The moment the class went off to work on their cards, I looked at the only other Asian kid in the room and made sympathetic eye contact. Both of us were silent, shuffling in our chairs uncomfortably. The screeching of Sharpies on smooth Bristol paper made my anxiety rise. I picked my calluses, watching the dead skin fall onto the blank piece of paper that stared at me. Imagine sitting there clueless when you are simply asked to write your name.
The instructions were straightforward: Write your real birth name and then teach the class how to pronounce it. It was one of those icebreaker games. Most of my friends’ names are just abbreviations of their full names, such as Bella for Isabella or Alex for Alexander. Unfortunately, Emma is not short for Emmeline; it’s not short for anything. My real name is the Chinese characters 子涵, which in English translates to Zi Han. I never used it in school because Zi Han felt strange, and going by that made me feel like an outcast. Emma, on the other hand, was easy to pronounce, and more American.
I had a dilemma; I didn’t know which one to choose.
Each of my names has its own story. Emma was given to me in a matter of seconds, back in the hospital when the nurses asked my parents if they wanted to give me an “English” name. While my dad thought it was unnecessary, my mom disagreed. It is easy to think of a normal English name, but choosing which to give your daughter for the rest of her life requires more consideration.
However, my birth certificate needed to be signed and my mom was stuttering. “Emily? Sarah? Samantha?” I imagine her mumbling as she shook her head. What did the hospital expect from a woman who had just given birth?
The nurses were growing impatient, and according to my dad, one of them said, “How about Emma?” It was like naming your plant or your toy. The name was superficial; it was fluid. When I had a stuffed animal, I would change its name every day. The teddy bear wasn’t a living thing. Its name was only a tag for my brain to remember.
My Chinese name, on the other hand, was a conversation that initiated from the day my mom discovered she was pregnant. It started with the intricate work of flipping back through my family tree to find inspiration among my ancestors. Then, they scrimmaged through a two-thousand-page Chinese dictionary in order to find the perfect recipe for my name. Through a process of trial and error, my parents pieced together the characters. It was a strange jigsaw puzzle in which the perfect alignment is obtained through the agreement of one’s senses. When my parents felt a tingle up their spines at the sight of 子涵 Zi Han, my name was born.
I didn’t have that much time left before it was time to share. It felt like the 5-minute countdown before a test ends and the proctor shouts “Put your pencils down!” Except this wasn't a test; well, not for most kids. As much as I love the name Emma, it's a substitution in order to simplify who I really am. However, at the same time, I wanted to play it safe. It was just a game everyone would forget about in a matter of hours.
In 6th grade, my biggest fear was when the substitute teacher would accidentally read my real name instead of Emma on the attendance list, and kids would look at me shocked, and then say, “I thought your name was Emma?”
I hated explaining that Zi Han was my real name and that Emma was the English name I had used since birth.
“Why don’t you use Z-Z-Zihan instead?” They’d ask, covering their laughs.
Later on, when I found out that some students used their middle name as their first, I conjured up a lie that Emma was my middle name. It was my only escape.
Here I am, a supposedly more mature high school sophomore still struggling with the same thing, even though people stopped questioning my real name in high school. Emma is a normal, English and American name. That was all they needed to hear. My classmates probably think I’m boring. I heard that Americans love it when you share something about your culture that feels alien to them. I thought, maybe if I told them I had another name that would make me more interesting.
I used to take calligraphy classes back when I lived in Singapore, where I learned to write the characters of my name in dramatic strokes. On special days, our teacher would let us write our names on red paper with glittery ink. I would hang them in my room for years and always proudly show the guests that visit my house. My happiness then felt sweeter than honey. Those were the times when I treated my real name like a piece of art.
I gathered the dead calluses on the paper into a pile and dumped them into the trash, leaving a clean surface to work on. I popped the Sharpie open and I started to write.
About the Author:
Emma Zhou is a rising senior originally from China and raised in Singapore who now attends school in Massachusetts. Outside of writing short stories, she is a journalist for her town's newspaper and a visual artist. Outside of school, she enjoys playing hockey, golf and enjoying a good concert.