Americans, a diverse group of people brought together by land, dreams, and a love of freedom (the constitution), are very sensitive to remarks on their race, ethnic heritage, or any question that undermines their national identity. When polite, they’ll refrain from asking you any questions, but sometimes they just have to know–you know? So they’ll covertly ask you about your name (unless you’re John Smith, in which case you’re just British) to find out your ethnicity, where you’re really from.
My name is Finnish
My Finnish dad told me that when he studied in the States, his name was always butchered. At some point, his name, Juha Suotmaa, was completely Americanized to “John Southman”. I have not had such an experience (yet), but that’s because my first name is generic enough for people to just drop my surname.
The Finnish language is not well known in the world and thus most cannot identify a Finnish word when they see it. It’s not a Constanza, Wu, Nhi, or Park. Often, people will look at my name, look at me, and guess Filipina, Malaysian, or even South American. They would never guess American, Taiwanese (Chinese), or Finnish.
Granted, our family name was not always Suotmaa. Before my grandfather had changed it, we belonged to the Suominen family tree. Although I don’t know the reasons behind the change, I do not mind our branching off, for to me our unique name signifies the rooting of a new family tree.
I could’ve been a Wang
Perhaps that’s also why I have yet to change my name after almost a decade of marriage. When we were married, I was still in college and feared all the paperwork the name change required. I worried it might postpone graduation, or that I wouldn’t receive my diploma in time. Since my husband is Chinese, he didn’t seem to mind that I kept my own name (it was barely a conversation), and every time I’ve brought it up he’s said I should just keep my unique name.
Today, I brand myself with my father’s name when just a few years ago I longed to blend in as “Jessica Wang”. Fitting in was one of the reasons I chose to study in California (when most of my friends went to England). I was tired of heads turning when I walked into a room, of random people speaking a random Asian language to me and expecting me to understand, and of having to explain my family background to every confused gaze. I thought, for sure, I wouldn’t ever have to do so among California’s diverse population.
Of course this was not entirely the case. Clearly, my childhood memories were rose-tinted. In college, I first ended up in international circles, and then befriended locals after I transferred to Los Angeles. I was a third culture child (TCK) disguised as an American born Chinese (ABC), an identity I perpetuated after we moved to Beijing in 2012.
When labels matter
In China, I learned that ABCs are a dime a dozen (just like in California), and most of them felt insecure, disrespected, and inadequate compared to the white expat “foreigners”. For many Chinese, foreigners have to look different to be foreign, and anyone of Chinese descent, regardless of upbringing, is simply an overseas Chinese person (huaqiao). Hence, my husband’s elevator pitch for me has always included: “she’s half-white. Her mother’s from Taiwan.” Years later, it finally dawned on me that my Chengdu-born husband was selling me better than I had been. He had understood what was unique about my brand, about me, better than I had.
Today, we might be back in Los Angeles, but I’m no longer pretending to be someone I’m not. I have no reason to blend in, and I don’t worry about what others might perceive me to be. When someone alludes to my heritage, I play dumb and keep them guessing. If you want to find out where I’m from, where I got my name, or who I am, just ask me. I don’t bite.