When I moved to Palo Alto, California in fourth grade, I discovered a love for the West Coast way of life. I adored the fresh air and sparkling sun, tried Chipotle for the first time (discovered I hate hard-shell tacos), and developed an addiction to Geronimo Stilton books. I found myself becoming increasingly similar to my classmates who had lived in California all their lives. Yet sometimes, I was reminded—often publicly—of the ways I’d always be something else.
My homeroom teacher shouted from the back—“it’s Tina!” I shuffled up to the stage and collected some candy, confused for many seconds as to what “Yoo-sheen” was supposed to mean.
Names are a beautiful thing. They’re only a few characters, yet they represent who we are as people. We all know the minor frustration of having our name misspelled, forgotten, or confused with another’s. But not all of us have another string of letters fighting against the one we know represents our identity, vying to be the “real” name as if the one we chose is invalid.
When I entered seventh grade, we started to use email. I don’t remember how many times I had to explain why my email read yzeng instead of tzeng when my name was Tina, but eventually, when I approached IT with a separate issue, they looked at my address and asked if I would like to change it to tzeng. I nodded enthusiastically and felt a heavy weight lifted from my shoulders.
The same year, a teacher roll called as we prepared to take a standardized test. When he called my Chinese name, a few times, fumbling with the pronunciation, I walked up to his desk for my copy.
“Oh, yeah, that’s me.”
“I didn’t realize your name wasn’t actually Tina. How do you pronounce it?”
“Tina is fine.” I held in a sigh.
“No, teach me. I have to call your real name at eighth grade graduation.”
I knew that if he called me anything besides Tina, I would refuse to get on stage, but luckily I left the school before that scenario could play out.
At my third school, I was greeted with the very pleasant surprise of an email right off the bat that read tinzeng. My name was “Tina Zeng” on all roll call sheets, and the frequent “how do you pronounce your real name?” questions were finally gone. In fact, it wasn’t until after I arrived at Andover that some of my old school friends discovered my legal name wasn’t Tina Zeng.
Here, I am yet again greeted by the discomfort of yzeng all over Canvas, emails, and my BlueCard, and all the uninvited scrutiny from others that comes with it.
My first ever email (sent when I first received my login) was to the tech support department asking if I could be tzeng24 rather than yzeng24. The answer was no. Change my name in the system and change my email by one letter—that’s all that it would take. I will never understand a rule like this.
My name is Tina. I’ve been Tina just as long as I’ve been anything else, and to begin with, my Chinese name is meant to be used in Chinese. I’ll respond to 岳欣, sure. But what in the world is Yuexin? If everyone could pronounce 岳欣 perfectly, I’d be telling a different story, but that’s simply not possible, and is it really so wrong to prefer one over the other when I’m at school? I don’t think anyone who has asked me the “how do you pronounce your name” question has ever said it the way I want it. Sometimes, I appreciate their effort. Sometimes, they’re close. But it never sounds right and it always falls on me to hand them the gold star.
It’s been a long time since I moved to California. I’m taller—though still incredibly short. I’m older, and I’ve started wearing glasses. I haven’t read a Chinese book in more years than I can count, simply because I no longer can. I visit Beijing or Shanghai for maybe three weeks maximum per year. I don’t know the memes, celebrities, slang, or anything else about what goes on in China. Instead, I read in English. I laugh about YouTubers and Hollywood celebrities. I speak to my parents in stiff Chinese and smooth over the cracks with English.
I’ve forgotten much of my native language, internalized who knows how much of America’s anti-Asian sentiments, and stumbled onto a tightrope between identities—yet for some reason, even after all this, Andover won’t allow me to introduce myself as Tina without some all-knowing legal document weighing me down. And all for what reason?