August 20, 2019
Using the Name I Was Given
The first day of each year of grade school was a terror to my little self. More specifically, the first hour of the first day of each year of grade school. And beyond grade school as well, if I’m honest.
It wasn’t meeting new friends that scared me. Or winding up with the teacher that everyone told rumors about. It was roll call. With “Tong” for a last name, I was usually number 27 to 30, so I always ended up toward the bottom of the list. This, of course, only served to extend my anxiety as I waited for the teacher to read aloud, Ming-Jinn Tong. The name I was given.
I often tried to jump in before the teacher would attempt to read my name aloud. But if I failed, which I often did, I braced for the smirks, stares, and snickers that awaited me. So, as early as kindergarten, I named myself Michael.
Michael. A whole suit of armor in just two syllables. A bleach for my culture so that I could just fit in. Ming-Jinn was just too foreign. Too unusual. Too ugly. No one knew what to do with a Ming-Jinn. Perhaps I was named when my mom kicked a can down the stairs, they suggested. But Michael. Now that’s a name. A nice, regular, don’t-look-at-me-because-I’m-normal-too name.
But today, I’m done being Michael. Or Mike. I want to use the name I was given.
In Albuquerque in 1979, there were surprisingly few midwives who spoke Mandarin Chinese. So when my mom was asked, “What’s his name?” she replied, “佟明璟,” and here we are. What I love about this is that even the midwife’s transcription was off. If she had transcribed my name accurately, she would have written Tong Ming-Jing. (That’s a lot of rhymy-rhymy, even for me. Sheesh.) My name tells the story of the immigrant experience.
So, what does my name mean? Thanks for asking! Tong is my family name. It comes from the northeast part of China. Ming is what’s known as a generational name. My siblings and every single cousin with whom I share a last name (anyone born to one of my father’s brothers) has this same name. Jinn (or Jing) is my personal name and it means “lustre of jade.” (Since I’m illiterate in Chinese, I had no idea about this meaning until one of my cousins told me this last week!)
At 40 years old, I am very proud of my Taiwanese-American heritage. No more fretful trembling at the sound of my own name anymore. So call me Ming-Jinn. It’s what the midwife would have wanted.