as a fact of their identity, they lack the tools to adequately connect their children to their culture. And so there’s so many problems to untangle and so many solutions that are possible, but also impractical when it comes to transracial adoption.
Yoko: Marie shared with me that something surprising was revealed to her in relation to her name during her visit to South Korea with her parents.
Marie: So I went back to Korea in 2019 with my parents and as part of our trip, we visited the social work center that I was adopted from. And during this visit, a caseworker will come out and they’ll take you through a very slim file that has your original information. So it’s basic height, weight name, a couple of fun facts they tried to gather about you and your birth parents. And something that was revealed to me during this debriefing was that I was actually named by the care workers at the social work center. So I don’t even know what my real first birth name was and that threw me for a loop for a couple of weeks and has remained in the back of my brain since then. It was really disconcerting. To not know what my birth parents called me, what their original intent was. Because I’d always assumed that Eun Jeong came from them and that was my one tie to who they were and their connection to me. And that was really just severed in that moment when the birth record was like, “Mmm so here it says that the agent decided to name you Eun Jeong-a because you seemed like a really beautiful baby.” Which was very sweet, but I’m just really– it threw me, it threw me for a bit.
Yoko: Now having gone through some time of exploring her adoptee identity and her relationship with her name, I wanted to know where she is now.
Marie: I think that that disconnection will stay with me for the rest of my life, but I feel very at peace, in the knowledge that I have been gifted two names that are both embedded with culture and history and meaning to me, and that also they don’t necessarily define who I am. They’re what people call me, and what they know me by, but they aren’t a reflection of my entire identity. And that kind of thinking for me has been really powerful in coming to terms with both of my names.
Yoko: Throughout my conversation with Marie I noticed that she spoke about this existence between two worlds and feeling as if you’re not fitting in either.
Marie: Like you said before, as an adoptee, you often feel stuck between two places, two identities, or two communities. And I’ve had a lot of time in the U.S. to navigate one side of that, to navigate my American identity, my American community, and my American family. But the U.S. doesn’t let you forget that you are not originally from here and that you have a separate side to you, that means you’ll never be fully accepted into their normative society, or whatever their society– American society, you’ll be a perpetual outsider.
Yoko: Those complicated feelings Marie mentioned earlier include feeling disconnected.
Marie: I think it all had to do with perception for me. So when someone hears the name Marie Stebbings, it’s very European sounding and they expect a white person to walk into the room. And I became just very hyper-aware of that, as I began to have to submit my names for things like applications or job interviews, and how my face, my presence was a mismatch with what my name represented. I think I also felt a disconnect between being Korean and knowing people who had traditionally Korean names and having a Western name myself. And that created a bit of a disconnect between me and the Korean community in Minnesota.
And I think that specifically impacts me when I’m navigating Asian spaces because I have a super European name. And I’m conscious of, “Who do they think I am? Do they think I belong here?” And then that ties back to kind of deeper concerns I’ve always had about being an adoptee and being raised in a white family. Like do I really belong here because they don’t have that familial tie to Asian or Asian American culture.
Yoko: Marie’s concern of “Do they think I belong here?” is very real and a familiar feeling to Asian Americans whether that’s “Do I belong within this Asian community?” or “Do I belong on this predominantly white campus?” We exist between two worlds and often go through these thoughts. Another common experience as a child who grew up with my native language at home and learning English in school is being the bridge that connects these two worlds. In relation to Hamy, she had to be the bridge between her parents and navigating the American systems.
Hamy: I guess being an immigrant is never easy. We came here when I was 14 months old. So I, fortunately, didn’t have to bear the same burdens that my family had to do. My parents and my two older siblings, they were a lot older than me. And they’d had to give up everything and come here on a plane without much luggage and obviously didn’t know a word of English. So when we lived in Chaska, we were discriminated against quite a bit. It’s hard to find jobs, it was hard for my parents to be able to understand what was needed of them in order for their kids to survive, as well as, to thrive. And it wasn’t any easier with the treatment that we got.
