My Name, My Story: Zara
Names can tell a powerful story, but as a US immigrant from China, the English names I was given didn’t mean anything to me. This is my journey through those names, to choosing my own English name that continues my story.
Chinese Names 101
Born in China to Chinese parents, I was naturally given a Chinese name at birth. Chinese personal names differ from English ones in many key aspects. A person’s full name consists of a one- or occasionally two-character family name (what English speakers call a last name), followed by a one- or two- character given name.
Many considerations go into choosing the given name. Chinese parents, just like anglophone ones, may consider the name’s flow. Other factors are specific to the language and culture — for example, visual appearance and the number of strokes used to write the characters is sometimes analyzed to produce an appealing total.
Parents may also consult a fortune teller to find a “lucky name” based on the Five Elements. Per Taoist beliefs, a child may be lacking in one of the five elements (gold, wood, water, fire, or earth) depending on their birthdate; thus, choosing a name that incorporates the missing element is believed to create better balance and harmony.
But perhaps the most noticeable difference for a Chinese-American like me is the phonetics of a Chinese given name. When written in the English alphabet, some consonants and a large number of vowel sounds become sorely distorted because they are either pronounced differently, or don't exist in English at all. This not only makes transliterated Chinese names difficult to pronounce, it makes them sound distinctly foreign, which is — you guessed it — not beneficial for cultural assimilation.
For this reason, many Chinese people who migrate to the US or another English-speaking country adopt an English name. Some choose to keep it as a nickname, while many others legally sign it as their first name and put their transliterated Chinese birth name as a middle name. Here in the States, however, those who regularly go by a nickname rarely use their legal first name, and the middle name is used all the more infrequently. Consequently, our birth name is almost never spoken and acknowledged.
This lack of acknowledgement makes my birth name feel like a seed that never sprouted. I will always know what beauty it holds, but others cannot see nor appreciate the flower it might have been. Yet, my Chinese name will forever feel more “me” than any English name I will ever have. Perhaps it’s because it’s the first name given to me. Perhaps it’s because of all the thought and love I know my parents put into choosing it. It may even be due to the fact that it is never spoken and acknowledged, and somehow that makes it more personal.
An English Name: Selene
When I was four, I attended a preschool in China. It was revealed that we would be taught English by a “real foreigner” — this was a big deal because China wasn’t and still isn’t very racially diverse. My new teacher said to me: “Ni de ying wen ming zi jiao ‘Selene’” (Your English name is now ‘Selene’). It was later explained to me that these names were more professional for the foreign teacher and made us “real English students.”
So I became Selene until the school year ended in June. It was a name that I never identified with outside of Mr. Foreign Dude’s class and one that has been, for the most part, forgotten.
An “American” Name: Sarah
A few years later, I was in second grade and about to immigrate to the US. My mother went to my teacher and asked for a list of “good English names”. It was a short, sticky-note list: something like Amber, Jessica, Ashley, Nicole, and Sarah (all 1980s names, I notice now in hindsight. This was the mid-2010s, so a bit of math told me these were probably the names the teacher grew up with).
One look at the names and my mom quickly eliminated Jessica, Ashley, and Nicole because they had “too many letters.” Another Baidu search for its popularity in the US put Sarah (ranked 42) on my name tag, over Amber (ranked 261): the more common the name, the better I will blend in, my mother theorized. The whole process took less than a day.
But as I settled in the US and used the name Sarah for the next six years, I began to resent it. Sarah is a beautiful name, but one I shared with teachers, coaches, Starbucks baristas, and friends’ mothers alike. It was a name that I awkwardly found wasn’t addressed to me when someone called it in the school hallways.
However, the deeper resentment didn’t come from the name’s popularity or the desire to be unique; it came from the realization that most of these Sarahs around me were named Sarah for meaningful reasons that did not include how “American” the name is and how homogenous they would seem. Their second-grade homeroom teacher was probably not involved in their naming process, either.
Their Sarahs are stories — continuations of their family’s history; embodiments of who they are, who their parents or guardians want them to become, or what made them special. My Sarah felt like a fraud, a societal outsider trying to gain acceptance by borrowing other people’s stories through their “American” name instead of creating my own.
My Name, My Story: Zara
I don’t want to feel like a fraud.
I want my English name to have a purpose, a significance. I want to take control of what I am to be called and associated with. It is a visceral type of power — the ability to establish your own identity — and one that will help me root myself in this new country.
After a full year of searching and namenerding, I gave myself a new English name: Zara. It starts with a Z and has two syllables, characteristics I chose to whisper and commemorate my Chinese birth name. On the other hand, I like the name in itself — I think it looks sleek and sounds bold. It also happens that Zara phonetically and visually resembles Sarah. This wasn’t an intentional choice, but the similarities have allowed my transition to be easier on other people.
But most importantly, I can now add my own story to the anthology of Zaras while I pave my way to social acceptance. I get to be a part of what “Zara” will be associated with. I get to bring diversity to the name from being myself and from being someone of a racial minority group.
And there is self-respect from knowing that I chose the name — to express my own pride, not to take advantage of homogeneity.