Among my peers and friends at Yale, only a select few know that I’ve been harboring a secret since the day I arrived on this campus.
A quick google search reveals that the name “Aiden” supposedly has Irish roots, something both my family and I were completely unaware of. My parents probably couldn’t care less — neither have any relation to Ireland.
I, on the other hand, just liked the way it sounded. I suppose that’s why I formally adopted the name just a few months before arriving in New Haven. In all honesty, “Aiden” is a name I crowdsourced from my friends in high school after floating a few suggestions in our shared group chat. While the move seems somewhat frivolous and rash, the impetus to change my change was years in the making.
When Yuh-Jung Youn accepted her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress this year, she jokingly forgave all the people who had previously butchered her name. It evoked a good number of laughs, but in reality, there was a lot of truth behind what she said. It’s a painful reality that many Asians and Asian Americans live with every single day.
When I was born, my parents gave me the same name as my father, a name that did not even have Chinese roots. In fact, according to my family, it was supposedly an “old German name,” given to my father by his German grandfather. Nevertheless, it was just foreign enough to play a role in perpetuating the Asian American trope of the “perpetual foreigner.”
Throughout my formative years growing up in Texas and Arizona, I became acutely aware of how my name influenced the ways others perceived me. It wasn’t overt, and in most cases, it was nothing more than a briefly raised eyebrow or the occasional inquiry of “where does that name come from?” On other occasions, it led to that infamous string of questions all too familiar to Asian Americans.
Where are you from?
No, no. Where are you actually from?
Well, I was born in Texas.
No, where are your parents from? Are they immigrants?
Things got compounded by the time I reached high school and became increasingly aware of my own sexual orientation. Being gay meant that I all the more desperately wanted to fit in — to not be the odd one out.
When senior year of high school rolled around, I had become increasingly certain that I would adopt something different, yet that also hadn’t quite quelled the immense guilt I felt. Yes, changing my name meant I would be relieved of the exhaustion that came from those looks of mystique, but I also could see the pain behind my mother’s eyes — that she so desperately tried to hide — when I posited the idea. Plus, what would it mean to relinquish such a prominent marker of my identity as my own name?
In recent months, amidst a surge of Instagram infographics and other social media outcries, there has been a revitalized interest in identifying and overcoming anti-Asian hate and violence, much of which is not just the progeny of the pandemic or Trump’s rhetoric but rather the culmination of a long history of anti-Asian sentiment.
This moment also forced me to reckon with how I associated with the name “Aiden,” an entirely self-conjured alter-ego of sorts that, in many ways, was the product of me bending to the weight of the world — a consequence of the pressure and need to “assimilate” into the very society I was born into.
Yet, during this time, I have also found solace in the understanding that such guilt does not lie with myself or any other Asian American who adopts a new moniker in hopes that it will relieve the pressures of feeling foreign, even if only a marginal amount. Loving ourselves and our identity can be a long, arduous process. For many of us, it can be one saddled with difficult decisions. As such, we need not feel guilt or anguish over our choices to change our name; after all, it can be one of the few moments where we have true agency over the way in which we are perceived by others around us.
Today, the Instagram graphics and Twitter hashtags that were so omnipresent are now little more than an echo, but anti-Asian sentiment, hatred, and violence have not been quelled. Rather, it’s just no longer the “hot topic” of the day. But while the nation-wide interest in our plight seemed so ever fleeting, it was a reminder that the issues we face have validity — that they are real. They have real consequences, and they force us to make life-altering decisions.
Examples of explicit violence against Asians forces us to be hyper vigilant and aware — to be guarded and ready. It means we tell our grandparents and parents to never walk alone and to watch their backs.
But sometimes, the acts of the world are not as explicit as a hate-crime. Sometimes, it’s the inflection in someone’s voice when we introduce ourselves. It’s the barely noticeable raised eyebrow when we say our names. It’s the gnawing sense that something as vital to our identity as our name might be just enough to prevent us from “fitting in.”
So some — but not all — of us bend to the world, and we exert agency over our identity in the ways that we can. And sometimes, that decision comes with guilt.
But, we have to remember: it’s not our fault. And we don’t need to explain ourselves.
AIDEN LEE is rising senior in Pauli Murray college. He is a staff columnist, and his column is titled “, “It’s Complicated. ” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.