Recently, I read the book The Namesake. I adored it. It’s almost 300 pages of about absolutely nothing, and yet, of about an entire life.
It starts off with the story of two young Indian immigrant parents trying to navigate life in foreign America while still holding onto their Bengali traditions. This becomes troublesome when they give birth to a son and must name him. But they can’t; they’re waiting on a letter from India containing the baby’s chosen name. The letter doesn’t arrive and they’re forced to put a name on the birth certificate. In a panic, they name the baby Gogol, the name of the father’s favorite Russian author, but also a name that holds great significance to him. The rest of the book follows 3 decades in Gogol’s life as he grows up in America, trying to forge his own identity outside of his culture’s influence. He detests his funny name and changes it to something more acceptable (a proper Indian name) before going to college, and in doing so, reinventing himself.
I was surprised at just how much I related to this book. Though not Indian, I too, was a foreigner raised in America. And I, too, was often caught between wanting to fit in while still adhering to my Chinese values.
This also got me thinking about my own name. I was born in China. Anna is not my birth name. I’ve mentioned before that I’m one half of a pair of twins. In China, names are flipped. The last name comes first and first name comes second. Often, you are called by the entire name, or like Gogol’s Indian village, you get a pet name: a beloved unofficial name used only by family and the closest friends.
My parents, wanting one daughter named after each, decided that we would have different last names (one after our dad, and one after our mom), and the same first name. This was okay in China because, like I mentioned, often your entire name is pronounced. And plus, we were given different pet names.
But when we moved to America and enrolled in elementary school, you can imagine that this caused quite a bit of confusion. For now, we had to flip our names.
“So let me get this straight,” the principal said. “Your daughters have the same first name but different last names.”
“That’s right,” my mom confirmed.
“This cannot work. It’s too confusing. They need English names in school.”
So my mom flipped open the dictionary she always carried and landed on two names: Anna and Lena.
Done and done.
In just a split second, my mom had chosen who we would be known as for the rest of our lives.
My dad was furious that he didn’t get a say in this. Had there been time, he would have liked to carefully research and select the perfect English names.
Like Gogol’s parents in the book, my parents tried very hard to keep hold of our Chinese roots in a Western world. My mom made a spread of Chinese dishes very night for dinner. We never ate American dinners. She took it upon herself to give us Chinese lessons every weekend in reading and writing. We kept daily journals written in Chinese. Even if each entry was only a few sentences long, it kept us practicing. Speaking English in the house wasn’t allowed.
But assimilation into the American culture was unavoidable. My mom learned to play Santa for Christmases. Eventually, we started to roast turkey on Thanksgivings with all the traditional American sides. The weekend lessons stopped and dairy entries grew more and more sparse until the notebooks laid forgotten. More and more English words popped up in conversations, because we no longer knew how to express them in Chinese.
And then one day in high school, even our Chinese names disappeared.
We had grown so accustomed to using our English names that we had filled out all official school documents in those names, forgetting that those people do not really exist. By then, the easiest thing to do was to officially change our names. So we went down to the social security office and filled out the forms.
Weeks later, our new social security cards arrived, crisp and stamped and printed with the names that are now so familiar, and yet so strange.
And so it is. Anna. My new forever identity.
Anna means graceful, which I am not. Anna was chosen in haste for no special reason, in order to put down on a school form. Eventually, I learned to like the simple beauty of it, but it’s irrelevant.
I guess I never really pondered the loss of my Chinese identity until reading this book. My Chinese name, Yan, means wise. It’s an archaic and unpopular spelling. And yet, it was chosen carefully by my parents in the hopes that that’s what their daughters would grow into.
And that, I think, is who I want to be.