My Chinese name is (Lu Yiran), but most people don’t know this, because I go by my American name, Sarah. In Chinese, part of my name (Yiran) is derived from a Chinese proverb,(Yi ran ru gu)—roughly translated, it means to remain the same, or to preserve one’s fundamental qualities.
When I read about the recent incident in which several name tags featuring exclusively non-Western and East Asian names were ripped off multiple student doors in several residence halls, I thought of my name and how I have had the privilege of having an American name—Sarah—for all my life. I also had the privilege of being born in America and being raised in an American environment. I did not have difficulty adjusting to Columbia when I moved here because America was not new.
Although the recent incident was certainly jolting to me, I cannot even begin to imagine how Asian students who are still familiarizing themselves with America would feel. America is not easy to assimilate to. My parents were immigrants from China and settled in the United States for almost 20 years before moving back; to this day, my mother, an American citizen, is still perceived as weird, foreign, and “other” in the country in which she has spent two decades.
According to the class of 2019 profile, Columbia is a school with 27 percent of the population identifying as Asian and 19 percent as international. Out of the international population, some of the top locations represented are China, Hong Kong, and South Korea, making Columbia a school with one of the largest Asian populations and a place sought after—by both potential students and parents alike—for its Asian cultural presence.
I am an international student from Beijing, China, and I chose Columbia because I thought I could identify with other Asian students on campus; more importantly, I thought that I would belong. With this incident, unfortunately, I have felt a combination of shock, sadness, and a very uncomfortable sense that perhaps my East Asian peers and I do not belong on this seemingly diverse, inclusive campus.
On a campus where many international students may already face academic, social, and cultural challenges, it is not just the responsibility of the administration, but also of the students, to create a more open and inclusive environment, especially in the growing cesspool of xenophobia and racism in the nation that has already generated legitimate fears for so many students. When Yi-Chia “Mia” Chen, an exchange student from Waseda University in Japan, died just two weeks ago, I could not help but feel a pang of empathy for how unfamiliar she may have felt in this often difficult, confusing, and stressful environment.
While tearing down name tags may seem like a minor or isolated incident that can be attributed to individual prejudices, we must acknowledge it as a manifestation of the underlying attitudes toward Asian students that seem to pervade at Columbia. It tells us that our Chinese names are second-class to Westernized ones like Sarah—that we have to hide what makes us different in order to fit in. It is clear to me that it was no accident or joke that only East Asian students were targeted during the Chinese New Year holiday, or that the name tags from an all-Chinese suite were ripped off three times: It is racism.
What does it say about Columbia when students are made to feel weird, foreign, and “other” by their peers? Too many times I have seen condescending stares in response to the “imperfect” English of a foreign Asian student or professor, derogatory mentions of “FOB”—fresh off the boat—students, and of course, the tendency of my Asian peers to use Westernized names instead of the names given to them because of incidents like these. I still hear jokes that revolve around offensive stereotypes such as Asians eating dogs and not being able to speak English properly, and I’ve heard “I only hook up with Asian girls who are white-washed” more than I ever needed to.
When other students decide to harass us because of our names, it undermines one of the most fundamental parts of our cultural identities, be it as an Asian American who has lived here since birth or someone who has never been to America until they started attending Columbia. For us, our original name is one of our major connections to a culture and heritage that we otherwise may not have access to.
The name tag incident is part of a larger pattern of isolation that many people of color and international students already feel on campus, not an undercurrent of it. When we cannot even have our names on our doors without someone seeing it and thinking that we do not belong, we must re-evaluate our current discourse on how racism manifests at Columbia, as well as the part that we, as students, have in shaping it. This is not a nuanced or fringe issue, nor can it be something that is only addressed by Asian clubs or Asian students, as no one should ever make their peers feel unsafe or unwelcome.
This is something that should incite a major discussion on race, prejudice, and discrimination among all students on campus.
As for the students who decided to take down the name tags, I can only hope that they at least try to understand the pain and anger they have caused amongst the Asian community. My name—Yiran—means never-changing. You cannot just rip it off a door and take it away from me. We are your hallmates, your lab partners, and your friends. We will yell our names until they belong, and we will not remain silent and hidden in the face of your prejudice.
The author is a first-year in Columbia College studying political science and considering a concentration in Middle Eastern or East Asian Studies. She spends her free time searching for authentic Chinese food spots and indulging in highly unrealistic political TV shows.
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