“Yi Jie Xie, how do you keep your white skirt so white?”
For some reason, I have never forgotten this sentence, uttered to me on a hot summer day in Yangzhou, after an afternoon watching Chinese students play table tennis against American students with quite sub-par abilities. We were walking back to our own dorms, I was with a few other Americans who were in the same study abroad program. We had spent so much time together in class, learning about one another in the context of China, that we felt more comfortable calling each other by the Chinese names we had adopted.
It seems so far away now, my summer as Yi Jie Xie. I can’t recall the names of the other six students who took on Chinese nomenclature with me; things like Facebook have ensured I know them best now by their given, English names. But I still adore my Chinese name, and the months, weeks, days I spent introducing myself with it. I also did wear skirts almost exclusively, and so that is also emblematic of the Chinese summer heat, of wearing the same few outfits and hanging them to dry so many times that by the end they had none of their original shape or structure. Not that these items needed much in the first place.
By the second month of being there, you just sort of sink into China. All the jitters, counting the days, complaining of heat, squatter-bathroom situations–they all become mundane, part of life, and you relax. Six of us stayed for the full two months, and you could tell us apart from the five newbies; they had all the nerves and questions and panic and dietary questions we had had four weeks earlier.
I was Yi Jie Xie, very tall and blonde girl who wore skirts. I had sunk in. I knew which drinks and snacks and brands of bread I liked best from the market on campus. I knew where to buy the best bananas for breakfast. I had my canteen for my morning jasmine tea, and I never really brushed my hair. I had discovered John Mayer’s album Continuum, which lullabyed me through long nights on a Chinese mattress. I talked to my family once a week on the phone. I learned how to ask in Mandarin when the Internet repairman would be arriving. Once, I was out late after dinner with my roommate, and I had to pee so bad, I went over by an old demolished building site and did my business behind the remnants of a wall.
Recently, I finished reading a book written by a Chinese American woman who was adopted from Taiwan by American parents in 1972, and in adulthood, she went back and began a relationship with members of her birth family. What struck me most about her six sisters was their penchant for changing their names. Several of them had had at least two Chinese names, legally changed time and again, and an English name as well.
It always seemed so cool when I met other students, my counterparts, who had taken on English names, as they could pick anything that sounded pretty or cool or modern or traditional or meaningful to them. Janet, Rose, May–things like this. Simple, and also often not set in stone. It struck me that this is often how I feel, and wish I could express, in my own name. Can’t I be more Chinese, and just switch my name as it feels right? I’m afraid there’s far too much legal and bureaucratic attachment to my name here. My school, my work, online names, paychecks, social security, passport, taxes… eek. How does anyone change their name in this age? And then there’s the question, what would I even change it to? I like Jess, Jessica, and I especially like Claire, my middle name, even if I love many other names that are not mine. I wish sometimes I would have gone by my middle name. But many people love and know me as Jessie. I like that a lot too. There are names I love so much, but I cannot imagine selecting one of them, a “best,” to somehow become mine. I could not. But I really like the idea of flitting through life as several people. It is perhaps so intriguing because it seems so impossible in 2012.
But I also love that I spent a summer as someone else who is the same as well, as Yi Jie Xie. That’s what my friends knew me by. In China. I had another name entirely. How amazing is that?