As a second-generation Taiwanese American growing up in a predominantly Asian community, I never worried about how complicated and confusing my ethnic name could be to new teachers and peers. Instead, I worried how foreign my ethnic culture felt to me, simply due to my name.
While my parents named me 王智伶, meaning wisdom and eloquence in Mandarin, they ultimately decided to leave my legal name as “Emily” — a simple, popular English name derived from the Roman namesake, “Aemilia,” meaning “rival, laborious, or eager.”
Though it has a dictionary definition to it, I came to dislike how my parents didn’t put as much thought into choosing “Emily.” This contrasted with how they carefully crafted my Chinese name to represent who I would become: someone who is wise and eloquent, as noted by the characters 智 and 伶.
This led me to dread the common icebreaker question, “Why were you named ‘Emily?’” I had difficulty coming up with a meaningful answer, since the name my friends and relatives knew me by didn’t have much of a story behind it. I could only say that my parents chose this name because they wanted it to match with my older sister’s name. It didn’t indicate anything about my personality or my culture, and there was no story to share.
Then I finally understood what “Emily” meant to me: It was my story to create and share.
This realization dawned on me my junior year of highschool, as I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s bildungsroman, “The Namesake.” This was the last book I was reading in my literature class, but it left the greatest impact on me.
Unlike the book’s protagonist, Gogol, my name did not have as heartfelt of a story. While he was named after his father’s most favorite author whose physical book saved his life in a train accident, my name still had no complex story behind it.
But like Gogol, my name had no attachment to my ethnic culture. As this character struggled to find his own identity between the Bengali identity his parents created for him and the American identity society placed him under, he eventually found a personal meaning behind his name as he embraced both cultures as part of who he was.
I had the same dilemma, except my parents didn’t heavily emphasize the culture they were more familiar with — my missing ethnic culture.
Though my mother spoke to me in Cantonese and my father spoke to me in Taiwanese, as I grew older, they started to speak more English to me, just as I did with my responses. I did learn to read and write in Mandarin, but I quit Chinese school in third grade solely because my sister did not want to attend anymore.
Though my mother was disheartened, she understood our perspectives. She grew up in Hong Kong, so she never learned or attempted to learn Shanghainese despite it being her parent’s dialect. I did know Cantonese and a little bit of Mandarin, but it slowly started to slip away as I became older and spoke less of it.
Despite these foundations, as I matured and grew more distant from my ethnic background, my desire to reconnect with it actually grew.
I started to ask my parents to use more vocabulary with me and speak to me only in their first language, but the more I asked about my culture, the more foreign it felt.
My mother also found difficulty practicing common Chinese customs, such as celebrating Lunar calendar birthdays. Before coming to America, her childhood was heavily influenced by the British, who colonized her home country at the time. So, even then, she also became more distant with her culture.
Meanwhile, my father also had difficulty answering some of the cultural questions I would ask about giving out hongbao, or red pocket money, during Lunar New Year. He came to America at the young age of five, so just like me, he was unfamiliar with a lot of these traditional practices.
With their mix of multiple cultures, I am constantly reminded of the disconnect I have with my ethnic Chinese and Taiwanese heritage — and I remember this every time I think about their decision to legally name me Emily.
That is the complex story behind my name.
“Emily” reflects the disconnect I have with my ethnic culture, but it can also depict the bridge I’m crossing to reconnect with it. The reconnect starts with interacting more with my grandparents and asking about their heritages, practicing more Chinese traditions and speaking with my parents in their first languages.
Or perhaps it represents the identity I choose, sprinkled with my passions, ambitions and life. A new canvas. A new identity. Emily the archer, pianist, calligrapher, daughter and sister.
Perhaps this is your sign to take a step forward and rewrite your own story behind your name.