What's in a Name? For Me, Shame, Embarrassment and Pride

“I am Ming Yin as much as I am Lucy”


Writer Lucy Lau poses in a denim jacket and wearing red lipstick in front of a brown brick wallI remember the day I got my name—well, my second name, anyway. It was a muggy day at the tail end of summer in Ottawa and my mom and I had a meeting scheduled with Ms. Brown, the teacher whose junior kindergarten classes I would attend beginning that September. I was 4 years old and this would be my first time in school. I followed my mother obediently as Ms. Brown showed us around her classroom, eventually guiding us to a cubby. I recognized the name that it was labelled with immediately: Ming Yin.

“This cubbyhole will be yours,” Ms. Brown said, gesturing toward the label and looking kindly in my direction. (At least, that’s what I assume she said—we spoke Cantonese at home and I didn’t speak much English at the time.) My mom interjected: “Actually, she will go by Lucy.”

I didn’t realize it then, but it was in that moment that my North American or “Western” identity was born—one that I would go on to nurture and embrace, even if it meant suppressing and completely disassociating myself from my Chinese roots. At home—and on my birth certificate and government-issued documents—I continued to be referred to by my given name, Ming Yin, the transliteration of my Cantonese name, 明影. But at school, I was Lucy, the easier-to-pronounce, English-speaking version of myself who wanted nothing more than to blend in with the Sarahs, Matthews and Ruths that were my peers.

The author on her birthday. If you look closely, you can see Ming Yin written on the cake.

For the more than 1.7 million Chinese people who call Canada home, navigating this sort of dual identity isn’t unusual. Upon birth, many Chinese-Canadians receive a Chinese name, which is typically made up of three or four Chinese characters (a one- or two-character family surname followed by a two-character given name). In addition, we also often receive a more “conventional” Western name. In these instances, bestowing an English name upon someone may be understood as a way to adapt to a country’s dominant language or customs, but it’s also a matter of practicality. For the average native English speaker, names like “Michael” and “Lisa” roll off the tongue easier than something like “Zhang Wei” or “Li Xia.” (Could this maybe have something to do with the sheer lack of effort that white people put into correctly pronouncing non-Anglicized names? I’ll let Hasan Minhaj take that one.)

While, yes, it’s common for Chinese-Canadian folks to be recognized by two names, going by Lucy didn’t make me feel any more “normal” while growing up. Some Chinese-Canadians have only their Western name listed on official documents as their given name; others have a middle name that is a transliteration of their Chinese name. But Ming Yin is my legal first name, which meant that anytime I started a new school or entered an environment where submitting formal identification was a prerequisite, I was automatically initially called Ming Yin. And as a first-generation Canadian living in an area where I was a visible minority—where my skin tone and facial features were enough to distinguish me from a crowd—the last thing I wanted was to be othered by yet another uncontrollable aspect of my identity.

I dreaded first days of school and days when substitute teachers filled in because I would inevitably be referred to as Ming Yin during roll call—an audible, clear-as-day reminder that I was, without a doubt, different. Each time, it momentarily shattered the carefree, allowed-to-go-to-sleepovers-and-genuinely-enjoys-packed-sandwiches-for-lunch “Lucy” persona I was working so hard to build, and I would flinch in embarrassment before hurriedly correcting whoever was speaking: “Actually, it’s Lucy.”

Lucy Lau poses with her mother in an old photo that appears to be taken in the summer
The author posing with her mom

Occasionally, my Chinese name was met with snickers; other times, it was met with confused looks, my fellow classmates craning their necks around the room as if to see who could possess such a strange moniker. The predominantly white faces I saw on TV and in the issues of Seventeen I rabidly consumed were confirmation enough that I belonged to a seemingly less desirable population; I didn’t need my name reminding me, too.

I can’t pinpoint exactly why or how I stopped being ashamed of my given name. It may have had something to do with me being increasingly confronted with it as I grew older—on my passport, driver’s license and health card, for example—and simply realizing that it’s a part of me. I noticed my feelings changed when I began recognizing the anti-Asian racism I had internalized and, beginning in my mid-20s, started working to dismantle that. As is traditional in Chinese culture, my given name was chosen by my parents with much thought and intention: 明 (Ming) is my generation name, as well as the second character in the Chinese word for “clever” (聰明). 影 (Yin) is the first character in the Chinese term for “influence” (影響). My parents hoped that I would grow up to be someone who isn’t easily affected by others’ words or actions and, instead, forges their own path to become a person of influence. At some point, I realized I’d be doing my given name a disservice if I continued to let the thoughts of others dictate how I felt about both it and my culture.

As I began learning more about my family and background, it felt wrong to reject a name imbued with so much optimism about my potential. Those feelings of shame were replaced by an appreciation of a name that was handpicked for me with such care, one that serves as an enduring connection to my heritage—even in moments when I feel so far from it.  Recently, I was at the dentist’s office. I’m a new patient at this particular practice, and was watching a surprisingly engrossing episode of Peppa Pig on the waiting-room TV when the receptionist called my name. “Ming Yin?” I didn’t flinch, nor did I correct her. Though, really, there was never a need for correction. Like with the languages I speak and the traditions I follow, my given name is just one part of my multifaceted Chinese-Canadian identity. I am Ming Yin as much as I am Lucy—not one more than the other. And that’s something I’ve finally learned to take pride in.


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