*Today I was supposed to write about credit cards, but after what happened in Charlottesville, I didn’t feel like it. So I decided to write what was bugging me instead. I hope you don’t mind. Your regularly scheduled programming will start up again this Thursday.*
I have a funny-sounding name. It doesn’t just sound funny, it’s also complicated.
Both my first and last name are ethnic. If you just saw my name, you might assume I was foreign born. But I’m not. My parents are from Asia, but I was lucky enough to be born in America. And when I was sent to ESL classes in school, I thought it was pretty silly. English was my first language, and I was American, just like my classmates.
As one of the few minorities growing up in a predominantly white town, racism became something I expected. Sure I’ve been called a “chink” by a chubby kid in sweatpants at the school library. Of course my dad, pulling over at a house to ask for directions, got chased away by a man with a gun, “Go to hell, or wherever the hell you people came from.” And obviously, when walking home from school, people in cars passing by would yell out their windows, “Gook!”
But growing up, I never thought my name was a problem. I thought it was just my face.
It happened a lot in elementary school. There would be a kid who wouldn’t want to play with me because I looked different. It’s just because they don’t know me, I shrugged. And later on, as the kid got to know me, and discovered that I wasn’t scary or foreign or smelly, we’d become friends like nothing ever happened.
Brushing it all off was my coping method of choice. I knew the problem wasn’t me, but them. So I was OK that I looked different and had a funny-sounding name, and that my clothes smelled greasy from the fried foods my parents cooked. I was OK with all of that. To add to the OK-ness, instead of reading required books for homework, I spent my time at the library, reading books for fun and poking around the Internet. I started to learn that there was a bigger world outside of my town. A world that might be a better fit for me.
When it came time to apply to colleges, all I knew was that I wanted to escape. To a place where you could be a little weird and nobody minded. That meant a big city was my only criteria. It could have been the worst school; I didn’t care. If it was in a big city, I applied there anyway. But then the acceptance letters started to roll in, and their financial aid counterparts. The big city schools were all private, and even with generous scholarships, if I decided to accept, I would graduate with at least $40,000 in loans. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a lot to you, but considering that was more than my household’s annual income, to me that was astronomical. It was decided. I would go to the school in my home state. The bigger world would have to wait.
I could tell my freshman year roommate didn’t care for me. On move-in day, she made a beeline for her side of the room with hardly a greeting. I tried to ask questions about herself, but was met with one-word answers. OK, I thought, maybe she’s just antisocial.
But I later learned that she was only antisocial around me. One time her friends from home stopped by, and she lit up around them, including me in some of their conversations. I thought her friends seemed super fun, and I wanted them to stop by again.
After they left, she said, “Oh, we used to make fun of you.”
But I had just met her friends that day. How could they have made fun of me if they’d never met me?
“We thought you were like that little girl singing in the car in Rush Hour.” In case you’ve never seen the movie, here’s the clip she was referring to:
To them I was vaguely Asian, but all Asian people are “the same” so I might as well have been that Chinese girl (not my ethnicity). To them I was automatically foreign and spoke accented English. To them I was wacky and liked to sing along to cheesy pop songs. I was a stereotype meant to entertain them. And worst of all, I was lesser than, worthy of being made fun of.
She and her friends had managed to concoct a full identity for me, just based off the name that was printed on the roommate assignment letter.
For weeks before they had met me they mocked me based off of a stereotype.
What baffled me even more was that my roommate was half white, half African-American. Couldn’t she understand how I might feel just then?
And for the first time, I realized that having a foreign-sounding name, could be a problem for me. That prejudices could occur outside of what you look like. It can happen before you even walk through the door.
The next day I started looking into how I could get a single room.
Maybe you’ve done the same thing as my roommate and her friends. It’s just harmless, right? I think we all can think of some careless thing we’ve said, because we thought it was funny. Maybe you’d never dream of using a racial slur or laugh at a racist joke, but the truth is, that many of us have hidden biases that invade our everyday lives and decisions.
While I never chose it myself, I never felt like my name was something I needed to change. It was part of my identity. I remember when my mom’s friend moved to our town with a daughter who was my age. The daughter also had a fully ethnic name. So imagine my surprise when on the first day of school, in homeroom, the teacher was doing roll call when he called out “Portia + [friend’s last name].” The last name I recognized, but the first name I did not. My friend called out from the back, “Here.” And that’s when I realized that for school, she had swapped her ethnic first name for something “white-sounding.” I whipped around in my seat and gave her a look. Portia? Really?
Maybe “Portia,” at a young age, had figured out that a name that’s unfamiliar can work against you. That there can be life hurdles that people with normal-sounding names don’t have to deal with. And sometimes changing your name is just the easier thing to do.
But I’m proud of my name. I got married recently and while I had my chance, there was never a question of whether or not to change my last name. And if my husband felt entitled to have me change my last name to his, well then, too bad for him, because he wouldn’t be the right guy for me.
I live in the “bigger world” now, but still, when I read studies like how “black”-sounding names tend to be labelled as troublemakers, or how Asian last names lead to fewer job interviews, it’s depressing.
So I look back on all those years I stuck by my name, and I wonder, was I stupid for staying true to my name?
For now, I worry about “small things.” That maybe my apartment inquiry email was deleted because the person thought, “Name too hard to pronounce, don’t want to deal with that.”
I worry that my resume goes straight to the trash. That people assume my English is shaky or I’m less competent. I worry that some people don’t realize that while they’re trying to finagle a promotion, I could be a couple steps behind, just trying to get through the front door for an interview.
Even now, with the blog, I considered using my first name so there’s more of a “face” to the voice. But I worried that a foreign-sounding name would be unrelatable.
And while I’ll never really know if any of this actually happens, I would be naive to think that the sweatpant-clad kid from the library never grew up and might be powerful one day. He could be my next boss, or my next landlord, or God forbid, a teacher.
I’m still proud of my name, but I can’t help but wonder if sometimes my name has held me back, and what kind of price I’ve had to pay along the way.