The story of my name
Show Some Skin | Friday, September 15, 2017
My name is Hu Yizhi (胡 以之).
According to a traditional Chinese belief, a well-chosen name brings a person good luck. My first name, Yizhi (以之), often attracts attention because neither Yi nor Zhi has a concrete meaning. They serve the same function as “as” and “it” respectively in English, and are normally used in classical Chinese.
“Even though both Yi and Zhi by themselves do not have a meaning, when they are combined together, they mean ‘to live as an exemplar,’” my dad explained to me. With this understanding, I began to see my name as a constant driving force that always compelled me to live up to my parents’ expectations and be an exemplar for all.
In the years that followed, I grew to be proud of my name — a name that echoed through the loudspeakers at school because of good things I had done, a name that stood out from the chaotic classroom, followed by, “Would you like to help me with this math problem?” or “Do you want to walk back home together?” I realized that even though my parents were the ones who designated a name with a specific meaning, it was ultimately me who enriched it.
I thought as long as I maintained my excellent performance, I would always be proud of my name — until the summer of 2015, the summer of my transition to college both as a first-generation university student and as an international student.
The freshman orientation led to a number of cultural confrontations. The very first one was as simple as the chants that we, 70-ish girls from the same dorm, mostly white Americans, were asked to repeat.
“Walsh loves Sorin!”
“Walsh loves Sorin. Walsh loves Sorin. Walsh loves Sorin,” echoed everybody, except for me. I embarrassingly looked around and then looked down. I recalled that back home, my parents and I seldom said “I love you” to each other even though we did deeply love each other. We expressed love through actions. The word “love” was so sacred that the one time I said “I love you” to my dad was when he suffered a serious stroke, and I was afraid that if I did not say it, I would never have the chance to do so.
How could I say “love” to people I did not know? I struggled to conform to the environment that I was in and to say “Walsh loves Sorin” as a way of being friendly — but I failed: I could not open my mouth. I could not “betray” the cultural norms that I had abided the past 18 years.
From this experience, I developed a bitterness that changed my own view of my name, a name that no longer contained the connotation that I worked hard to instill. During one of the orientation games, we were divided into two groups. Each group decided on a girl who would stand on one side of a curtain and attempt to shout out the other girl’s name as soon as the curtain was drawn — whoever got the other person’s name won. As our group was deciding who should go, I overheard one of the girls standing behind me: “That Chinese girl should go. I bet nobody can get her name right.”
That was not the only time I heard comments about the difficulty my name brought to others. “Oh, I don’t think I can say it correctly” and “Oh? Do you have an English name?” were among others that ultimately led to some people’s reluctance to even try to pronounce my name.
Upset at first, I was swiftly preoccupied with insecurity and discomfort about my cultural background and my name. “If my name is hard for people to say, it would be even harder to remember; it won’t ever called on campus, and nobody will become friends with me,” I thought. The conclusion that I ultimately drew was that “Yizhi” was an impediment to my American life, that only by foregoing it could I be fully blend in. Thus, I made the decision to go by “Sarah,” an American name.
With an aim of minimizing the “negative effects” that my Chinese name might have imposed, I abandoned “Yizhi” as if it were a plague: I quickly changed my Facebook profile name, my name tag for all classes, and how I introduced myself. Ironically, “Sarah” gave me a courage that Yizhi, a name that I proudly identified with for years, failed to generate. The conviction that “I have an American name that will make me a more acceptable friend to others” became an encouragement. As for Yizhi? It was a burden that was too foreign, too oriental and too much trouble.
As expected, “Sarah” did turn my social predicament around: I found a niche where I belonged, and increasingly enjoyed what America offered me. Whenever people called me “Sarah,” I could almost feel the affection they had for my name because it was American. In the meantime, I began to recognize and establish a sense of intimacy with it. But there were a number of times my American name also hurt me.
This came in the same way that my Chinese name hurt me: through people’s comments. “So what is your real name?” was the most frequently asked question. However, it was not until I told my dad about my English name a few months later that brought about his wry remark — “Now I can’t even pronounce my daughter’s name,” he said. His words woke me up from drowning in a swamp of skewed beliefs. Why did I relinquish a name that my most endearing parents gave me for the sake of convenience to people whom I did not know in the first place? Why did I abandon a name that was culturally and personally important to my identity for the purpose of integrating into a foreign culture? I had let several incidents drift myself away from my cultural background, and by renaming myself “Sarah,” I had completely detached myself from my cultural and societal connections that had been so important to me.
I tossed and turned the nights on my bed after my dad’s comment, deciding whether or not I should return my name to “Yizhi.” Deep in my heart, I longed to be called Yizhi, but was it worth the risk? Would people begin to pick up my Chinese name? What if this decision leads to greater confusion? By the end of the Christmas break of my freshman year, I decided to return to Yizhi and let things develop the way they would.
My decision turned out to be a popular one — many of my friends hailed my Chinese name and began to call me “Yizhi.” Later, many of my friends told me that “Yizhi” was not hard to pronounce at all, and that was already six months after I made the decision to abandon my name. I recalled the orientation week, when I got disoriented in an environment completely different from China and looked down upon myself; I also thought of the later time when I drew a sense of belonging from being “Sarah.” But was it really the change of my name that made the transition smooth? Or was it because I gained confidence and took the initiative to get to know people so that I eventually felt accepted?
Ever since I changed my name back to Yizhi, I actively promoted the understanding of different cultures through giving speeches and performing at Asian culture events at Notre Dame. In one of my speeches, I shared my renewed understanding of cultural identity.
I used to think that the phrase “America is a melting pot” means that newcomers need to abandon their original culture and assimilate to the American one, and I thus shut myself completely from my own cultural background. But what is American culture? It is a combination of every one of the cultures that we bring to this great place. It is integration — a give-and-take process of cultural enrichment — rather than assimilation that makes everyone irreplaceable.
As I was giving this speech, I recalled my dad’s words on how a combination of Yi and Zhi made my name complete. At that moment, I realized that just like my name has more than one part, it is exactly the different parts of me that make me complete. So long as I genuinely cherish all of myself, I will be an exemplar to all.
Yizhi Hu is a junior studying political science and Japanese. She was an actress at the 2017 Show Some Skin: Break The Silence. This story was written by her at the beginning of her sophomore year and was performed as a monologue at the 2016 Asian Allure.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.