The Birth and Death of a Name

AAPI Heritage Month / Autostraddle

Welcome to Autostraddle’s AAPI Heritage Month Series, about taking up space as our queer and Asian/Pacific Islander selves.

I.

This is the story of the birth and death of my name, which means that it is a story about transition, which means that it is necessarily a story about the border between two places and the force with which one rends it. Which means that if you must trace this story to the very beginning, back across three languages, two continents, and countless bodies of water, you will find that this is the story of a boat.

The first boat left a hundred and ten years ago. It left alone, and at night, from a few boards nailed into the dirt with the audacity to call itself a port. Those who stepped on it would never return. All the songs that remain from that time are lamentations. The destination of the boat was not west, but south, toward the equator, where seasons were rumored to have disappeared and even the rain fell warm onto the ground.

If you were the Dutch men in the port awaiting the boat, here is how you would describe what you saw: a small sea of bobbing black heads within a larger sea. Shallow mud in shallow mud. Fair skin, cheekbones that melted into their faces, taut little mouths that crowed even from afar. They were different from the natives of the land you were colonizing, and so they posed a different kind of threat. You had plans for them.

The boat swelled with men and then spat them onto the land. These men tumbled out, dragging their wives off the boat by their wrists and into the land where the ground steamed with heat and seeds sprouted from it unbidden.

They birthed their children and tied red string around their wrists. They did their best to fill their mouths with the language they brought with them. They built churches. They built schools. It all worked: though they never returned home, the language persisted. Among the children of these people were my grandparents.

A the upper torso and face of a person is in oversized portion coming out of a deep green sea against a dark, cloudy night sky.

Illustration by Joyce Chau

I call it the first boat, but this boat was not first in any meaningful sense of the word. It was not the Mayflower, though the people came for the same reasons. It was small and cramped and almost certainly very smelly. Shit wedged its way between the floorboards. Phlegm dried into the railings. The ledger is long gone. So there are no records of this story I can show you, no proof it occurred.

Nevertheless, my grandfather is here, and I am here, and this is what he told me when I asked. And so, at least in this story, this is how it happened. Whether you believe it or not is up to you.

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Indonesia was dark and warm. The streets were lined with palm trees and cracked dirt. You could buy fruit that sliced into stars, build yourself a thatched room with a dirt floor, find a body of water anywhere you looked. Nevertheless, Indonesia was not a paradise for the Chinese. Tiffany Tsao, a Chinese-Indonesian scholar, translator and writer, notes that common perceptions of the Chinese in Indonesia were as “money-minded, shrewd, and hoarders of wealth.”

Though people of Chinese descent have migrated to the 17,000 islands that comprise what we now call Indonesia since the thirteenth century, systemic national discrimination only began in earnest with Dutch colonization of a place they named the Dutch East Indies. It was an undignified name for a country, derived from the capitalist and colonial enterprise that was the Dutch East India Company. Like many other colonized places, it could not even name itself.

Tsao notes that when the Chinese immigrated during the early twentieth century, the “Dutch administrators segregated Chinese areas from the native population” and deployed “Chinese traders as merchant middlemen” to reify the reputation that they’d invented. This is how the Chinese came to be perceived as a wealthy, penurious, grasping people, a belief that still continues in Indonesia to this day, long after the Dutch have left.

The Chinese found ways to keep their dignity, as people always have, and perhaps even more in more dire circumstances. One of these was through their names. In China, neither women nor men changed their names, even upon marriage; this tradition continued in Indonesia. So though my grandparents were born in Jakarta, they were given Chinese names, and each could well expect to keep their name for the rest of their lives.

Amidst the loathing, the discrimination, the humiliation and ignominy of having a Chinese face, a name was that inviolate thing that would reverse the motion of the boat, slow the inexorable crush of history. Nothing — not migration, adulthood, family, privation, or even death — could take it away from you. In an environment with so little record-keeping to tie one to their past, the name was a way to remember.

In the parts of China I came from, all the members of a family’s generation would share the same first syllable of their given name. So with little else than a name and patience, you could approximate a person’s age, reconstruct what village and province they belonged to. More than being the contents of an archive, the name was a small, complete archive unto itself.

