In first grade, I had a conversation with two classmates, Beth and Jenn, about our names. Being identical twins, they often came to school in matching outfits. I remember their knit sweaters, green and red, with their full names stitched over their chests: Elizabeth and Jennifer. I liked these names: pretty and all-American. They said their middle names were Marie and Lynn, which were just as common, easy, and palatable.
“My middle name is Ann,” I said reluctantly. “It’s kind of short for another name.” Luckily, they didn’t ask about the other name and moved on to something else. I was relieved.
I continued to tell people, throughout most of high school, that my middle name was Ann, even though that wasn’t true. It was Anongos — my mother’s maiden name — which was embarrassing to me. I didn’t go by my full first name either. My friends called me Cheri, but my name is Cherilynn: a name that, to this day, is both mine and not mine, and one that I write only on important forms and legal documents.
From an early age, I understood the power of a name: It can shape and define you, reveal who you are, and feel like a part of your skin — or a foreign layer your body rejects. In my 20s, I had grown more comfortable in my skin to be able to say: My middle name is Anongos. But by then, as Rebecca Delacruz-Gunderson explains in her essay on being Filipino American, I also knew how American I was — how detached I was from my cultural heritage — and was glad to at least have a connection to my family’s culture through this name.
When I got married in 2012, I wanted to take my husband’s last name as my own and to continue the family tradition of keeping my maiden name as my middle name. When filling out the form before our ceremony, I wrote in Rowlands, which pushed Lucas into the middle and dropped Anongos from my name forever. I was sad to let this part of me go — one I had finally embraced, yet never fully inhabited — but was also open to what a new name would bring.
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I got the idea for this reading list a few weeks ago, when the flood of 20th-anniversary coverage of 9/11 led me to revisit Osama Shehzad’s essay on getting shit for his name. These essays dive deep into questions of identity, belonging, and the power of names — and shine a light on the immigrant experience in America.
1) Error Messages (Rebecca Delacruz-Gunderson, Entropy, July 2021)
In a series of vignettes, Rebecca Delacruz-Gunderson writes about growing up half-Filipino and half-white. (The title of the essay refers to the error messages you might receive from an online form when checking multiple boxes about your race.) She loves her name, and felt a sense of belonging as a child: “The hyphen is a bond between the two people who made me, a stitch between the two cultures that hold my halves together.” But the older she got, the less certain she felt about her racial identity, “as if the levels of White and Asian” within her were constantly recalibrating.
Empire is written in my name. A Spanish name inherited from the colonization of the Philippines joined with a Norwegian name carried over from my paternal European ancestors. I have the blood of the colonized and the colonizer, but my name echoes the colonizer more than the colonized.
2) To Protect Me From America, My Parents Changed My Name Without Telling Me (Leslie Nguyen-Okwu, Harper’s Bazaar, May 2021)
Leslie Okwu’s parents changed her name when she was 18, without her permission, by adding six more letters and a hyphen. The Vietnamese Nigerian American writer expresses her ongoing struggle to “balance on that hyphen” and take up more space as both Black and Asian in a country that marginalizes both.
A decade later, I still struggle to balance on that hyphen—teetering on a tightrope between Asian America and Black America. My mother is from Bà Rịa. My father is from Umuhu. I am from Dallas. I am living proof of the country’s fast-changing face and a counterweight to white supremacy. As racial violence embroils the country once again, I finally understand the power of what my parents did—to not only honor the nuance of who I am, but also to hedge against the color of my dark skin.
3) America Ruined My Name For Me (Beth Nguyen, The New Yorker, April 2021)
Growing up in the 1980s in Michigan, where her family settled after fleeing Vietnam, Beth Nguyen didn’t go by Beth — she went by Bich, a common Vietnamese name. She tried to embrace the name as a child, but from her earliest moments of awareness, she felt and knew the name was “steeped in shame.” In this piece, Nguyen describes how she eventually gave herself permission to change her name to escape from the American gaze.
Beth is a social experiment, a hypothesis that life in America is easier with a name that no one ever gets wrong. And it’s true. I am seen as less Asian and more American with the name Beth.
4) A Brief History of Name Fuckery (Larissa Pham, Full Stop, September 2015)
In 2015, a poem by white male poet Michael Derrick Hudson was included in that year’s Best American Poetry anthology. The problem? Hudson, in an act of “Orientalist profiteering,” submitted his work under a Chinese woman’s name, Yi-Fen Chou. In this essay for Full Stop, Larissa Pham contemplates the powerful act of naming oneself in light of this controversy.
By taking a name, an identity that was not his, and flippantly — so flippantly — explaining his reasoning for it, MDH committed an act of violence. He stole. He lied. He took something, something he could use and discard and twist to meet his own ends.
5) “Do You Get Shit for Your Name?” (Osama Shehzad, Longreads, August 2020)
You think women named “Karen” have it bad? In a series of smart and funny anecdotes, Karachi-born writer Osama Shehzad recounts conversations with friends and encounters with strangers about his name in a post-9/11 America.
My parents tell me that I shouldn’t feel ashamed if I want to go by another name when I’m in America.
I can tell they feel responsible for giving me a once-beautiful, now-wretched name.
They even make suggestions: maybe a condensed Sam? Or a Western-sounding Sammy?
6) My Year of Writing Anonymously (Stacey D’Erasmo, Literary Hub, December 2018)
What happens when you publish with no byline? Stacey D’Erasmo found the world much more interesting and vivid when she wrote an anonymous column for Catapult. D’Erasmo’s essay isn’t about names — or the lack thereof — through an immigrant lens, but I’ve included her essay as an honorable mention because of how she examines the freedom of the in-between: a liminal space through which she explores an alternate self, a different sort of journey to a new place. I love how she describes the time when she asked her students not to put their names on an assignment. Their writing surprised her: It was emotional, visceral, and alive.
Again and again, I found that when students wrote without their names, much that was awkward, dull, strained, and frankly boring fell away. It was like watching people who thought they couldn’t dance dancing beautifully in the dark.