I vividly remember this experience where I took my parents to the DMV, and obviously, as the youngest child, I got to learn English while I was at school. And so I would be their interpreter while I was still a child. But that was something that I was happy to do because like I said, my parents had to give up everything. And if me being their interpreter meant that I could help in any way I was willing to do that. But in this particular moment, we went to the DMV, and I was translating what the person was saying to my dad. And she said that I wasn’t allowed to do that and that he should learn how to speak English by himself. And that if he wasn’t going to be willing to speak English, he should leave this country and go back to wherever we came from. So that memory sticks with me to this day.
Yoko: Discrimination comes in many forms and as children, we often want to protect our parents from it. But I wonder, who protects us?
Hamy: I feel like when I was young, it was especially hard. Just because having a name like Hamy, I got bullied a lot while growing up. And I would get called things like Green Eggs and Ham, hamburger, ham and cheese, the list goes on and on. And it felt pretty unfair to me that I was made fun of for my name, even though it wasn’t actually my name. And it was just something that I went by in order to make it easier for the same people that were bullying me to pronounce. But I feel like now that I’m an adult, I’ve been using my name Hamy for quite some time now. And it’s become part of my personal branding and is tied to all of the lived experiences that I’ve had for the past however many years.
Yoko: Not only was Hamy bullied because of her name, but she also faced harassment just because of her racial identity.
Hamy: And then, a different memory, this was personal to me, didn’t impact my family, and I don’t think that I’ve ever told them the story. But while I was in elementary school like I mentioned earlier, I was from Chaska, Minnesota and there’s not that many Asian there. There was probably four other Asian students in my grade. And so one day I was walking to the bus, and there was this older, upperclassman, he was probably a fifth-grader, and I was probably in second or third grade at the time. But he spat on me. And yeah, he just really looked down on me, because I was Asian, and he didn’t want me to ride the same bus as him. And I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone that this had happened, even though it really hurt me. So there’s just lots of experiences that I remember when growing up because of my identity as an immigrant as well as the language barrier that my family had that might not necessarily be tied to my name, but my name change to become easier for English speakers to say, it just symbolizes all of that.
Yoko: Right. Even though you’ve already changed it to make it easier for people to pronounce, yet it still in a sense wasn’t enough. You mentioned that you delt that you couldn’t tell anyone about that incident, how come?
Hamy: I think being Asian Americans specifically, I don’t want to speak on everyone’s behalf. But I think that it is very general to the experience of Asian Americans is we try to keep our heads down and keep doing what we’re supposed to do according to society and to our parents. And at that time, I was probably a second or third grader, I didn’t know how to navigate that kind of situation. And it was probably one of the first time that I experienced that kind of blatant racism. So I just felt like I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know who to turn to. So I just kind of internalized it on my own.
Yoko: Like Hamy, I was also taught to put my head down and blend in and I do believe that this is true to be a general experience for many Asian Americans, especially immigrants and refugees. I would make myself small so as to not take space and yet, we are still called on to display our quote-un-quote exotic culture.
Hamy: When I was in second grade. [Hamy laughing] I think a lot of my stories come from second grade, just because that was obviously the first time that I became so aware of my name and that was also the year that I had to change my name legally after my parents passed their citizenship test. And my teacher had asked all of the students who spoke a different language to come up to the board and to write a word in their native tongue. And so I grew up speaking Vietnamese, but I didn’t know how to read or write in it. So I just felt very awkward that I had to complete this request. But the only word that I knew how to write in Vietnamese was my own name, so I went up to the board and just wrote my name. And obviously, Vietnamese isn’t a language that has different types of characters, we have the same alphabet as English. So my name obviously was the same except with accent marks, right. And the teacher just seemed very unimpressed. And she was like, “Do you have a different word that you can write?” And I just felt so embarrassed in that moment. But I just remembered standing my ground and saying to her, that while I’m able to speak Vietnamese fluently, I cannot read or write in it and in the fact that she expected me to made me feel bad. So, I’m very proud of second-grade Hamy for being able to at least say that much.
