When we first moved to America, I remember my mother taking us with her when she went to the DMV to change her name. For the longest time, I thought she was getting my father’s last name, her married name, added to her license. “Maybe that couldn’t be done in Hong Kong,” I remember thinking to myself. Later, when I asked her why all none of her documents said “Mrs. Osborn” on them, she told me she had never taken my father’s name legally. That trip to the DMV was to make her English first name her legal first name in America; her Chinese name became her middle name.
It’s not Chinese custom for women to change their names; she explained to me. Her mother-in-law — my father’s mother, my grandmother — fought her decision to keep her maiden name as her only name. But my mother refused to change her mind. “How could I reject my culture like that?” she asked, when I wanted to know why keeping her name was so important to her. Because Chinese names begin with the last name and English ones don’t, she had to legalize her English first name in order for American institutions to list her full name correctly. But her last name, her family name, never changed.
As insistent as my mother was on keeping her family name, she was also insistent that my brother and I have my father’s last name — his family name. My brother and I both have Chinese middle names, and our full Chinese names use my mother’s family’s name. Our English names, of course, use my father’s last name. My two names reflect the duality of my culture and heritage: Chinese and American.
Though, of course, my cultural identity can’t be boiled down to the simplicity of having two full names. When I lived in Beijing, locals would tell me my Chinese name sounded like a Hong Kong one, though they would often tell me this after I told them my mother’s family is from Hong Kong, so I don’t know how true this is. Outside of China/Hong Kong/Taiwan, I go by Amanda Osborn — a Caucasian name if there ever was one, one that looks amiss in, say, a list of presenters for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, or any Asian American affinity group setting.
My looks don’t make it any simpler, either. I look mixed, but often I am told by others what ethnic background they think I should have, often with incorrect guesses. I am equally comfortable at a Christmas dinner or at a Chinese New Year celebration; I grew up viewing cereal and rice porridge as interchangeable breakfast foods. Sometimes, though, I have my mixed heritage questioned altogether, no matter whether I’m in Asia or elsewhere. In Beijing, a local friend of a friend burst out laughing when my friend told him I’m Chinese. “No, not her,” he said dismissively with a wave of his hand. Case closed, just like that, because he was simply too close-minded to believe this American girl could be Chinese, too. “Are you sure you’re Chinese?” a colleague once asked me when I was helping to staff a table that explained the meaning of Chinese names at work during an event that brought together all cultures and heritages. I’ve had people follow that up with, “Oh, so not real Chinese,” when I say I’m half, but thankfully that particular colleague spared me that thought as she wandered away, her interest in me dissipating after I huffed a retort.
I once showed up to a networking event for Asian Americans and while no one made me feel unwelcome or questioned I whether or not I belonged, I felt such an acute sense of imposter syndrome. I belong here, I swear! I wanted to shout. My name may not sound Asian, nor may I look fully Asian, but that doesn’t mean I’m not Asian! I’ve had friends tell me I’m only “sort of” part of another culture, or strangers question whether or not I’m lying to them when they ask about my cultural identity. As a result, I’ve always felt defensive in any setting where culture, heritage, or ethnic backgrounds come into play.
You don’t get to tell me what I am, I want to say, whenever I feel like I am in a position where I have to explain my cultural background in order to be accepted. You don’t get to decide how to define me based on my English name alone. You don’t even know I have another name in a whole different language, one you would never be able to understand.
I’ve thought about including my Chinese middle name professionally. I could add in my middle name to my business cards and my email signature and my bylines and to that “Welcome” box in my sidebar right here on this blog. But ultimately, despite everything I’ve written here today, I don’t feel the need to (nor do I feel the need to add “Amanda” to my Chinese name, somehow). My two names are mine, and how they were given to me by my parents is how I will continue to use them — one for my life in America, and one for my life in China. One for my Western heritage, one for my Eastern heritage. One for my ties to my father, one for my ties to my mother.