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A Chinese student Americanized her name to fit in. It took more to feel she belonged

Mohamed Sadek for NPR
Mohamed Sadek
Four years into her life in the U.S., Aria Young has realized she wants more balance between the two halves of herself — Yáng Qìn Yuè of Shanghai and Aria Young of New York City.

This story first appeared in NPR's Student Podcast Challenge newsletter. Sign up here.

Aria Young didn't become Aria Young until she was 16 years old.

She was moving to Lancaster, Pa., from her home in Shanghai for high school. Her Chinese name, 杨沁悦, or Yáng Qìn Yuè, was "too hard for the English tongue to pronounce," Young explains in "What's in a Name," her entry for NPR's College Podcast Challenge. Judges selected Young's audio story as the grand-prize winner from 10 finalists.

In the podcast, Young, now a sophomore at New York University, tries to coach her English-speaking friends through pronouncing her Chinese name correctly. It doesn't go well.

"Imagine doing that on the first day of school in front of a classroom of people, or at a party correcting every person you meet because they just can't get it right," Young says in her podcast.

She knew it would be easier to make a home for herself in the U.S. if people could say her name.

It takes more than a new name to feel you belong

Taking an English name is not an uncommon practice among Asian international students. As one of Young's old high school teachers explains in the podcast, "The [international] students from Spain and the students from Italy kept their names. The students from Asia did not keep their names. There might have been maybe one student in the five years I was there who kept their Chinese name. Everybody had an American name."

After hours looking through lists of baby names, Young settled on Aria because it reflected her hopes for her new life in the United States.

"It's a musical term. [An aria] is like a song," she tells NPR. "It's almost like my new life is going to be melodic."

But changing her name didn't necessarily mean she fit in at her new Catholic high school in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

"Being Asian was not really accepted or appreciated," she explains. Young says she and other Asian international students faced microaggressions and racism at their new school.

"People would come up to us and ask us if we eat dogs," she recalls. "People would come up to me and ask questions about, you know, 'What's it like being Asian?' As if they've never seen an Asian person before."

Still, she was determined to belong, and a big part of that meant assimilating into American culture.

"I rejected my name. Rejected Yáng Qìn Yuè. Rejected my Asianness, because I felt like that was all I was," Young says in her podcast.

Four years into her life in the U.S., Young has realized she wants more balance between the two halves of herself — Yáng Qìn Yuè from Shanghai and Aria of New York City. She's grappling with how to honor her Chinese identity while continuing to build a life for herself in the United States. She says that's why she made "What's in a Name."

A name to reflect where she's going and where she has been

In her podcast, which Young recorded at her college radio station, she tells the story behind her given name: Her parents used the Chinese characters for "water" and "heart" in hopes that she would be "gentle, pure and nurturing like water," as well as have "a brave and kind heart."

For a long time, her Americanized name, Aria, didn't feel as meaningful to her. But now, she says, "this life in the States — that's important to me. And these people know me as Aria. So this name has meaning to me because there are people I care about here that know me as this name."

She feels like her Americanized name is a piece of herself that she has power over — it's a way for her to shape the person she wants to be.

"I chose this name by myself, for myself. And this is the person I made myself to be," she says. "In a way, I think it's liberating."

As she continues to find her footing in the U.S., her old name feels further and further away. But her last name, Young, doesn't feel quite right anymore.

"That's me as my parents' daughter. Not just my mom's daughter but also my dad's daughter, and that kind of bothers me a little bit," she confesses.

Young says that her relationship with her dad is strained and that she was primarily raised by "two very, very strong and resilient women" — her mom and her grandmother. She wants to take her mother's maiden name, Xu, as a way to honor her mom's role in her life.

It's one more step toward building a home for herself in the U.S. while still paying tribute to where she came from.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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