Monday, June 24, 2013

The Middle Name Game

My friends in the UK often ask if I keep in touch with friends from grade school. I like to tell them this story:

I am nine years old. It is 8 pm. I am at a slumber party.

I am sitting cross-legged on my pink cotton Disney's Cinderella sleeping bag at Katie's house. There are eleven of us in total - I counted. We have just returned from a sweaty rollerskating session at Tiffany's Skating Inn and eaten as much Hawaiian and Pepperoni pizza from Domino's as our little bellies could handle. The Mighty Ducks is in the VCR and popcorn is being made, when a small, but authoritative voice pipes up from the back. "Hey guys, this is boring. I know what we should do - let's play the Middle Name Game!"

A cold sweat breaks over me and the handful of Nerds and Twizzlers I had gluttonously consumed from my party favor pack just ten minutes ago threatens to rise in my throat. "Really?" I say, casually. "Why don't we just watch The Mighty Ducks instead? I love this movie!" I try to say, with bright laughter.

Rachel, the girl who suggested the game, shoots me a death glare. "Don't be lame. It's fun! Okay, okay, Mary," she says, pointing at the brunette next to me. "You go first."

And the girls form a circle from which I am both semi-included but semi-excluded, on the periphery. They squint at Mary and take turns guessing: "Meredith!" No. "Paige!" No. [dramatic pause]

"It's like, so embarrassing," Mary sighs. "Like, a name from olden times."

"ELIZABETH!" they squeal. Mary's face turns red, which signifies the correct answer.

"That's not too bad," one girl says. "You could always shorten it to Lizzy."

I, on the periphery of their circle, am somehow next. I really don't want to play this game.

"Okay, okay, it's your turn," they say and turn to me. They start guessing.

"Elizabeth!" No.

"Rachel!" No.

"Sarah!" No.

After about 5 more half-hearted guesses of fairly typical Anglo/American names, they give up.

"What is it?" snaps Rachel impatiently.

My voice is so small, it comes out in a croaky whisper, which is masked by the TV.

"Chak-mei," I pronounce quietly.

The disbelief is palpable.

"Chuck-WHAT?" someone asks incredulously from the other side of the circle.

"Chak-mei," I say a little louder. "It's my Chinese name," I explain hastily. I see Mary exchanging glances with the girl sitting next to her. I am so embarrassed. More than that, I am humiliated. By my own name.

"That's weird," someone else comments. It remains silent for some time.

"Is that what they call you in China?" Rachel sniggers.

"I'm not from China. My family is from Hong Kong. I was born here. In Puyallup. At Good Samaritan Hospital. Like you," I say, defensively.

"Whatever. Hong Kong, China, Ching, Chang, Chong, Japan, same thing," says Rachel, rolling her eyes. "Let's guess Bethany's middle name next."

As the night goes on, I become more withdrawn; I participate less and less in the fun and games being played, even "Light As a Feather, Stiff as a Board," which I usually like, where a girl lying prone appears to be "levitating" with only the aid of two fingers of each of the party-goers lifting her up.

You know, my parents still display their shock and shake their heads at friends when exclaiming how surprised they were that I went to college on the other side of the country and ended up living halfway across the world from them. "Why, she used to cry at slumber parties! We'd have to go and pick her up at night around 10 or 11! She had such bad separation anxiety," they'd recall.

And yes, for a long time, I too, believed I had severe separation anxiety. I hated being away from my parents and my home, where I was comfortable, even if my friends' houses were just a 10 minute drive away. I'd panic, feel sick, and the parents of whichever child's house I was at would call my mom to come pick me up.

But now as an adult, I look back and realize, that wasn't separation anxiety - that was just me, a child, wanting to escape from a situation that I felt uncomfortable in. Where my identity was constantly being questioned. Where I didn't feel liked because I was different and therefore, didn't feel safe.