Yoko: I have a similar experience to Hamy of being called to the front of the class and showcasing an Asian skill or knowledge. As young kids, we didn’t have the tools, spaces, or role models to help navigate these experiences. The experiences that Hamy has shared are a part of assimilating to a new country and another experience that’s a part of that is the name she is called by. For some immigrants, their names have to be spelled and pronounced in a way that is easier for English speakers.
Hamy: I think when people realize Hamy isn’t my given name, they start to better understand my identity as an immigrant. And as a Vietnamese American. me giving up my Vietnamese birth name, and being called Hamy symbolizes the struggles my family went through and the sacrifices that we’ve had to make in order to assimilate into this country. And at home and in places where people speak my mother tongue I am Hà My and it just makes me feel good that I still had that cultural tie, even though I decided to ultimately change my name to Hamy legally.
I think my name in Vietnamese sounds beautiful and I’ve gotten lots of compliments on how unique and pretty it is. But when my family immigrated to the United States, my name was quite hard for English speakers to pronounce. So then I started going by Hamy, just to make things simpler. And when I did that, it did I sort of feel like I was losing a part of myself. But as I’ve gotten older and use the name Hamy for the past, I don’t know– 15 plus years– it’s just become a part of who I am. So I do try to love and honor it.
Yoko: I found Hamy’s name very beautiful and the way it’s pronounced in Vietnamese pleasing to the ear.
Hamy: Yeah [Hamy laughing], there’s kind of a funny story with this. My mom and dad actually disagreed on what my name should be. They both agreed that the first part of my name should be Hà because that was the name of my grandmother on my dad’s side. And she had passed away when he was quite young. And my dad wanted my name to be Hà My with an M and my mom wanted it to be Hà Vy with a V. And obviously, my dad won and got to name me. But yeah, it just means so much to me that I was named after my grandmother who I never met, but it’s special because her name and her identity still live on through me. So “Hà” actually means river and “My” means beautiful. So I guess if we were to translate my name, quite literally, it would be “beautiful river.”
Yoko: Whereas Marie and Hamy were given family names, Simran and my name came from the media.
Simran: They just really liked the name. They like how it sounded. There was a famous Bollywood movie with Bollywood actors Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol and Kajol’s character was named Simran. And so it was just the popularity of that movie and then kind of having this symbolic meaning attached to it too of just peace and mediation that my parents felt like they really needed in their lives at that time. So they decided to name me Simran. Simran is a Sindhi name. And it means peace and meditation. And so it’s incorporated in some prayers that people are encouraged to use when they’re going through a hard time. And so by repeating Simran over and over again, it’s said to help with grieving processes or just overcoming a hard time.
Yoko: Growing up as Asian Americans, it’s hard to see role models or peers that really owned their identity and their name, but college was a space where Simran could connect with others who were confident in their identity.
Simran: In coming to college, seeing other people who were so confident in who they were and what their name was, that someone would call up their name, and they would go on stage and just own the room. And that was so inspiring to me because I always did the opposite. Someone would call my name. And I’ve kind of shy away a little bit, and I kind of like tried to disconnect myself from the identities that are attached to my name. And so to see someone fully embrace that, whether they’re spoken word poets, whether they’re authors, whether they’re artists of any discipline, whether they’re speakers. To see someone just go and really own that identity and own their full name was really empowering to me. I think the other thing that I realized in the past four years is that– growing up, I had one meaning for my name. And my parents had told me one story of one meaning for my name. And then in the past couple years, I realized your name, can mean so many different things in so many different contexts. And to be able to kind of wield that as a weapon was really, really fun for me to explore, and really empowering for me to learn.
Yoko: I really resonated with Simran and appreciated the way she views her name in that it can mean different things. She shared with me two examples of when others were confident in their name and took space to speak about it, both of which were impactful for her.
