Changing names is just one cost of immigrant life in the U.S.

Students’ name tags hang on their dorm room doors in MacCarty Hall at University of Washington. (Photo by Zijun Cathy You)

A viral video by Columbia undergraduate Yan Huhe featured himself and fellow Chinese international students proudly stating their names in Chinese and explaining the meanings behind them.

The students recorded the video in response to an incident that happened at Columbia University residence halls during the 2017 Chinese New Year. Someone ripped several name tags displaying the students’ Chinese names from the doors of their dorm rooms. After students reported the incident, the school deans sent a consolatory email to the students that simply called the incidents “vandalism.”

Students said that the ripping down of their name tags were a result of xenophobia. One of the Chinese students interviewed by Sixth Tone said it was the result of a growing climate of “purging”— the targeting and intimidation of a specific group of students.

Other Chinese students at the university, College Daily reported, had opted to change their name tags to display American names to keep from being targeted.

Immigrants face constant pressure to compromise their identities in the United States because they are often targeted and discriminated against due to their language, culture, race, and national origin.

Many choose to adopt American names to fit in, but immigrants often feel further pressure to change their entire lifestyles: what they eat, how they dress, and how they speak.

Reading about the incident at Columbia University and the different ways that students responded made me question the ways that I have compromised my identity to feel more comfortable living in the United States. I asked myself why I changed my name from Zijun to Cathy. Was I still proud of my Chinese name or was I trying to hide it? How many times have I made changes to myself just to fit in better?

International students with non-American names describe a common scenario: They are sitting in a crowded classroom. A professor picks a name from the name list to call on a student to answer a question. It becomes obvious from the professor’s furrowed eyebrows that they cannot pronounce the name. After a moment of silence, the professor makes an effort to say the name; it’s a disaster. The other students raise their heads and turn, searching the classroom to find the student with the hard-to-pronounce name. The scenario usually ends with embarrassment for the international student.

Oftentimes, the student will go with an American name to avoid the situation altogether or an American will give them a new name that is “easier to pronounce.”

“I still remember, at the beginning of each school year, teachers would go through the name lists. And I always felt so nervous about it, since I knew they would get my name wrong again,” said Nelson Zhihong (志宏) Liu, a Chinese immigrant who moved from Taiwan to the east coast of the United States with his mom and sister in 1990. “So a lot of times I would just say to the teacher, ‘Call me Nelson.’”

Nelson was 10 years old when he was given an American name by his English tutor, who his family hired to get him and his sister ready for living in the United States.

For the same reason, international student Lucas Li picked his American name seven years ago when his flight from Shanghai first landed at the airport in South Carolina.

“I picked ‘Lucas’ just for the convenience sake. I didn’t expect it to become part of me,” Lucas said.

Like Lucas, I was surprised at how my American name had taken over my identity. I constantly struggle with the questions: Which name represents me better, the American one or the Chinese one? Which cultural group I belong to?

I started living as Cathy You in 2011 after coming from China to the United States for school when I was 16. “Cathy” was a name that was given to me by my English tutor when I was younger. I didn’t think much of it at the time.

My life as Cathy took off in the United States. I quickly adapted an American accent. I got used to having pancakes and bacon as my daily breakfast, and grazing on raw American vegetable salads for dinner. I celebrated Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter, and even gathered with friends for the 4th of July.

I introduced myself as “Cathy” whenever I met people because I believed that “Cathy” was who I was.

It wasn’t until I went to college and signed my apartment lease that I realized I could only be “Zijun,” in the legal sense, rather than “Cathy” to America, because that’s the only name written on my passport and legal documents. However, by that time, Zijun had become a stranger to me. No one has called me by my Chinese name for so long. It’s something I packed away in a dusty box, and left in a corner long ago.

Unfamiliarity to one’s name can be explained as the sense of detachment to one’s old self.

“It feels weird,” Lucas said to me in Mandarin. “Whenever I went back home, and heard people call me Chengze (成泽), my first reaction was, ‘Who is that?’ And then it took me a few second to realize they are calling me.”