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This changed in 1965, when Suharto, the general of the Indonesian army, wrested power over the Indonesian government in a military coup. Scholarly retrospectives of his 32-year reign would call him the most corrupt political leader in modern history, as well as the orchestrator of wholesale cultural genocide of Chinese-Indonesians. Suharto did not delay in fashioning such a reputation: in 1966, the Indonesian government passed Cabinet Presidium Decision 127, a law that commanded all Indonesian citizens of Chinese descent to change their names to Indonesian ones.

Theoretically, there was no consequence to disobeying this law. Yet the staggering majority of people still changed their names, that thing that had once been sacrosanct. There are many forms of consequence that do not require penal intervention, and to not change one’s name came with a steep social price that could lose a person their job, get them rejected from university, turn them into a social pariah.

The stakes were too high for most to keep their names. There was, however, some form of preservation, however meager. The Chinese snuck their old names into their new surnames, often by concatenating the old surname with an Indonesian-sounding prefix or suffix. The name “Wong” might become “Widjaja;” “Lim” could turn into “Halim.” In this way, people tried to remember themselves, even if through a poor rendition of what they once had. The name itself would become that marker of a distinct Chinese-Indonesian identity, separate from both a native Indonesian and a mainland Chinese one.

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At the ages of 26 and 30, shortly after the birth of their first child, both of my grandparents sent in their name change papers. My grandfather tucked his old surname into the first syllable of his new first name. Other than that, however, every other syllable was new. It sounded strange in his mouth. It still does.

Sometimes I wake up in a panic, hands clawing at my chest. I think of how it must have been to be called something new that far into your life; how a foreign name was precisely what made you not a foreigner anymore.

Sometimes I wake up in a panic, hands clawing at my chest. I think of how it must have been to be called something new that far into your life; how a foreign name was precisely what made you not a foreigner anymore. One night, I called my grandfather to ask him if he would have given my mother a Chinese name if the 1966 law were not passed. He laughed when I asked this, as if it were obvious.

In fact, he had prepared for her a Chinese name, when my mother was still gathering herself in her mother’s womb. He did not consult the elders in the village as to what the generational syllable of her given name would be. That particular ability of a name to tie a person to a set of similar people was already gone, the process of assimilation well underway even without Suharto’s intervention. Nevertheless, it was a Chinese name, and perhaps even a good one.

But my mother was born in 1966, the year that Cabinet Presidium Decision 127 was passed. So when it came time to write her name down for the birth certificate, they followed the government’s orders. They made something else up. My mother was the first person in her family to have an Indonesian name. The Chinese name lives nowhere now. It exists on no document, on the heading of no school paper, on no birth or marriage certificate. My own mother does not know it.

I asked my grandfather if he still remembered what it was. He told me the name, and I wrote it down. He said it was the first time that anyone had ever done so.

II.

The word “slur” comes from the Middle English “sloor,” meaning “thin or fluid mud.” The mud, and the dirtiness that mud entails, led to the word’s modern, prevailing definition of “an insult or slight.” And the fluid nature of the mud, conferred that other definition: that of a set of notes or words to be played legato, without the cruel interjection of silence. Drunkards slur; so do violins. A slur is a crucial element of music, and not just any music, but the most beautiful kind, where notes gather together to form the raw material of hymns and lullabies.

It is a difficult form to perfect, the slur. Much constrains it. It demands brevity: one, two syllables at most. You must be able to spit it, also whisper it under your breath. It must stand as a complete sentence unto itself.

In the United States, there are all sorts of slurs for East Asian people. Few stretch the imagination; few have that fulminant energy that really reveals the dual nature of the word, explodes an insult into song. But still: the English slur has always demanded at least a minimal form of creativity.

Not so much in Indonesia. Over there, it’s sufficient to use the name of the thing itself. Specifically: Cina, spelled just like that, with a hard “ch”, untempered and uncompressed by the “ai” the way people say it in English. “Chee-nah”: the inflection is all it takes to move it from innocuous descriptor to a mouthful of splinters. It is propulsive — say it enough times, and it will send you back to where you came from. Sometimes, it will even send you forward.