Simran: So, one celebrity, one popular example is Hasan Minaj. And Hasan Minaj was interviewed on the Ellen show a few years ago. And on that show, Ellen pronounced his name “Has-san”. And it was a small interview segment, it was maybe five minutes long. But Hasan Minaj spent those five minutes making sure that Ellen said his name correctly. And a few weeks, a few months, I don’t know sometime after that interview with Ellen, and Hasan went on to a late-night show and somebody had asked him about that instance. And he talked about after that interview with Ellen, his dad came up to him and was like, “Why did you spend those five minutes talking about your name? You could have been publicizing your work, you could have been talking about your life, next steps, you could have been advertising yourself, and your shows. Why did you spend those five minutes just talking about your name?” And Hasan was like, “Look, we don’t get these opportunities. And when we do, our name should be said correctly. That is the basic precedent of dignity and respect for Asian Americans in popular media. So why not spend that time talking about my name and uplifting the people who made my name what it is.” So that’s one popular example.
The more personal example, I won’t name names just I want to protect their confidentiality. But there was one spoken word show that I had gone to my freshman year. And I think it was my first spoken word poetry show ever. But I had gone and sat down in the audience, and this poet that went after me, the emcee didn’t pronounce their name correctly. And so when she went onto the stage, the first thing that she said was, “Hey, this is my name, pronounce it correctly.” And then took up that space for the emcee to try it again. And to really teach the emcee, this is why this is so important. And this is how you need to pronounce my name. So that was really impactful for me
Yoko: I also didn’t see people who took up space so beautifully and stood their ground and so when we do see others take space I think it kind of gives us permission as well. The last thing I asked Simran was to share a moment or story that she thinks about in relation to her name.
Simran: Honestly the big moments or stories that come to my mind when I think about my name are things that I regret or stories of regret, and so many stories in so many instances growing up where I wish I had said something about my name. I wish I had corrected someone and took up that time to explain how to properly pronounce my name. And I just didn’t and there was this one instance where senior year of high school, one of those school administrators came into my psych class, and they go, “Hey, is cinnamon javon in this class?” And my teacher at the time goes, “If there was a cinnamon Javon in this class, we would know about it.” So the administrator leaves comes back five minutes later and she goes, “I’m so so sorry. Is cinnamon Chugani… Cinnamon Chigani, can you please go to the principal’s office?”
And at this point, I was like, “What is going on?” So I get to my principal’s office. And I’m joking around, and I’m like, “So cinnamon is here. What’s good Scott? And so the principal sits me down and he tells me that I have been nominated with a friend to be a speaker for the commencement. And I’m really excited. And one thing that I wish I had done before that, is teach people how to properly pronounce my name because even as I was walking up to that podium, there was mispronunciation happening. And I wish I had clarified that before, or honestly even started out that graduation speech with sharing this story. And making people know what my name is and how to say it correctly. And it’s just so many instances of wishing I had done X, Y or Z that I just didn’t, and I wish I knew– I wish I had the self-awareness and the confidence that I have now back then.
Yoko: I shared a lot of the same sentiments with Simran as we talked about her relationship with her name and I want to leave you off with this last bit from her.
Simran: So a few weeks ago at the national speech and debate tournament, the individual who was presenting awards very clearly stated that if she mispronounces a competitor’s name, the competitor should go up to the podium and correct her. So when she was presenting my award, she mispronounced my name. And in that moment, not only did I go up to the podium and correct her, but an entire sea of audience members started screaming the correct pronunciation of my name. And that was such a cool moment. Because it was a community that I realized cared so much about me that they wanted me to have that moment and take up that space to have my name correctly pronounced. And they allowed me to retain all of the dignity and respect that comes along with that. So speech and debate community, shout out to y’all. I love y’all and that’s a moment that I really will cherish and celebrate for forever.
