Why We Must Stand With Columbia’s Targeted Chinese Students
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2017-02-26 10:23:32

When I watched the viral video titled “Say My Name” that was released by some of Columbia University’s Chinese undergraduates following a recent racist vandalism incident, I naturally felt compelled to share it along with the meaning of my own name. In fact, it is a name that I now rarely use. My Chinese name is Guo Quanzhi, but I have been going by the name Q since I went to the United States three years ago. It was a decision that, looking back, has carried more implications that I originally anticipated.

My family name, Guo, originally referred to the outer wall of an ancient city, but it now links me to a distinguished lineage of famous historical figures. When specifying the Chinese character used to write my surname, I’ll tell people, “It’s the same guo as in Guo Moruo,” referring to the brilliant 20th-century writer and intellectual.  The character for quan in my given name, meanwhile, means “to measure, weigh up, or select.” It is a beautiful character to write; the logograph on its right-hand side is broad-based and perfectly symmetrical, giving it a feeling of real balance. Finally, zhi is a preposition from classical Chinese that can refer to anything. 

My father says he gave me this name so that I would consider everything in life with equal measure, gain wisdom about myself, and thereby achieve great things. It is intentionally gender-neutral because he did not want me to feel constrained by traditional attitudes toward women.

Many of my American friends find the rich layers of meaning behind East Asian names fascinating. While pronouncing my name is a formidable task for most Westerners, there are always foreigners who insist on learning it in full, telling me kindly to demand that others pay more attention to my cultural heritage. Names, after all, are markers of identity. Ignoring, changing, or mocking foreign names embeds prejudices, preventing people from expressing all or part of those identities. That is what makes ripping off someone’s name tag so unsettling: It is not the act itself, but the dehumanization it symbolizes.

As identity markers, names have always been easy targets for prejudice, discrimination, and bigotry. Research from Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and Australia shows that job applicants with names associated with ethnic minorities are less likely to get callbacks than those with English-sounding names.

I started to drift away from my Chinese name after I moved to Singapore for school at the age of 15. Back then, in a majority English-speaking country, I would get frustrated at people unfamiliar with Romanized Chinese names pronouncing my name incorrectly — particularly the character quan, which they would pronounce as in the word “quantity,” without the soft “ch” sound it has in my native tongue.

While East Asians are habitually typecast as silent and passive, Columbia’s students have shown that we are also capable of defending justice, liberty, and equality.

When I moved out of Asia completely, my name caused even more trouble. I would dread introducing myself to well-meaning foreign acquaintances, who would greet my name with an uneasy look, gamely contort their voices into something approaching pidgin Chinese, and then inevitably forget it within seconds. I felt that my unmemorable name had lost its key function: It no longer identified me as the person I was.

It took some time before I settled on the name Q. At first, I tried various other names, but given how few English names begin with the letters Q and Z, I barely had any choice. Whenever I chose a name that had nothing to do with my past, I would often forget it — people would call my name, and I simply wouldn’t answer.

On my second day in America, I went on a field trip with 18 local students. After a day full of culture shocks, we all traipsed back to the hotel, where I was informed I would be sharing a single king-size bed with two American girls. As we chatted before going to sleep, one of them, a Hispanic friend, asked me to teach her how to pronounce my name, describing to me how proud she felt of the history and culture that lived on in her own.
 
It was during that conversation that I realized an unbridgeable gap had formed between me and my Chinese name. A third of my life has now been spent outside my home country, and as the years have gone by, every trip home has made me feel more confused about my relationship with China. While I am proud of the dazzling changes the country has made, I also feel estranged from them. I cannot share in China’s current cultural resurgence, and so the cultural signifiers inherent in the characters of my name are somehow alien, removed from the life I now lead.

To me, taking the name Q shows that I not only want to integrate, when necessary, into the West — where I now live — but also that I wear my ethnic identity with pride. While I understand why some Chinese students take on fully Western names, to me, choosing Q seems like a crucial personal decision. Truly fitting in, however, is often another matter entirely.

When East Asian students speak of feeling invisible on American university campuses, we’re not lying. My personal experience exemplifies this phenomenon. I speak fluent English, understand the diversity of American culture, appreciate Western liberal values, and take the vibrant slang and humor of my American classmates in my stride. I’m also a student of color on a predominantly white campus that is ranked seventh in the country for its student demographic that sees more students admitted from the richest 1 percent of families than the poorest 60 percent. My race and economic background single me out as different from the majority of the people I meet. Sometimes, I feel a jarring sense of otherness in my adopted home.

And yet, when I am visible to others, I am often assumed to be the monocultural personification of 1.4 billion Chinese people. Sometimes, when I take the lead in classroom discussions, my fellow students exchange looks of surprise. When I contradict the views of my classmates or professors, a murmur of interest might ripple through the room. When I express something particularly insightful, I am more likely to be complimented on my English than on my thoughts themselves. Never mind that I went to school in Singapore, or have lived abroad for a number of years; I look Chinese, and so I am expected to conform to the stereotype of Chinese students — a stereotype that is more outdated than ever.

While East Asians are habitually typecast as silent and passive, Columbia’s students have shown that we are also capable of defending justice, liberty, and equality. That is why I stand alongside my fellow Chinese students in demanding respect and understanding for the names they choose to go by. My adopted name does not, upon first sight, reflect or represent any culture or society. That is deliberate. Only when we dispense with the cultural barriers we erect among people can we collectively commit to diversity and embrace our differences. This is not an attitude that comes easily to most people, but if America’s recent confrontations with entrenched racism have taught me anything, it’s that to stay silent and passive is to be complicit in the injustice.

(Header image: Students walk through the campus of Columbia University, New York, April 11, 2007. Daniel Barry/Getty Images/VCG)