The teacher called my name as he continuously glanced at the glaring “X” in the middle initial box and asked “So what does the X stand for? Xavier? Are you Hispanic?”
Every person in the room turned their gaze toward me. I looked at him in shock, I did not expect to be singled out for my name like I had been in China. I replied with discomfort, under the curious eyes of my classmates, “It’s Chinese. My mom’s Chinese and I grew up in China.”
I was left feeling exposed on my first day of classes in the United States after living in China for fifteen years. I felt invalidated as I was forced to explain my heritage as if I was some complicated puzzle nobody could solve.
But I am not a puzzle. I was named to deliberately depict my Chinese and Jewish American upbringing.
The X in my name actually stands for Xia Ye. My full name is Genevieve Xia Ye Slosberg. I am “Gen” to the Americans, “Slosberg” to the Jews and “Xia Ye” to the Chinese. My parents thoughtfully chose my names to pay homage to their culture’s traditions.
The “G” in Genevieve comes from “Gerald,” my grandfather who passed away a year before I was born. My father wanted to honor him with the Jewish cultural practice of naming a child after someone who had passed. On the other hand, my mother named me Xia Ye, “summer night.” This honors the Chinese tradition of naming a child based on a mother’s hope for their future. To her, my name paints the poetic picture of a soft summer night with a gentle breeze flowing. She hoped that I would grow up to be beautiful, tender and soothing.
The reasons behind my name remind me of the deep love and care my parents have given me. Honoring it allows me to feel connected to my family. It also represents my parents’ rich cultural histories.
In China and the United States, however, different parts of my name stood out as abnormal. So my parents and I felt pressure to alter my name to fit into the culture I was living in. The problem is, breaking it into pieces erases parts of my identity. I have never been accepted and seen as Chinese, Jewish and American at the same time.
In China, my mom tried to make sure people would call me Xia Ye so my American looks didn’t stand out as much.
In my first grade class, I stole a glance at the roster on my teacher’s table and saw my English name amid a list full of Chinese characters. This was the first time I realized my name was different than my peers.
My mother knew that my presence in a room of monoracial Chinese kids warranted an explanation. She went up to the teacher and wrote my Chinese name down next to the English letters. To subdue any concerns about my ability to fit in, she told my teacher, “Her name is Xia Ye. That’s what we call her here. She speaks Mandarin, don’t worry.”
From that moment on, I was socially known as Xia Ye. Other than legal documents, everything else — rosters, homework, tests — used Xia Ye. The only space where I was referred to by my English name was in my English classes. Even then, I had to change my English name to be easily pronounceable for my classmates and teachers. As soon as I was old enough to decide for myself what to go by I preferred Gen over Genevieve — I hated how long-winded, uncommon and hard to pronounce “Genevieve” was.
But abandoning my entire English first name made me feel like I was succumbing to social pressure. In the end, people didn’t perceive me as any less foreign because I went by a Chinese name and shortened English name.
The confusion about my identity caused by my full name continued in America. Here, it was the “X” that puzzled people. While trying to adjust to life in America, I hated the inconsistency of having a white first and last name and a Chinese middle name.
I felt like I had to change my name to truly be “American enough.” So I figured it would be cool if I were Genevieve Ashley instead — Even my first Gmail account was [email protected]. I thought that with a fully English name, I would be able to better assimilate and be seen as “normal.”
My pursuit of “normal” extended to social media. It was trendy in high school to have your Instagram handle as an “x” sandwiched between your first and last name. Trying to fit in, I changed mine to @genxslosberg.
But “x” wasn’t just the latest trend to me — X represented “Xia Ye.” I doubted that people knew that the “X” was my middle initial. I felt like I wasn’t giving my Chinese side enough exposure by allowing the “X” to blend in as a trend. This made me realize how damaging and disrespectful anglicizing my name was to my Chinese cultural pride.
Learning to embrace my name has been a constant struggle. In both China and America, people attempt to use modified versions of my full name to make me palatable. I no longer, however, am compelled to break myself into pieces to fit in. Both my Chinese and Jewish American heritages are central to my identity.
Therefore, erasing any part of my name would be irresponsible to the only thing I am fully — mixed.
Genevieve Xia Ye Slosberg writes the Monday column on being a mixed-race womxn in China and the United States. Contact her at [email protected].