After the 1966 Decision, an identifiably Chinese name would itself become a slur. To keep such a name immediately outed a person not only as ethnically Chinese, but also a law-breaker, a person actively opposed to assimilation and the new government under Suharto. It was only right that as the name itself was the evidence of the crime, the name would become the thing spat at its owner.

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With all that regulation, there wasn’t much room left for dignity. Our names were gone. We were still targets for extortion. Our schools were shuttered, our churches razed. Dignity was not given to those who were vilified by their colonizers, loathed by the colonized, respected by no one. Dignity could not be traded, sold, hoarded, packed away in vaults. No, it was no longer economically viable to traffic in dignity.

We trafficked in vulgarity. Hands shoved into pockets, skin that withered in the sun, mouths in a constant state of rudeness. We went into business, exactly what they had accused us of doing. The myth was building itself.

First, the Dutch had helped. Now, Suharto’s government was helping. Tiffany Tsao notes that during this period, the Indonesian dictator “cherry-picked a small handful of ethnic Chinese businessmen to build the nation’s economy, utilizing their capital, networks, and expertise.” In return for the prosperity of a few, Suharto used them as examples to prove malignant stereotypes of Chinese people.

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My father tells me what people said to him when he was growing up in Jakarta. Or rather, he tells me what he would have said back to them, if he had the nerve. Instead he only ever says it to me. When he says it he looks so far away.

You call me Cina, Cina, tapi saya yang punya uang; kamu enga punya uang, he gloats.1 He does not say it in Chinese. No one in my family speaks Chinese anymore.

There is both glee and intense bitterness in his voice. It almost emits a smell. His shirt is full of holes where the sleeve meets the armpit. He has worn this shirt thousands of times. I was the one who benefited from it. He used that money on me.

I find him both very desperate and very brave. But I wish he would behave better.

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Here is how the Dutch would have written his story.

There is a Chinese man. And Chinese men crave money. This one is no exception.

He has no money. All he does is think about money and how far away it can take him. He applies to the university. There is a quota for people like him, but he is bright and shrewd, all the weakness wrenched and natural-selected out of him. So he makes the quota. He studies; he studies so much he stops having dreams. He graduates. He becomes a businessman. Of course he becomes a businessman.

Whenever he visits us in America, he buys used textbooks online, back when books were one of the few things you could buy online. He tapes them back up in tattered cardboard boxes, wraps the whole box in tape, leaves not a single inch of cardboard exposed. He ferries them back to Indonesia, sells each book, piece by piece. He hoards the money. He devises a long, patient, multigenerational plan to protect his children from ever being called <em>Cina</em> again.

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We permanently moved to America shortly after I was born, sixteen months before the 1998 riots that marked the end of Suharto’s regime. Or, rather, my mother and I moved. My father stayed in Indonesia. He had a business to run.

But he gave me a white name to take with me. It was a prosaic name, a common name, a cautious name, and he gave me no other one. The sort of timeless name listed on the top 200 girls names in the United States for a hundred consecutive years. The sort of name that could be worn like armor.

It worked. I learned the reason for the name’s enduring popularity firsthand; it was practically unweaponizable. I received no slurs. The smell of my Asian lunch offended no one. In America, my parents had found one of those sufficiently affluent neighborhoods for me to grow up in, full of enough well-to-do immigrants, that rendered such concerns as overt racism, at least toward Asian-Americans, obsolete. Even in those early days, we were poor but not vulnerable. And then, time passed, and we weren’t poor anymore.

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I have never been called a chink until I moved into a city well into my twenties. I have only been spat on once. I frequently walk alone at night. To say I fear for my safety would be disingenuous.

I have a young, able body that answers to me, and I know the terms of this game. I know not to open my mouth and reveal the ugly surprise of my voice. And so, for the most part, when I follow these rules I do not feel fear.

III.

Life, however, always finds a way to introduce new kinds of shame. The first was the shame of a girl. The second was the shame of a disobedient girl, the kind who wielded a razor on her hair both too little and too much. The last was the shame of a girl who stopped being a girl at all.

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I don’t want to justify myself. But my mom laughs whenever she sees me. She tells her friends her daughter looks like a boy and every time it feels like rubbing sand into my skin, turning myself into liquid by the sheer force of it. But I stay quiet. I keep cutting my hair. Sometimes I think of doing more.

