What’s in a name?

I wrote this months and months and months ago and have been sitting on it because running for election exhausts you. The racist garbage we’ve been seeing recently (not that it’s new) with the “Send her home” and “Go back to where you came from” highlights the needs for us to daylight racism in all its forms. So here’s a thing I wrote: 

When I was campaigning during One City’s nomination process, I wrote an email introducing myself to our party’s membership. In my 33 years on this planet I have been subjected to all kinds of terrible and cringeworthy icebreakers and “team-building exercises”. However, one icebreaker question that I am quite fond of asking is, “what’s the story of your name?” Our names come to us in many ways and hold significance, power, history, and sometimes things like trauma and resilience (resistance, even). Recently we’ve seen amazing pieces written by people of colour on the topic of names. Actress Kelly Marie Tran’s essay in the New York Times is a powerful piece on internalized racism and shame which ends in a beautiful reclamation of her culture and identity where she proclaims, “My real name is Loan. And I am just getting started.” Another timely essay by Elamin Abdelmahmoud is titled “I wanted my last name to be a burden for my daughter.” Abdelmahmoud writes, “We cannot be indifferent to names. Names are alive and they ask things of us—sometimes too much.” This brings me back to my name. In late July 2018, I received this email:

I googled you and found your vote website, which looks great, good luck. Though the first thing I noticed before getting your email was the, what I’m assuming are Chinese, characters beside your name.

It left me feeling unspoken to as I do not read Chinese. It is also not an official language in Canada. Though maybe it should be, it isn’t yet. A platform for another time maybe. Either way, as a stranger to you, it left me feeling left out rather than included – perhaps best to move whatever it says to somewhere less in ones face? Or translate it for us non urbane troglodytes. (I get it is probably your name – but how would I know)

Once I moved past some of the bitterness and anger, I thought I’d do what I do best: I’d facilitate a discussion. So I started writing this post.

My Chinese name is 甄念本. I resonate a lot with Loan Tran when she writes that growing up she felt “that I was ‘other,’ that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t good enough, simply because I wasn’t like them. And that feeling, I realize now, was, and is, shame – a shame for the things that made me different, a shame for the culture from which I came from.” I tried everything to fit in, including forsaking language, culture, and even at times my last name. On resumes, I used my middle name, Oliver, in place of Yan. Overnight, it was much easier to get interviews. I’m still ashamed that I did this but we do what we must to survive. It really wasn’t until my mid-20s that I started to undo, unpack, and heal some of this internalized racism (and homophobia) that I was harbouring within myself. The very real mortality of my elders makes this a pressing matter: I’m losing the only people from whom I can learn about my family history, heritage, and lineage.

In a conversation with my father about my name, he said, “I hope you remember your ancestry…your roots.” The character 甄 is my surname, Yan (which is the symbol I use on my political buttons). 念 can mean remembrance or to remember and 本 can mean origin or roots. My name is a gift and a beautiful reminder that I was born here on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations from complicated journeys of immigrants and settlers. My mixed-raced heritage isn’t a curse, but a blessing that lends me an awareness of and ability to navigate worlds of difference. Sometimes being mixed can make me feel even further removed – neither here nor there, this or that, but something entirely different.

I started writing all of this before the ballot came out with my Chinese name on it and there was outrage and some candidates even filed a civil suit to have my Chinese name stricken from the ballot  which was subsequently abandoned. I never imagined the burden that three little characters would be. I did almost a dozen interviews with print, radio, and television media. I was the topic of other candidate’s facebook posts about how unfair it was and how much of an advantage it was to be Chinese. In the same breath/key strokes, I was likened to a mythical ominous Chinese villain a la Yellow Peril, “the xenophobic theory of colonialism: that the peoples of East Asia are a danger to the Western world. As a psycho-cultural perception of menace from the East, fear of the Yellow Peril was more racial than national, a fear derived, not from concern with a specific source of danger, from any one country or people, but from a vaguely ominous, existential fear of the vast, faceless, nameless horde of yellow people opposite the Western world.”

“Shady Characters fromn China”
“Trumpian Chinks”

People can apologize and I can forgive but these sentiments have been expressed and they exist and they are real and so is the hurt they cause. Vancouver needs to stop hiding from these conversations. There may be reasons that of the successful parties on election night 2018 Wong, Grewal, Quimpo – and Yan – didn’t share in their party’s success.

In my current work at Out In Schools, I tell students across BC about my experiences growing up as a mixed-race queer kid in Langley. I always talk about how I never saw role models who looked like me on TV or in film, and if I did they were never LGBT2Q+. I feel that representation of diverse and intersecting identities is important, and it is this conviction that led me to decide to use my social capital and privilege in this world to be not just visible, but actively engaged as a queer person of colour in the broader community. This is important for my generation, but especially for subsequent ones: Vancouver has so many young people who don’t see themselves reflected in elected political leadership and it is time for that to change.

In a talk at the Vancouver Public Library, Jack Saddleback, a Two Spirit man from the Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis, Alberta asked us, “What kind of ancestor do you want to be?” I think about my name and about my Chinese ancestors and how running for election may have never been a possibility for them. I think they would be proud of me. My name is 甄念本 and I want to be an ancestor that did his best to leave behind a legacy of compassion, equity, and justice.


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