Those girls didn't invite me to their parties because they liked me. They invited me because their parents told them to. To be nice. Those same girls scooted their desks away from mine and held their noses when I opened my lunch at school - a bento box lovingly prepared by my mother of whatever delicious Chinese meal she had whipped up the night before (always with rice), kept warm in a thermos lunchbox. I'd take it home, partially, or almost totally uneaten. My mother would admonish me for wasting expensive Chinese barbequed pork that my father had purchased on a rare trip to Seattle. Today, I long for those lunches. Especially when sitting with a growling belly at my work desk.

Were those girls bullies? No. Ignorant? Yes. Should we hold children accountable for being politically correct on the playground? No. Is it important for parents and teachers to educate children about different cultures, races, customs and dispel any stereotypes or prejudices they may hear coming out of their children's mouths so as to not perpetuate said stereotypes and prejudices? A resounding yes.

I hope that, if I have a daughter, she will happily go to slumber parties and play the Middle Name Game and not be embarrassed of whatever first or second name she is given - no matter how unpronounceable it is; that her friends' middle names will vary and have roots in French, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Malaysian, Nigerian, and plenty of other cultures. That she'll feel safe and strong in her identity as a mixed-race child, and that this will outweigh the ignorance she'll undoubtedly face from society from time to time.

It is only now as an adult, living in Britain, that I play the Middle Name Game with pride and feel as though I belong in my environment. And no, I don't keep in touch with any of those girls.

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  1. Thank you so much for writing this. I still don't seem to fit in anyone's box and I'm finally ok with that. :o)

    1. Thank you so much for reading. I'm glad my story resonates with you.

  2. What a great post, albeit quite sad. :-( (ignorant) kids are very cruel, and their parents have to take some responsibility for this. I hope to raise my two to be open minded, and to never leave anyone out where possible. I will also try and teach them that it's good to be different, and 'to march to the beat of your own drum'- hard when kids just want to fit in. All the cool kids are the 'weird' ones these days, that what I reckon!

    1. Thanks, Becky! I am sure your children will turn out well-rounded and very cultured - it's so great to hear that you'll teach them all those things, and I'm sure you're an excellent role model as well. :)

  3. You are a fantastic writer. Well said.

    Also... thank you for reminding me of my enduring love for the Mighty Ducks movies :)

    1. Thanks, Mel. Weren't those movies great? Casper with Christina Ricci and Devon Sawa (remember him?!) was also a slumber party favorite.

  4. One summer when I was at French camp, where we all went by French names we picked out upon arrival, the other girls in my cabin found out that "Michelle" was really Mei-Ling. One of them started calling her "Miss Mei-Ling" all the time. It seemed like she was being a little silly, or that she thought it was fun to say, or something, but the girl in question got tired of it really quickly. The way I remember it (which may not be the way it happened), she would say something like "let's go buy some candy" and her friend would say "Miss Mei-Ling says we will buy candy!"

    At that age, none of us were well equipped to understand much about the levels of patronization and exoticizing going on there. But really, without understanding any of that, it should have been sufficient that she was saying "Cut it out."

    1. Marjorie, that's a really interesting story - and you're right. I don't think children of that age really 'get it', not can they fully understand the signs or signals when someone's uncomfortable.

  5. Hey you! I had to comment because I wanted you to know that, from my eyes, you paid this lesson forward. You probably don't remember, but weather delays made me miss the first two days of our Oxford orientation in London, and by the time I got there, it felt like everyone had their "clique." And here I was without one, and looking all ridiculous because they also lost my luggage, so I had nary a hairbrush. And I actually remember in our lecture on safety that you, Nooshy, and Jamie came in and sat in front of me, and I was so sad because you guys looked like you were already friends and I was sure I wouldn't make friends at that point, and certainly not with the happy girls in front of me. So, thanks for proving me wrong and for not repeating the mistakes of childhood. I still think about all you guys often and about all the fun we had!

    1. Hey Maggie - I have no recollection of this! I remember you losing your luggage, but I didn't remember you arriving late - I thought we were fast friends from the start! We had a terrific little group by the end. :) And we were friendly to everyone (I think).


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