By Jessica Wang, 16, New York.
I have two names. One I use everyday while the other I keep stowed inside me, locked behind the bars of my lips and the breath of my tongue.
My caged name is actually quite pretty. It means aroma. Not a smelly one, but a homey, warm odor, like the scent of fresh laundry or the steam that bubbles off chicken soup.
Sometimes I say my name to myself, just to see if it’s still there. It’s strangely pronounced and forces my tongue to touch the roof of my mouth and oftentimes I stumble over the loopy syllables. I only say it in the dark; face mushed between two pillows and huddled under layers of blankets, just in case it tries to make a run for it.
I’m afraid of my name.
It’s odd because you’re not supposed to fear a name. Can you imagine if every Tim, Tom, and Harry were afraid of his name? That would be a strange world indeed.
I’m afraid of my name because it’s cursed. It doesn’t belong here, on this soil or in this strange body that I try to call “American”. If I were to let my name go from its cage, past my lips, people would stare and know that I too don’t belong here. They would ask me what my name means and I would explain that directly translated it means “nice smell”. And then they would laugh at the absurdness and wonder what the silly Chinese were thinking. Naming a child after a smell? What would be next? A girl named after the taste of a lemon?
If I said my name, it would betray me, reveal me as an outsider. It had done it before and would do it again. So I betray my name first. I betray it by wearing colored contact lenses and trying to look Caucasian. I betray it by buying creams to hide the yellowness of my skin. I betray it by waking up every day and wishing my name wasn’t there, that instead of two names I only had one, one free name.
I dye my hair blonde one day, just to see what it would be like to have yellow curls and pretty hair. The dye stung my scalp and smelled like bleach and acid and nothing homey or warm at all. I am not an outsider. I tell myself as I brush my new beautiful hair. I am not an outsider. I am not an outsider. I am not an outsider. The words taste funny on my tongue.
My mother no longer calls me by my caged name. She used to, back when I didn’t understand what the word “foreigner” meant and my worst fear was getting an apple instead of cookies during snack time. I remember she used to say it in a certain way, curling her pink tongue and rolling the syllables off neatly. But she stopped after I asked her what the word “slit-eyes” meant. Now she calls me “Je-ssi-ca,” the name neatly printed on my birth certificate, my official name, the free name. She named me after the actor Jessica Simpson because she’s pretty and Caucasian and has blonde hair. The name is easy to pronounce and flows off the tongue smoothly, the American tongue that is.
My second name “Je-ssi-ca” does wonders. It helps me chain up my foreign name and even add a couple more locks, determined to snuff it out. And it works. I can no longer hold chopsticks properly or handle the spices of traditional dishes. When I try to speak the language my ancestors once spoke, my thick American accent pokes through and slurs together the vowels and syllables. It’s American-Chinese my grandma would murmur and shake her head at how far her heritage has fallen. I am no longer the little girl who listened to her stories about the immortal monkey king and his magical staff. She does not know who I am. I am foreign to her.
I have successfully locked up my name.
But even without saying my name, it still betrays me. People still look at me like I’m an outsider even though I was born here, even though I speak English perfectly, even though I betray a part of myself everyday just to please them.
And no matter how much cream I scrub into my skin, no matter how much I try to hide the dark brown in my eyes, they keep staring.
But I like my caged name. I think it’s pretty, even prettier than light hair and blue contact lenses. It reminds me of steamed dumplings and curved mandarin letters and red paper lanterns with gold embroidered on the edges. And when I say my chicken soup-fresh laundry-oddly pronounced-laughable name. I feel good. The syllables punctuate the air daringly and challenge the world around. When I whisper the letters, my name is free and so am I.
It’s true that my caged name doesn’t quite fit me. I can’t write or read mandarin and my pronunciation is terrible. But it’s still a piece of me, just like my skin and my eyes. I can’t just scrub it off, mask it, or even lock it up. At the end of the day my caged name is mine. All its dents, curves, and ridges are mine. It’s oddly pronounced, and it’s mine. It is me, and I am mine. My culture. My ethnicity. Me.
I don’t want to lock myself up anymore.
By Jessica Wang,16, New York, United States.
“My piece is about the period in my life when I went through a lot of self-hatred because of the way I looked. I hated being Chinese because it meant that I looked very different from my peers. I remember sometimes I would even buy whitening creams and dye my hair in order to try and fit in. I should have realized that instead of trying to please others I should have learned to accept myself for who I am.”