My name is (yán hu hé). My family name traces back to the Yellow Emperor’s clan in 2,600 B.C. Members of the clan are considered to be descendants of the mythical dragon. are the first two characters of the city where I was born and raised, Hohhot, and it borrows the pronunciation from the Mongolian word “Xex,” meaning blue. In literal Chinese, the name also abbreviates “to preach harmony.”
The multiple layers of meaning in my name are no coincidence. Each Chinese name is chosen for a newborn baby after months of deliberation across generations within the family. My grandfather, a barely literate peasant, only made the extra effort to consult a dictionary when his grandsons and granddaughters were born. My culture believes that names not only carry the blessings of families and ancestors, but also point us to our destiny in life as humans. You don’t just pick one or two random characters and name yourself that—you inherit a name’s weight from all the previous generations, and you strive to perfect yourself every step of your life to honor it.
This is why when name tags of my Chinese friends were ripped off from their doors, the incident poked at a very special cultural soft spot in the Chinese community and incited outrage.
To be fair, when the logographic characters were romanized, part of the characters’ essence in the strokes and ticks were already lost. Without the tonal marks being denoted, the Roman alphabet can only mimic a clumsy proxy of their sounds. There are some who chose to keep their names with pride, tirelessly correcting every one of their friends who struggle with blowing a palatal consonant “x” between the teeth. But there are many others who chose to adopt English alternatives, not because they are willingly giving up their heritage, but rather because they want to protect the deep and intrinsic significance of the characters from being butchered by incorrect pronunciations, to make life easier for “everyone.”
Ironically, in the effort to better blend into English-speaking society and to be more easily called upon during conversations—a considerate act in our eyes—we have conceded a part of our identity which has only silenced us more.
Even so, there are still more customs associated with East Asian names of which people are simply unaware. Our names are not even to be written in red ink—writing names in red ink is considered offensive in Chinese culture—let alone be tainted or violently eradicated. Perhaps it is indeed unfair for me to expect more from vandals, but the “awkward” combination of letters in our romanized Chinese names does not seem to nearly mean as much to the vandals as it does to us. It is repulsive in itself to think that someone would exploit such a personal part of my identity to dissect my race and my demographic background, and ultimately to potentially target me as a means to express racist hate and bigotry.
From my perspective as a complete outsider to American politics and society, it seems to me that there is a larger climate of “purging” that is being cultivated beyond the disappearance of name tags from doors. As an international student with only Chinese citizenship, never have I questioned more my decision to come to this country and this institution, whose sets of values I so eagerly embraced a year and a half ago.
Last year, when the validity of trans identity was “respectfully questioned” in my own residence hall, I had to double-check Columbia’s ranking in LGBTQ-friendliness. When I saw the “Muslim Ban” get signed, it appeared to me that the exact same xenophobic logic behind the Chinese Exclusion Act had re-emerged in a 21st century spin-off; I had to thicken my skin, knowing even within NYC’s liberal bubble, people can shout, “Go back to your country!” to your face on the street. I am afraid that as Martin Niemöller warned us, one crime of hate will give liberty to another—apathy will lead to yet cooler apathy.
In the short history of America, the Chinese community—as well as the Asian community at large—has been stereotyped, stigmatized, fetishized, marginalized, and outright discriminated against in an unbelievable number of ways. Coincidentally, our culture has also taught us to constantly self-examine, avoid conflicts, and be harmonious. If there’s anything that explains why Asians have come to be the “model minority” while enduring these injustices, it would be that we tend to keep our mouths shut, heads down, and have an incredible work ethic. If there’s anything that explains why our predicament saw only limited advancement over centuries, it is this same fatal silence.
A famous piece of ancient Chinese wisdom states “ ”: If you concede an inch, they’ll take a foot. I now reclaim my inch and speak louder than ever to ask that you first say my name, (yán hu hé). In the spirit of coming to harmonious terms with the incidents, I’d like to think that those who took our name tags only did so to learn our names by heart. I apologize once more for not having put up a pinyin-spelled name tag on my door earlier. I now have prepared plenty. Feel free to take one.
The author is a sophomore in Columbia College studying sociology and film studies. He is an international student from Hohhot, China. He interviews Chinese international students through the Global Recruitment Committee Student Interviewing Program and is an executive committee member of the Chinese Students Club.
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