After 18 Years As YingYing, I've Decided To Change My Name To Something "American"

Growing up, my given name, YingYing, was distorted in more ways than you can possibly imagine -- sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

Mar 25, 2014 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

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I first told my mother I wanted to change my name when I was seven years old.

My parents were frantically flipping through baby naming books in search of a name for my yet-unborn sister, and as they sounded out English names, I felt left in the dust. My first name is "YingYing," and I felt myself becoming jealous of all of these very easy to pronounce names they were considering. Why did they have to name me "YingYing"? Why couldn't I have a name no one mocked and everyone understood?

My mother looked up from her book of "Top Baby Names," and sounded out her latest choices: "Rebecca? Re-becc-a? Ashley?"

My dad shook his head. "Jenna. I like Jenna. The neighbor girl is named Jenna."

I pouted from my seat at my child’s desk. "Why don’t I get an American name?"

Still flipping through her baby name book, my mother told me something that would set the course for the rest of my life. "You can choose one yourself," she said to seven-year-old me.

And that’s when my search began.

It’s practically a rite of passage for immigrants to Anglicize their names. Especially in the Chinese-American community, having two names was natural, like speaking two languages or identifying with two cultures. For kids, it was a way of expressing our dual cultural identities. Similar to the way we spoke Mandarin at home and English at school, the way we used chopsticks at home and forks and knives at school, many of us were called one name at home and another at school.

My best friend Nancy was called Ning-ning at home; Jenny was Jie-na. For adults, it often is just simpler than explaining a name with a consonant or vowel sound that doesn’t exist in English, a sharp “j” that sounds like a “z” for example. My mother, Shujuan, goes by Sue. My father called himself Charlie for a time.

For both convenience and cultural self-expression, immigrants take on Anglicized names just as they take on American identities.

Having an ethnic name in America has its difficulties. Growing up, my given name, YingYing, was distorted in more ways than you can possibly imagine -- sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. The simplest situations that necessitated introducing myself to a stranger would make me cringe in apprehension. I learned to anticipate the extended pause when a substitute teacher reached my name on the attendance list, and raise my hand preemptively to spare them the pain.

"Last name Shang? It's YingYing. That’s YingYing, with two Is."

The simplest tasks, from ordering a Starbucks to giving my name to a service attendant at the mall, were fraught with mishaps.

Even when my name was spelled and pronounced correctly, an ethnic name comes with the unshakable assumption of foreignness.

Despite being 17 and supposedly hardened to the cruelty of the world, there was still a particular sting when an anonymous commenter wrote snidely on one of my pieces, "There’s a grammar mistake, but good luck telling someone named YingYing Shang about an English error."

Compounded to the childhood shame of being called "PingPong" by a few cruel classmates in fifth grade, the need to change my name has never been in question. If only to stave off assumptions about my status as an American citizen and my ability to speak English, the necessity of Anglicizing my name only grew as I aged.

Yet how does one go about changing her name?

Of all the names out there, how does one pick a name that encapsulates their identity? As I grew older, my conception of my identity and who I wanted to be changed drastically from age to age, and my favored name adjusted with it.

At age seven, I wanted to change my name to Cinderella. That phase quickly passed.

At around 10, I discovered a book of place names on my parents' shelf. We were nomads then, wandering from Wisconsin to Maine to Pennsylvania, carried by the tides of my mother's career. Every school year, I would begin at a different school in a different state. I wondered if naming myself after a place would anchor me to a location, however far off, and that way, something in my life would stay the same, no matter where I moved.

I settled on Eureka, a city in California: a name connoting constant discovery and perpetual amazement. I could be a Eureka.

But as I prepared to introduce myself by this new moniker on the first day of fifth grade, I just couldn’t do it. It sounded too silly. So, when Mrs. Holmes paused at the S-names on the attendance sheet, I raised my hand like I always did, "It's YingYing, with two Is."

A few years later, I read "Gone with the Wind," and decided to rename myself Scarlett. I loved the idea of Scarlett O'Hara’s passion and zeal. My mother looked at me skeptically. "You want to be named after someone who doesn't realize what they really want until it's gone with the wind?"

I bit my lip and reconsidered.

In high school, through pimples and crushes, I wanted to be a manic pixie dream girl, named something dreamy and hipster -- like Summer or Alaska. I wanted to be effortlessly and heartlessly alluring. If that meant wearing exclusively blue or toying with the hearts of boarding school boys, so be it.

Later, as I matured and ventured more into the realm of realism, I became fixated on finding a name that started with a Y, like my Chinese one. I pored over baby-naming books in search of a suitable Y name. The pickings were slim.

There was Yumi, Yolanda, Yvonne, Yvette, and Yale.

Yale was especially ridiculous.

The first two were too ethnic in a way that would confuse people unnecessarily about my Chinese-American ethnicity. Yvonne and Yvette were too French and complicated for the purposes that I needed them for -- simplicity and ease.

So I have found myself wavering for 10 whole years between Scarlett and Yolanda and Yvette and Lucy and the entire slew of options that were on babynames.com for the identity that I was still struggling to construct. And during this time, I found myself moving once again from Wisconsin to Philadelphia, suffering through adolescence, attending my prom, graduating high school, discovering my love for writing, moving out of the house, falling in love, starting a viral petition with my sister and constructing an identity for myself that seven-year-old me, who first asked the question of what my American name should be, would never have imagined.

I turned 18 a few weeks ago, and I finally know who I am.

My name is Eva.

It means "life." It sounds a bit like YingYing, which is the name my parents, who are Chinese immigrants, gave me. I chose it for myself, after a decade of consideration.

While I realize that my decade of indecision has created a much more difficult transition process than say, Jie-Na’s, who took on Jenny in kindergarten, changing my name at 18 has nothing to do with denying my cultural heritage. Rather, it’s a method of embracing my dual heritage -- my dual identity as a Chinese-American. Picking a name and living with that name is intensely personal, because a name reflects so much of your identity.

For me, finally being able to name myself means realizing and embracing who I am, cultural identity included.

At Starbucks yesterday, without much thought to anything, I ordered myself a Chai Tea Latte, and the cashier wrote "Eva" on the white paper cup. The café was crowded, and the staff bustled about, barely paying attention to my order. I sat down at a table, looked at the three letters scrawled in black sharpie on the cup, and almost wanted to cry because finally, the journey was over.

My new life had begun.