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After I had meditated on the idea of my transness for a sufficiently long time, I thought that I should change my name. It felt like the trans thing to do. For many trans people, it is the right thing to do. These are the people for whom transition feels like “coming home.” For these people, changing a name can prevent a person from getting misgendered. It can assure a person’s safety. I’ve been told that it feels a lot like walking from shade into a hot square of light.

But what does it mean to change your name when your home does not want you? And what does it mean to change your name when you know nothing of your home? To change a name also feels so violent, hurts so much. It feels like not remembering, when all that I want to do is remember.

To change a name in the service of one’s transness is that act of transforming one’s birth name into a slur. The “birth name” becomes a “dead name”, and to call a person by such a name is unconscionable. It can destroy a relationship. It can end a family. It could end my family. And, however much white people say it, it is not true that I owe my family nothing.

So is this what I want — to end a family?

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I don’t consider myself to be transitioning anymore. I’ve stopped trying to go home; I get things all mixed up. It physically tires me to read Indonesian. I use a translator whenever I have to read anything with a word longer than two finger-spans length.

Cina, jorok, berisik: these are the sorts of small words I know; I use them to become someone else. I was not taught them, but I heard them anyway. I know how to be furious in this language. I know how to call a man an idiot four different ways, and the exact degree of nuance to each of those words. I know the words for foam and dirt and spit and water. Also pain. It is so easy to be angry in this language with the few words I remember.

I have a friend, a trans man. A trans elder, really, one of those people who transitioned long before any of our modern day trans influencers came into being. When he transitioned, he sloughed off the name that his parents gave him. But not the first one; the one they gave him when they moved from China to the United States.

He changed his name back, or perhaps forward, to his birth name. For him, transitioning was not migration. It was a return from exile.

He changed his name back, or perhaps forward, to his birth name. For him, transitioning was not migration. It was a return from exile.

I am jealous of him. I wish that I had an Indonesian name, or a Chinese name, or a true birth name, and not this white thing, all sanded edges, all watered-down mud. I want a name that burns the back of a throat. I want to dismember a man using only my blade of a name. I wish I had something more true to come home to.

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The story of the birth and death of my name ends here.

In it, I have a name that has sewn me to a history of migration — one of those ageless tales of power and violation. It is not a particularly superlative story, but it is mine.

All of the family photos are gone. My grandfather threw them away this year when my grandparents moved in with their daughter, my aunt, to live the quiet years of their life. It was too late to stop him, but in the end it didn’t matter. He did not weep at their absence. He did not mourn those incinerated paper faces. He forgot about them. His memory was loosening its grip. And the documents — well, those were long gone, lost to time and the wastebasket. There was so much to remember, and so little to hold onto.

So here it is: the remembering, the last archive of what I have left. It’s small enough to fit in your mouth. Hold it there — this name that contains an entire girlhood, and my grandmother’s disappeared name, and the last name my dead violin teacher would know me by, which makes me cry every time I think of it, and her. A name that holds the whiteness thrust upon me, and all the hope of my family — to move us forward, also to stay the same.

My first name, my given name, my birth name, that small poor shriveled unwanted thing — I want to cup it in my hands and tell it: Do not be afraid. Do not rend yourself. Do not falter. I’m here. I will stay with you, just a little longer. And so I answer to it, and so I will answer to it for as long as my body allows. This is the name with which I tell my mother I love her. This is the name by which my mother summons me. Whenever she does, she slurs the words, spits a little. Every time, it sounds like singing.


“But I’m the one who has money; you don’t have money.”

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SM is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.

SM has written 1 article for us.

11 Comments

  1. this is absolutely beautiful

    I think a lot about names; the power they have, the weight and context they carry, and all the unspoken baggage. this piece offers such a lovely perspective on that through a lens I’ve never embodied

  2. You’ve done such a good job of expressing the deep nuance of names… and as a white person, I appreciate this call out: “however much white people say it, it is not true that I owe my family nothing”

    My mum was born in a council house and wanted to better herself, so sent me to violin lessons too… and I guess I owe her a lot. As strained as our relationship is.

    Thank you for this

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