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

Mohamed Sadek for NPR

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.

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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.

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Transcript :

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Now we want to introduce you to a college student with two names, including the one she chose when she came to the United States from China. She’s the grand-prize winner of NPR’s College Podcast Challenge. NPR’s Sequoia Carrillo visited her on campus at New York University.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: Aria Young was 6 years old when she became Aria Young.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARIA YOUNG: Hi. My name is Aria. Actually, let me start over. Hi. My name is Yang Qin Yue.

CARRILLO: The story behind those names is something Young explores in her winning podcast. She was moving to the United States for high school from her home in Shanghai and decided her given name was too hard for Americans to pronounce. When I sat down with her in New York, she told me that changing her name wasn’t quite enough to fit in at her new Catholic school – in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch country.

YOUNG: People would come up to me and ask questions about, you know, what’s it like being Asian, as if, like, they’ve never seen an Asian person before, you know? Like, people would come up to us and ask us if we eat dogs, and it was like, oh, my God.

CARRILLO: Despite all that, Young really wanted to make a home for herself there.

YOUNG: Most Asian international students wouldn’t, like, go out of their way to make friends with American students, but I did because I really was trying to fit in. I was really trying to, like, be Western, I guess.

CARRILLO: It’s not uncommon for Asian international students to change their names to make it easier on those around them. Young talked about this in her podcast – how something is lost when students change their names. Here’s a snippet of fellow international students sharing the meanings of the Chinese names they’ve left behind.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REN FENG YAO: My name is Ren Feng Yao (ph).

WU SOO SHIN: …Is Wu Soo Shin (ph).

JUN PHU TIEN: I’m Jun Phu Tien (ph).

REN: It means abundance and brightness.

WU: …Comes from an old Chinese idiom that goes – (speaking Chinese). And since my last name is Wu, which means five, my name roughly translates to think five times before you say or do something.

CARRILLO: Young’s given name includes the Chinese character for heart. So when she sat down with a list of English baby names to choose from, she wanted to find one that was just as meaningful. She settled on Aria. It’s a musical term that directly translates to air but also means song.

YOUNG: My new life is going to be melodic and, like, musical. It’s, like, artsy and elegant. But my last name is also a struggle for me.

CARRILLO: She technically kept her last name but also kind of lost it.

YOUNG: So legally, it’s not spelled Y-O-U-N-G. Legally, it’s spelled Y-A-N-G – Yang. It’s pronounced Young (ph), but in high school, people would say it like Yang (ph). You know, that’s the English pronunciation. So I did not like that. I was like, I don’t want my name to be pronounced that way.

CARRILLO: Now, four years into her new identity, Young is a sophomore at NYU. When I visited her on campus, she took me to her favorite place – the radio station.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP, DOOR UNLOCKING)

CARRILLO: She walks us down a long set of stairs to the basement of a dorm.

YOUNG: Yep, this is WNYU.

CARRILLO: It’s like she’s walking in the front door of her home. She seems to relax once we’re inside. Every wall is covered in band posters and Polaroids of the student DJs. She says she’s always been interested in journalism, and the radio station helped her gain more confidence.

YOUNG: And I did my first piece, I remember, and people were just so welcoming and so encouraging, and they made me feel proud of my work.

CARRILLO: Now she has her own radio show and is a reporter for NYU’s news podcast. As she finds her footing in the U.S., her old name feels further and further away. But her last name still isn’t quite right.

YOUNG: That’s me, as my parents’ daughter – and not just my mom’s daughter, but also my dad’s daughter. And that kind of bothers me a little bit.

CARRILLO: Aria’s relationship with her dad is strained, and even though she was raised by her mom and grandma, there’s no trace of that on paper. That’s why these days she’s contemplating a new name-change to her mom’s last name, Xu.

YOUNG: I would say that my mom is the only, like, parent I have. And I want to honor her. I want to honor her by having her last name. I want to pass on her lineage and not my dad’s.

CARRILLO: It’s one more step towards building a home for herself in the U.S. while still paying tribute to where she came from.

Sequoia Carrillo, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.