My Parents Gave Me A Very 'American' Name, But I Wanted Something Different For My Daughter

My immigrant parents gave me a name they felt would help me fit in in America. It's an example of how bias and racism can influence parental decisions. But I made sure to give my daughter a name that pays homage to her Asian roots.

The author and her mom.
The author and her mom. Photo: Courtesy of Hans G. Kohl

Racial tensions. Social injustice. Presidential elections. A pandemic. Virtual school. Remote working. Black Lives Matter. And, of course, xenophobia.

All of this and more has prompted me to examine my own place in the very vital racial conversation. I am first generation American, and I am a minority. My mother was Chinese, and my father is German—an interracial couple which wasn't so common in their time. I am hapa, a Hawaiian word meaning "half" often used to refer to someone with some Asian ancestry.

I grew up in New York, in a "lily-white" area (as my mother would say). I was bullied, made fun of, called racial slurs, teased about "eating dog" for dinner, and asked if I was yellow. I was even spit on in seventh grade (as if junior high wasn't hard enough).

As I started to reflect on my own experience with racism, it dawned on me the very first decision about my life—my name—was based on the bias and racism which existed at the time—and if I am honest still exists today.

As their first-born child, my parents were beaming with excitement and were thinking earnestly about my name. What should it be? What could it be? Under consideration was Katarina. Katarina Kohl. Nice alliteration. Nice homage to my German ancestry. My mother shared with me that she vetoed it because it was too ethnic; it screamed German and just wouldn't work in America.

In the Chinese culture you are often given a Chinese name and an English name. My mother was Patricia and Nuk Moi (meaning Jade Girl). She considered (albeit very briefly) giving me a Chinese name. I don't recall what it was, but my name could have been something like Jing-Mei Kohl. Truth is, a Chinese name was barely considered because that too was too ethnic, this time screaming Asian.

Ultimately after swinging to both sides of their nationalities, my two immigrant parents agreed (and succumbed) to Jennifer—with the meaning "fair lady" derived from Guinevere. Jennifer was literally the number one most common girl name in the United States in the '70s and '80s. Fourteen months later they named my brother Michael—the most common boy name at the time. The names allowed us to blend in, fit in, be non-ethnic at a time when that was exactly what the world demanded.

My parents' decision was strictly driven by both bias and racism. It made me think about the path I have had and how a name does in fact communicate something about you and your heritage. Not everyone looks at me and knows at first glance I am Chinese. They suspect I am "something"—I have been asked if I am Greek, Spanish, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Eskimo, Italian, and so on. The guesses vary based on how tan I am, how straight or curly my hair is, and how much lipstick I have on (not kidding). I have often thought what if my father was Chinese and I carried a Chinese surname. What if I was Jennifer Chan or Jennifer Yee?

When it came time to name my own daughter, my husband and I had a few options but unlike my parents, we were not afraid to select a name that referenced ethnicity. We proudly named her Jade to honor my Chinese lineage and to signal to her (and the world) there was an Asian part to her story.

I have made sure my children are aware and proud of their Asian heritage. We celebrate Lunar New Year with the same vigor we celebrate Thanksgiving. Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, my children have been called racial slurs, including "Chinese dumpling."

The recent surge in verbal and physical attacks towards Asians, along with the turbulence of 2020, mixed with my own personal story have prompted many discussions at home. I encourage my children to ask questions, learn, be curious—not just about our Asian story but all stories. That is how I believe we will change things for the future. I work hard at home to help my children be better and do better. The truth is the changes we want to see all start in our homes from day one—even with a name.

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