For me, my legal name Ting Wei Chang has always been associated with dreaded AP exams, awkward first day of school roll calls, and long lines at airport immigration. It’s never been a name I’ve liked or used unless out of complete necessity.
Even though Juliana doesn’t appear anywhere on any of my legal records, it’s the name I’ve always identified far more with. Juliana is the name I sign receipts with, applied to summer internships with. It’s the name I tell the Jamba Juice employee who’s making my Mango-a-go-go smoothie.
When my parents first moved our family to America 17 years ago, they immediately made the decision to not go by the Anglicized versions of our Taiwanese names, but instead chose new, America names for us all. My dad, Cheng Ming Chang on his passport, became Calvin, and my mom, Huei Ling Lin in the eyes of the government, went by Michelle. My little brother, the only one of us to be born in the United States, had Spencer Chang written on his birth certificate, his Chinese name an afterthought that took my mom another two years to come up with after his birth.
For most of my life, my legal name has just been a minor hassle, the sort that leads to incidents like my 4th grade yearbook printing two photos of me as the completely identical twins “Juliana Chang” and “Ting Wei Chang”. It was annoying, and occasionally hilarious, but never something that weighed heavily on my mind. Until I started applying to college.
In the months between application deadlines and results, I remember dreading the moment when my admissions officer would open up my report to see the name “Ting Wei Chang”. I dreaded the images of scheming, tiger-mom-raised, test-taking robots it might conjure up, especially considering that I was applying from a high school located in East Asia. I was resentful of my name, and how those three little syllables negated the hours I spent laboring in AP Mandarin, melted me into a piano playing, math loving, tiger mom obeying student that was nothing like me. And so I fought, in every way I could. Applying as a Creative Writing major, taking US History for my SAT II, writing about Ovid for my college essays; I did all of these things because they were true to my interests, but I would be lying if I said they weren’t also defensive maneuvers, covertly trying to separate myself from as many Asian stereotypes as I could while still showcasing my person.
In the end, it worked. I ended up in my dream school, where I’ve continued to write about Ovid and study creative writing. Although I thought getting into college would alleviate my shame regarding my name, it simply morphed into relief that I had managed to “slip by”. My Asian-ness, so succinctly presented in the three short syllables of my legal name, had been sufficiently disguised under Latin classes and literary magazine positions so that I could slide past racial quotas and higher SAT standards. Whether I should be happy or horrified, I don’t know.
I wonder if these feelings of resentment and shame were what my parents had pictured when they first made the decision to rename our family. Were they excited by the prospect of a new life in the Western world, picking out newfangled names like jelly beans in the candy store, rolling each one around their mouth, feeling the way its sounds melted onto their tongue? Or were they trying to shield us from judgment, in a country where last names like Wong sends job applications into the reject pile and introducing yourself as Jae Heung summons questions about your lack of an accent and “Did everyone there really love Kim Jong Il??”
I love my American name, but I also wonder what sorts of fears motivated my parents to rename me Juliana. I wonder if I, so eager to correct teachers during roll call and fill in the “preferred name” box at every given chance, have helped perpetuate a system of discrimination based on race and identity. Is my desire to not be associated with my name and the stereotypes it carries reflective of my discrimination against my own culture?
I hope not. But who really knows?