My Real Name

When I first came to the United States, in a social event, someone asked me:

“What’s your name?”

“Helen,” I answered.

She looked at me ambiguously…. Her eyes were clearly telling me: “you don’t look like Helen.” Obviously, I am not a blond, I don’t have blue eyes, and I probably spoke English with an accent. Then she asked again:

“What’s your real name?”

A flashback quickly went through my mind: I came to this country in 1989 as a student. When crossing the border at between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, I looked back one last time at the country where I had breathed every single breath of my life, and then looked forward with anticipation to a country that was then not much more than a distant dream.

At the San Francisco US immigration office, I eagerly put down my name “Helen Wang” on the social security card, as if by picking a typical English first name, I would be automatically accepted in this country.

The rest of the story is similar to other Chinese students and immigrants. I struggled, I suffered, I fell, and I picked up myself and tried again. I went out of my way to push my limits. I wanted to fit in this country, I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to think like an American, talk like an American, and act like an American, and I want to be an American!

Then something in me began to awaken: a soul as old as centuries, a culture as rich as civilization, and the wisdom that surpasses all the sciences – those are within me, and within me forever. Then, only then, I started to appreciate my own culture and tradition. I still think like Chinese, talk like Chinese, and act like Chinese, and I want to tell the world I am a Chinese!

When I got married to an American with English and German heritage, I debated fiercely myself whether I should change my last name to “Clarke.” As much as I like the unity of the family the last name represents, I do not want people look at the name “Helen Clarke” and expect a blond with blue eyes.

With my straight black hair and dark brown eyes, I am a Chinese by ethnic background, and an American by citizenship. Sometime, I do not identify myself as either, because I have transcended and evolved to a third identity that we all know called “mankind.” Whether we are Chinese, Indian, Russian, Mexican, Italian, or Kenyan, we are all in one. We are all mankind.

Call me my real name “Mankind.”

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37 thoughts on “My Real Name

  1. My wife’s name is Helen, and guess what? – She has blond hair and green eyes.

    I like your story and I agree with you, we are all mankind and are citizens of the same global village called Earth.


  2. Mrs. Mankind, that was a beautiful reflection of wonderful thoughts..

    Amsterdam greetz from your brother.

    Mr. Mankind

  3. A lovely essay, Helen

    You are beautiful in any country/culture/society.

    I understand how people like to be hyphenated Americans…native-Marican, Afro-American, etc.

    ‘Fraid I don’t fit into any category. My ancestors were English, Irish, Flemish and German. Guess that makes me a Canadian Mutt.

  4. An interesting essay on how we define ourselves versus how society defines us.

    My nieces who are a product of my German-Heritage sister and my African-American brother-in-law fill in the blank for “African-American” on the odd days of the week and fill in the blank for “Caucasian” for the even days. Or just to mess with people, the triplets all fill out different races…..

  5. this is really intersting to me on a number of levels because i have a “real name ” that nobody uses….. so thanks for this.. very interesting read,.

  6. Helen, I’m glad you’re here…and Chinese, and American….I often like to hear the perspectives of those who have COME to this country because you have a unique viewpoint in being able to tell us about our selves. Thank you for your willingness to do so.

  7. Thanks, everyone, for your comments! Greg, I hope your nieces are doing great! Sadi, I am glad my experience resonated with yours. Robert, thank you for your openness!

  8. Terrific ending especially, Helen. And you made the right decision, I think, in keeping your last name. Have you read any books about the American experience for other Chinese immigrants (such as Amy Tan’s books)? I haven’t, but have heard many people speak positively about them.

  9. I can see the chinese poetry in you…I like to read chinese poetry but I think is very difficult to put the spirit of the original poem in to a different language. I was raised in Italy,I have traveled the world and can fit in anywhere, I look at people the same way no matter where I am.
    My favorite philosopher is K’ung-fu-tzu.

  10. Helen,
    I’m happy you are here in the family! Very much enjoyed your article and am still smiling from it.

  11. Helen, thanks for sharing your experience. My best friend is 3/4 Chinese and 1/4 Japanese and it’s so interesting asking her about her family’s culture and how there are differences and similarities to us in the West. Great article and I’m happy to see you kept Wang also.

