“Hello, little Ga Heen!” My mother’s voice sounds over the phone, making me laugh as she uses my Chinese name in greeting. She’s given me a variety of nicknames over the years, including Sar-bear (Go Bears!), and Ga Heen is just part of the rotation.
Despite its sometimes arbitrary use, my Chinese name has always felt like a gift — I was the last one in my family named by my great-grandmother. I was only 7 when she died at the ripe old age of 100, so despite not knowing her for long, I’m left with an everlasting reminder of her.
Siblings usually have one character in their names that match: their surname. My brother is Ven Heen, which makes me feel more connected to him. The meaning of a Chinese name is often a wish for the child, a symbol of hope for their future.
My name roughly means “happiness is found,” and it’s always signified to me how much my family treasures me. And it’s true — I feel happiest when I’m around my family.
Even though “Ga Heen” is not noted on my birth certificate or any official documents, it is an important part of my identity as a half-Chinese, half-white American. It gives me a sense of belonging and reminds me that my family, even through my strange middle school years, is always there for me. This is why I usually explain my Chinese name whenever the topic of how I got my name comes up in awkward college icebreakers.
I used to feel a little upset that my parents chose perhaps the whitest name possible for me. Even my middle name, Nicole, is white — I’d rather have my mother’s maiden name, Lee, to tie me to my heritage. When I asked my mom why she chose “Sarah Nicole,” especially when her middle name is now Lee, she said there wasn’t really a reason besides that she liked it. I’ve heard, “I think ‘Sarah’ means ‘princess,’ ” just about a million times, but what does “Sarah” mean? What is it supposed to mean, to me and the people who named me, raised me, love me?
I’m an Asian American studies minor, so in classes full of other Asian students, my very white name being called on the roll makes me feel as though I have something to prove. I am constantly reminded that I have to carve out my own space as a biracial student — and person — to assert that, yes, I’m Asian enough. See, I even have a Chinese name!
But my name has also granted me undeniable privilege. No one would ever guess a certain Sarah Harris is not fully white or discriminate against me simply based on my name. I’ve never had to correct people on its pronunciation, and no one has ever made fun of my name. Having Ga Heen as a Chinese name has always been a sort of fun fact to tell my friends, rather than something I’ve had to correct people on when they read it out loud.
But while Ga Heen is an extremely special name and concept to me, I realize I also need to appreciate my birth name, Sarah Harris. This realization only came to me at the wise age of 21, but better late than never, right?
Most of all, it reflects my mother’s agency as an American-born Chinese woman. My great-grandmother knew little English when her two youngest children were born in America — specifically in San Pedro and not Cantonese-dominated San Francisco.
As a result, my great-uncle’s name was randomly chosen by the doctor, and my great-aunt is named after a delivery nurse’s aunt. My grandparents named their children after white celebrities who were popular at the time. They even chose their own English names in the same way. They simply didn’t know any other English names they would have wanted, and at home, everyone was called by their Chinese name most of the time anyway.
Despite “Sarah” not having much personal meaning behind it, at least my mom got to choose. While it can be argued that selecting one of the whitest names in existence is a result of assimilation, I’ll stick with the more romantic idea of agency.
So no matter how common, my name means a lot more to me today than it used to. It feels reflective of my biracial identity. There’s room for both of my names, and they both reflect parts of who I am. What matters within Sarah Harris is that my parents had their pick of names and made a decision based on what they wanted, not what someone else told them, unrestricted by any language or cultural gap. I’m still Ga Heen when I’m Sarah Harris, and I’m still Sarah Harris when I’m Ga Heen.