Naming holds an important and sentimental role in American culture. Names allow us to travel, introduce ourselves, meet each other, be called on, they are embroidered on our jackets, painted on our mailboxes, and written on our birth certificates and passports. “What’s your name?” is the first question we are asked and the first sentence we learn when learning a new language. We write them at the top of every loose-leaf paper in school, we spend hours deciding how to sign our names, and they are often passed along through generations. But names are also a source of pain. They are the first things we are teased about on the playground as children. They carry the painful associations of those who named us. They create dividing lines between who belongs and who doesn’t. In 2020, I released “Change Your Name,” a song about my mother’s immigration from Japan and her family’s decision to give her an American name. After releasing the song, my inbox was flooded with stories from folks around the world who identified with my mother’s journey. Today, I will be sharing my mother’s story, along with one of the moving stories that ended up in my inbox, the story of my now dear friend – Joie Lê. Through these stories, we learn that names carry a heavy weight for immigrants, and it’s time their stories are shared.
My mother was born “Shiuga” (meaning intelligence and grace) – the firstborn of a new couple, my Obachan – a Taiwanese woman with four children from a previous marriage and my Ojisan, a Japanese/Taiwanese political science student turned businessman. My mother and Obachan would journey to the U.S. on a boat in 1959, when my mother was three years old, to meet up with my Ojisan, who had moved on a student visa a year prior. My Ojisan was working on his doctorate in political science at Columbia University. My mother, my Obachan, and my Ojisan started their version of the “American dream” in an apartment between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues in New York City. Before moving to the United States, my grandparents thought it would be wise to give my mother an American name, so she would have an easier time assimilating into American culture. They asked a few American soldiers stationed in Japan at the time what a good American name would be – they suggested “Shirley” because Shirley Temple was very popular at the time.
• Consider the significance a name holds in society, our culture, and ourselves. What are the perceptions or ideals we associate with specific names? How does a name alienate or unite a community?
• What is the meaning and significance of your name? This weekend, share the story of your name with someone – and ask them the same.
I don’t think it was until my mid-twenties that I learned my mother wasn’t a U.S. Citizen until she was 17. She always brought up the word “stateless” and told me throughout my childhood that she was “stateless” when she moved here. But it took me a while to fully understand that this meant my mother had no nationality until she was nearly an adult. At the time, Taiwan was in political flux, making it impossible for my mother’s family to get a passport tying them to either Japan or Taiwan. In 1959, my mother and my grandmother would board a boat in Tokyo for the United States with “stateless” passports.
“Did kids make fun of you at school?” I asked her.
“Yes. I was one of only a couple Asian students in my class. They used to call me eggroll, and chopsticks – it was very painful as a little kid.”
Throughout my childhood, I’ve observed my mother’s pain around her cultural identity. I witnessed the pain when one of my Japanese friend’s mother said to her, “Well, you’re not really Japanese.” I winced when she would introduce herself as Shiuga and then revert to Shirley when the person didn’t understand. And I felt for her as she fought for respect from her students and colleagues as an educator.
My mother’s name change symbolizes her journey of learning how to walk in two worlds, neither of which completely felt like home. Without the memory of her birth country and as an unofficial member of her new one, my mother always existed in the “in between.” Like many immigrants, she existed in duality. My mother would always say, “I am proud to be Shiuga, and I am proud to be Shirley. Both names are a part of who I am.”
After sharing my mother’s story through my song, “Change Your Name,” my now dear friend Joie Lê reached out to me, letting me know she could relate to my mother’s story. Before the fall of Saigon in 1973, young Joie Lê was adopted to the United States from Vietnam. Joie told me, “I came over shortly after I was born, but that’s all speculative because everything was fictionalized for a lot of us. The original name that was on my birth certificate, which was fictionalized, was Kha Thi Huyen Chau. Which I can’t pronounce since I don’t speak Vietnamese.” Many war adoptees had falsified paperwork to make it to the US. Joie explains, “Sometimes kids would pass away, and they would give the paperwork to the next kid. It was really a matter of urgency.” Joie was adopted to Loveland, Colorado, like many other transnational Vietnamese war adoptees. “When I came to the US, I was renamed Joie Holmberg,” she told me. This would be Joie’s third name before being a year old.
“When did you find out that your birth certificate was fictionalized? How did that make you feel?” I asked her.
“I didn’t realize all this was fake until 2007, and I didn’t find my biological family until 2015/16. Through going through all these changes, learning the paperwork was false, and having more agency and understanding – it made it more difficult for me to have these Americanized names. I asked [my birth family] if it was okay for me to take the family name and they said yes.” And that is how Joie reclaimed her birth family’s name of Lê.
“Do you feel like all of your names are a part of your identity or were they parts of you that you wanted to leave behind?” I asked her.
“It does mean something. Whether they’re fictionalized or not, a lot of us have adopted some hybrid form of our names. And that means something. It means nothing, it means everything.” She explained.
It may be easy to say that a name is just a name, and who we are is something deeper that supersedes all labels, boxes, and passports. But when your name is changed, your name becomes a journey. It becomes a symbol of resilience. The papers mean nothing as they are often falsified and changed, but the symbol of the journey means everything. In the words of Joie Lê – “It means nothing, it means everything.” My mother is Shirley, and she is Shiuga. What I learned from all of the stories that flooded my inbox that day is that this is not only a story of reclamation, but also one of celebration. A celebration of who we are, who we were, and where we are going – an acknowledgment of a painful past and a symbol of a more just, joyous, and inclusive future.