J: My relationship with my name is complicated. So for some context, J is the name that I go by, and the name that I prefer folks to call me. But my birth name is Janet spelt J-A-N-E-T. And I was named after my godmother, who was this female pastor at the church that helped my family after they arrived in the U.S. as refugees. And so this woman was very involved with the Catholic Church and essentially helped my family acclimate to the United States, and also connected us with resources. So she was a really important person in my grandma and my mom’s life. And so it’s really interesting because both of our names are pronounced differently from the way it’s spelt. Yeah, so it’s spelt “Janet”, but pronounced “Jeanette” and so growing up, I had to correct people on the pronunciation of my name.
And so my relationship is complicated because it used to be a source of insecurity for me. And I found that a lot of folks really struggled with remembering how to pronounce my name correctly, even though it’s like a very Catholic, anglicized white person’s name. And so I just I thought that maybe people were just not getting my name, because I– it a lot of like internalized racism that I had about being Asian in white spaces. So I was worried that maybe people couldn’t pronounce my name because I was forgetful, or too quiet, or just very much a part of the wallpaper of their lives. And so it really tied into this image I had of myself when I was younger of being this really shy, reserved Asian kid. And so I’ve grown out of all of that now, I think. I don’t know if I have a lot of resolve around my birth name.
Yoko: As J was a name they chose, I was curious how they came to this decision.
J: This name took a lot, the letter J took a really long time for me to arrive to because in the brainstorming process, I was super cognizant of other Asian names, I was thinking about going by Jae, J A E, but I was like, “I’ve not Korean I don’t want people to think I’m Korean.” Or my partner’s Indian, and they talked about the name J A I, pronounced Jai. I also, I’m not Indian, so I–It was it was just a lot of back and forth.
And also in the Vietnamese alphabet, the letter J isn’t a thing. It was just a lot of contemplation about how I want it to be greeted and referred to. And so I decided with the letter J, just because I felt like it’s still honored my godmother and my family. But it’s ambiguous enough, gender-wise. I felt like it was ambiguous enough that I could navigate sis hetero spaces without being misgendered too much. And also, it just felt very queer. Like a lot of queer folks just have like inanimate objects and single-letter names, so I felt like it fit right in.
Yoko: People will often assume one’s racial identity from a name and people will also assume one’s gender from a name, something that J has experienced.
J: I’ve been socially transitioning for the last like two years, I came out as non-binary in 2017. And I just felt like it was time for me to not necessarily change my name. My old name didn’t feel like he was serving me in the right ways anymore. And as part of growing into my queer identity, I really wanted to explore other ways of presentation, and expression. And so I decided to go by J, as part of that social transitioning process. And this is right at the beginning of the pandemic, where we had lots of zoom meetings, and I found myself being misgendered. Even when I didn’t have my camera on or when my mic was off, because people would see my birth name, and they would automatically assume. And so I decided to choose a name that was ambiguous, gender-wise.
Yoko: J shared with me what it was like for them growing up and how they came to understand their queer identity.
J: There was a point in my life where I realized that womanhood, and girlhood didn’t serve me the way I wanted to. And this is very personal for me. I grew up in a home where gender norms were very prevalent, a somewhat traditional Vietnamese household was a patriarch, and I just did not want to be a part of those systems anymore. And going to college and being around people who were queer, and also created affirming spaces for people like me to explore was really helpful in coming into that identity. I think there was just a point where I realized that gender, the way that I was brought up in it was very binary and very limiting. And I just felt like there had to be more like it can’t just be man or woman. And so coming out as nonbinary has been so liberating and powerful for me. And I think it was mostly response to oppression. But now that I’ve been out for a few years, I realized that there’s there’s a tendency to like conflate queerness with oppression. Not that you have to be queer– or not that you have to experience oppression to be queer. But personally, for me, that was how that came about.
Yoko: The systems we live in are hard to change and create barriers for those that don’t fit neatly into a box.
