“All those years, I was only fooling myself.”
By Annie Yang
I had never looked forward to school as much as I did during winter break of my fifth-grade year. Every day when I woke up, my lips curled into a smile as I remembered the new name I had chosen for myself. I had been scouring a long list of them ever since I found out that my family was moving to Memphis, Tennessee. This was the chance to jettison my Chinese name, Yin Yin, which had always stood out on lists full of Erics and Michelles. After six years in Iowa and New Jersey I had decided that my success in emulating my white peers would involve complete assimilation, including the adoption of an American name.
My favorite, Annie, seemed to suit my goals and disposition perfectly. I imagined Annie to be the shy, chubby girl clad in multi-colored Keds and a hot-pink Lisa Frank fanny pack staring back at me in the mirror. Annie could be the spelling bee champion, the yearbook editor, and everything else I aspired to be in middle school.
I carefully wrote “Annie” in my best cursive penmanship on all my folders, and practiced my new signature. I even sat all my stuffed animals down and practiced introducing myself.
Finally the day arrived. I awoke before my Little Mermaid alarm clock beeped, donned my new Wal-Mart turtleneck, and arrived at the bus stop early for my first day at my new school. After the bell rang and everyone settled down, my new teacher summoned me to the front of the classroom.
“Y’all, we have a new student with us,” she said. “This is Annie.”
This is it, I thought, butterflies in my stomach. But instead of feeling proud of my new name, I stood there shy and exposed in front of the sea of white faces, waiting for the guffaws and the pointing, for kids to yell, “She’s not Annie! She’s Yin Yin!”
Instead all I heard was the shuffling of impatient feet and the turning of pages. The overhead fan whirred, and a car drove by outside the window. No one cared. These kids knew nothing of the agony I had endured to arrive at that moment. I returned to my seat, both relieved and disappointed.
I was born in Beijing and lived there until I was four years old, when my family moved to America. The jump from a preschool class full of Chinese kids to kindergarten in Ames, Iowa, was a big one. I became the oddball, the only Asian kid in a school where every other student and grownup was white: all the teachers, the principal, the librarian, even the school nurse. At the time, my classmates and I paid more attention to the class hamster than to racial boundaries, but as I became more aware of the obvious differences, I longed to blend in.
When we moved from Iowa to New Jersey, where Asian faces predominated in my second-grade classroom, things were a little better. But white kids were still the ones that everybody revered, and gradually I began to regret not having changed my name at that point. I had the same Cinderella backpack as my white friends and read the same Berenstain Bears books. My blatantly foreign name was the only thing that differentiated me from my white peers. Since changing my skin color was out of the question, I yearned for membership into the next level: the Asian kids with American names. They were the ones lucky enough to hang out with the white kids on the jungle gym while Soo Young, Min Jung, and Yin Yin played Korean jacks on a bench by the fence.
Within months of our move to Tennessee, I had discarded Yin Yin like a used Halloween costume. I felt equal in every way to my Caucasian peers and soon became ashamed of my Asian heritage. I spoke Mandarin only when necessary, strayed away from the Asian crowd lest I befriend any of them, and refused to attend Chinese school. For a while, my parents tried relentlessly to continue teaching me new Chinese characters, and demanded that I only converse with them in Mandarin. But with me speaking English in school all day, and with both of them at work until 5 p.m. or later, my parents eventually surrendered, relinquishing their efforts to help me understand and appreciate my heritage. Relieved of a huge burden, I ignored the sadness and disappointment in their eyes as I conversed with them in English.
In high school, all my friends were Caucasian, with the exception of a Korean girl who had been adopted by an American family in infancy. She too must have been struggling with her Asian-American image, obstinately insisting that her hair was brown, not black.
I simply ignored my heritage altogether. Being Chinese offered me no advantages in America, sentencing me instead to endless hours of writing and rewriting the same Chinese characters and threatening me with feared phone conversations with faraway relatives. My parents would chase me around the house with the cordless phone just to get me to say hi to my grandmother. My avoidance of Mandarin had left my speaking skills patchy at best, so evasion was my most convenient defense mechanism. All in all, being Chinese had only made me feel lousy and inadequate.
During the last few months of high school, I went to prom with a white football player, hung out at Starbucks every evening with a group of white friends, and even started dating one of my white friends. At the end of the summer, I left for Philadelphia certain that I could do it all over again, securing a new group of white friends before fall classes started at Penn.
During New Student Orientation, I kept my eyes peeled for potential Caucasian peers. One was Meghan, whose brown hair and long eyelashes fit my target-friend description perfectly. She and I stuck together after meeting at a pre-orientation program and for much of the next week. But then I met a perky Korean girl named Crystal, who introduced me to some other Asian girls. Together, the six of us went upstairs to Crystal’s room, where she showed us her stash of kimchi. Everyone laughed and nodded knowingly as Crystal joked about offending her roommate with her stinky jars of Asian food.
I sat on the corner of the bed laughing along with them, feeling right at home amidst this group of strangers. Though I had known Meghan for almost a week and these girls for only a few minutes, I knew that Meghan and I would never be as close as I felt to them. We connected instantly through our shared experiences and Asian heritage, the same heritage I had been trying to hide for nearly a decade. I thought these girls would talk about Korean pop music or the upcoming performance by the Asian dance group. Instead, they laughed and joked about the same things that my white friends and I talked about. They were bananas and Twinkies, just like me—yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
Though I continued trying to make white friends, by the end of my first semester all my college friends were Asian, and all of them had American names. When I returned to Tennessee to visit my high school pals, I felt out of place. We went to the Spaghetti Warehouse for dinner the night I got back, sitting at a table near the center of the room. In every direction I saw only white faces: white two-year-olds slurping spaghetti in high chairs, white high-school girls hanging out on a Friday night, and white waitresses asking for our drink orders. I was painfully aware that I was the only non-white person in the restaurant.
No one treated me any differently than when I had lived in Tennessee; no one laughed or called me a chink; no one seemed to notice. The only thing that had changed was me. In high school, I felt white, dressed white, and talked white because I had convinced myself that I was white. That night at the Spaghetti Warehouse, I still dressed white and talked white, but I certainly did not feel white. Sitting across from my white friends, I knew they would never truly understand. Along with everyone else, they knew I was Asian long before I did and accepted me as such. All those years, I was only fooling myself.
Once I returned to Penn, I felt more Asian than ever before. To my parents’ utter surprise, I became so passionate about rediscovering the culture I had ignored for so long that I registered for a Chinese reading and writing class during my sophomore year. Within the walls of that classroom, I responded to Yin Yin eagerly. I reveled in the fact that I had an authentic Chinese name. In that classroom I realized that my name has a history and a meaning linking me to millions of people who share my language and experiences. Though Annie connected me to the culture of which I’d become a part, Yin Yin was the name that connected me to my family and my past. For the first time in years, I was actually proud of it.
No matter what I add, remove, or change in my name in the future, Yin Yin will always be a part of me. I have struggled for so many years to fight her, but from now on, I will fight to keep her.
Annie Yang received her undergraduate degree in psychology from Penn in May 2007. She will be teaching elementary school in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in the fall as a Teach For America corps member.