  12. Helen, wonderful story. I too was reminded of Amy Tan’s stories.

    “a soul as old as centuries, a culture as rich as civilization..” this is so poetic and filled with the richness of love.

    I have no idea what you must have endured in your journey.. but I can tell you one of my most precious memories. i worked for the immigration dept in australia during the early to mid nineties, the day our government declared our chinese students (following you-know-what) could stay permanently, they all came into our office. The day was a procession of heartfelt gratitude, which none of us personally deserved but made our hearts soar . This was in a provincial north queensland city, so our chinese community was small (as was the tiny immigration office) all centred in the small university there. They just wanted to say thankyou, to show their appreciation, but they were all devestated too. It was a day of mourning as well as a day of celebration. Yes, it meant they could now try to help their families to come out here, it meant a whole new world of opportunity, but it also meant they would feel forever as though they’d betrayed their souls.

    Thankyou for this humbling memory.

  13. We are all humans. That’s it. No more, no less. It’s ok to be individuals and groups, etc., but what it comes down to, a fact no one can deny, is that we are first of all human.

    Thank you…very uplifting.

  14. I love learning about the experiences of others, especially those whose backgrounds are so different from mine.
    Thank you, and yes, it was a terrific article!

  15. Helen, thank you for your poignant story. I would like to read more of you; it does remind me of Amy Tan. Carolyn is right in her assessment of phrases; they are rich, very rich and deep.

    My husband’s best friend came to Boston from China when he was 5. The immigration didn’t understand the Toysun name he gave, so my husband’s friend became “Jack.” About 15 years ago, “Jack” Chan changed his name legally to “Jamon” , pronouned “Ja-Mon.”

    My black and white tuxedo cat (on left) is named ‘Mao,” both for the species he is and because he says his name so well. My husband and daughter are learning Mandarin.

  16. There is something so satisfying about the act of self-naming. My given first name is Lorna. In my forties, for a variety of reasons, I added the name, Annina in front of it, and have found a certain joy in the result.

    How clever of you to not have mentioned your own given name. It is only as “real” as you think it to be, and I love your “real” name. Surprise! It’s mine too! 😉

  17. kathryn,

    I understand Jack’s story, and I really like your “Mao.”


    Thank you for your very kind comments.


    Cheers for Mankind!

  18. Helen – This was a wonderful piece. There is indeed a great deal of satisfaction in “self-naming.” I was Christened “Gisela” in an effort to win favor with my mother’s sister of the same name. Resentful of a “secondhand name” I used my middle name JoAnne for many years.

    Now in my forties, I’ve rediscovered Gisela as a name I’m proud to brandish.

    Good for you in keeping Wang part of yours!

  19. Helen, So great to read your words…. I can relate to an extent and have often wondered what I will do with my name when/if I get married. All such a part of me — the Japanese last name, the Spanish/Filipino middle…. When I have dated different people, quietly (in my most secret thoughts) I would try on their last names and I would cringe — Johanna _____… does that sound like a white woman applying for that job? On the phone?… and so on… they’d expect that “blond with blue eyes”… how misleading! how… simply not me…. I suppose is the most clear way to say it. Yes, cheers to all Humankind…. to celebrating the quilt.

  20. When crossing the border at Lo Wu Bridge between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, I looked back one last time at the country where I had breathed every single breath of my life, and then looked forward with anticipation to a country that was then not much more than a distant dream.

    So beautifully stated!!!!

    I too enjoyed your original post Helen, and this is an even more eloquent essay. Your story is so inspiring and I have such great admiration for you and all you have accomplished!

  21. Your story is similar to the story of my father. My father first came to the United States as a student in the late 1960’s from Hong Kong. After college he moved to the Silicon Valley to work at National Semiconductor, being one of the few Chinese-Americans in the Silicon Valley at that time. At that time, I believe there was more pressure to assimilate into mainstream American culture than today. My parents never taught us kids how to speak Chinese, and I don’t know much about Chinese culture.

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