J: I thought about how it’s really helpful to think of identity as fluid. And so I feel the same way about names because I don’t think I’ll keep this name for the rest of my life. And I’ve done a lot of reflection about the systems that we’re a part of that make it really hard for folks with non-traditional names. For example, a single letter name, a lot of times, it’s not acceptable when you’re making a profile or an account online. So I had to use a VPN to change my Facebook name. And I’d imagine that if I wanted to legally change my name, to just a letter J, there would be a lot of problems with legal documentation or government papers. And so I think where I am right now, is that my name suits me, and it serves its purpose. But if it does change, if I decide to go by a different name, that’s okay, too.
I think with my name it’s very much tied into being trans. So as I continue to grow into my queerness, I think similar to the fluidity of my gender expression and my understanding of gender, I think my name will also continue to change. And so I think my relationship is much healthier. Of course, there’s still the anxiety about introducing myself to new people and then hoping to get my name, or don’t think it’s too weird. But again, that’s work that non-trans people have to do. And I feel good about it.
Yoko: While our name is often how we address someone, there are other ways as well, as J shares.
J: Like honorifics are really important in the Vietnamese language. And so I have a younger brother who grew up calling me chị, which means older sister. And so when I came out to him, I’m only out to my brother, not my mom or her partner. But he’s changed his language to address me. And so he doesn’t call me chị in Vietnamese. But he used to also call me sis in English, but now he’s shifted to sib. And so he called me sib or sibling. And I think it’s super endearing and really wonderful that this is his way of like another name that he calls me. That’s gender-affirming.
Yoko: It’s really impactful when someone changes the way they address another person because it shows how much they value that individual, to the point of changing a habit, which can be hard. So when there are other folks that don’t or don’t put in the effort, it can be frustrating.
J: So I’m specifically thinking of some work experiences I had where my colleagues- my other peers I was working with, they’re all people of color as well, but for some reason, my supervisor had the hardest time remembering my name. And so he ended up never actually speaking directly to me, which is really difficult when you’re on a small team of people that you really rely on communication. But I found that he was going through my colleagues to get to me, and just because he couldn’t remember my name. So it wasn’t until a few months later towards the end of my time working there that we had a conversation about this. And he, people will sum it up to just being bad with remembering names, but it brought up a lot of anxiety in me about maybe he is forgetful about my name, specifically, even though everyone else, they’re also people of color, and they have names like Sarah or Joe, is because I am- this was when I was younger, so it was much quieter. And I felt like I took up a lot less space. And maybe that was why, I don’t think it’s true, but there’s just some fears around being perceived as that really quiet, shy, reserved Asian person. And I felt like I really embodied that at that time. And so it was just something that crossed my mind and stuck for a bit.
Yoko: There is power in calling someone by their name because it acknowledges their identity and who they are.
J: When I am intentionally building relationships with folks, I find it really powerful when they refer to you by your name. And so even in a casual conversation when someone just says J, like ending their sentence with my name, feel super validating. And it’s something that I’ve come to appreciate a lot. I think initially I was like, “Why are you saying my name so much, it’s kind of uncomfortable.” But now, like, it feels like a way for us to connect heart to heart, especially with my queer and trans friends to who also have chosen names, rather than their birth name. And so I think that has been just something I’ve really grown to appreciate. And I feel like that’s one of the best ways for me to connect with people is when we’re able to call each other by the names that we want to be referred to as.
If people can’t pronounce your name. It’s not on you. And yeah, it was just a lot of like working through that I had to do with this. But I think now I have a much better relationship with my name and my identity.
Yoko: Our names are beautiful, vibrant, exquisite, and although it does not encompass the vast complex being that we are, it is ours. If you ever find yourself forgetting someone’s name or the pronunciation of it, I hope that you’ll have enough courage to simply ask. Like the guests on this episode, I’ve come to accept Yoko as I’ve grown wiser and more aware of my identity. Just as I am unique, it is a name fitting of who I am.
This episode is written, edited, and produced by your host Yoko Vue, Storyteller Intern at Asian American Organizing Project. More information about AAOP can be found at our website aaopmn.org. Thank you for listening and see you next time!