Lucas continued to say that, sometimes, he would think of himself as having two identities — one being “Lucas,” which represents the American side of him, and the other being “Chenze,” which represents the Chinese side of him. Standing alone, neither of these identities felt right to him, Lucas said.

Immigrants who spend so much time in another country ultimately feel detached from the life back home. And the feeling is not only the dislocation of one’s identity; it can even be a mismatching of time and space. For Nelson, Taiwan always felt like 1990 to him whenever he went back, despite the obvious development-related changes that a city naturally goes through.

In some specific cases, immigrants who have become accustomed to living in America might even have trouble doing the most ordinary daily activities back home. For example, back home they can’t shop online, due to not having the newest online payment method that everyone else is using. They don’t know how to ride the buses, not knowing the new bus routes and bus stops. Oftentimes, it can be troublesome for them to agree on people’ points of view, having long deviated from the lifestyle back home.

For immigrants, these instances of reverse culture shock are aching moments that turn them into outsiders back where they used to call home.

This feeling of departure from the home culture, coupled with continued feelings of still not fitting in in America can leave immigrants feeling stuck in between.

“I am no longer fully Chinese, but I know I won’t ever be truly American either,” said UW student Bridgette Chen, who immigrated to America from China when she was 14.

Bridgette described herself as someone living in a “gray area,” where her Chinese characteristics and some American tastes existed in the harmony. She said she is still a fan of Asian dramas, but she likes to watch them with English subtitles. She has kept her appetite for Chinese food but modified her cooking with western ingredients. She appreciates the freedom and human rights in the United States, but her views on sex remain conservatively Chinese.

“But I am OK with being in the gray area … I actually like it,” she said.

Nelson Liu was able to reconcile his dual identities when he went to graduate school. As a kid, Nelson said he had always felt frustrated dealing with different identities when other kids around him hadn’t. After college, as he matured, he gradually began to see his “Asian-ness” in a different way.

“I started to recognize that I don’t need to be ashamed about my name or identity, and I even started to appreciate how my Asian-ness can contribute diversity to the community I live in,” he said.

Several years later, in the immigration paperwork that Nelson turned in to apply for the American citizenship, he wrote his name down as: Nelson Zhihong Liu. “Before that, I was only Zhihong, but now I can be Nelson as well,” he said.

After starting college in New York, Lucas Li also wrote “Lucas Chengze Li” as his name on his class assignments. He said that “there could be thousands of Lucas and thousands of Chengze, but there will be only one Lucas Chengze Li. And that’s me.”

Hearing about these experiences inspired me to find an answer to my own dilemma. Inside of me, the urge to try to belong to one group or another died off. Searching for one’s identity could be a life-long process, and the answer will come at a different time for different people and for different reasons. In a globalized era, we find more things that can define ourselves with than we used to. We are no longer defined only by our skin colors nor the nations stated on our passports, but the life experiences that we have been through. We should not be ashamed just because our names are “hard to pronounce,” our ideas hard to understand, or because we are just simply different.

Call me Zijun Cathy You.

Editor’s note (11/26/18 at 5:52 p.m.): Edits were made to correct the spelling of Lucas’s Chinese name.


  1. Both sides of my family, like most Chinese families who came to the US before WWII, are from Taishan. Both my parents were born in the U.S., in the 1920’s but grew up in China. They met at Cal shortly after the war, in the late 40’s, when there was still rampant anti-Asian discrimination on the west coast. (This is why the real Joy Luck club started.)

    I was born in CA in 1959, the height of the Cold War, and am part of a generation known as ABC’s—American-born Chinese. We have western names on our birth certificates and Chinese names used by our families, and many of us didn’t learn to speak Chinese, didn’t learn our history or our traditions, and can’t even use chopsticks properly. Our parents did this to protect us.

    But despite their efforts, the U.S. sees us, and treats us, as others, in big and small ways.

    The process of fitting in is something all immigrant families and immigrants go through. It looks and feels different for each family, depending on country of origin, the age at which the person emigrated, and the circumstances under which the family or person emigrated from and immigrated to. I’m not an immigrant but I still constantly make little adjustments to try to find my place, which is ever-shifting.

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