Mrs. Buxton adjusts her horn-rimmed glasses and squints at the attendance sheet.
“See-zee?” she calls. She is met with silence. Her kindergarteners fidget on the rug and regard her warily.
She tries again, this time extending a red manicured nail to underline the word. “Shi-jee? Si-zee?”
The word catches in her throat, grating her teeth like sandpaper, and only then do I realize she is calling my name.
I put my hand up. “That’s me. It’s Sizhe. Like Si-juh.”
I hear hastily stifled giggles and feel my cheeks flush with shame as the class turns towards me. I am suddenly aware that I have labeled myself as different from the Sarahs and the Charlottes and the Emilys — that I have labeled myself wrongly.
Mrs. Buxton raises her eyebrows and purses her lips.
“Is there something else we can call you, sweetie?”
I do not know the name of the man who named me.
Sizhe was suggested by my parents’ grad school pharmacology professor, whom they deeply admired but I cannot remember meeting. Presumably, though, he had high hopes for me — si is the Mandarin verb for “think,” and zhe means “wise.” As my mom explains, he wanted me to develop a passion for science and a drive to explore the world.
Unfortunately, these good intentions are washed away by the Pacific when we move from Wuhan to Salt Lake City. At the age of five, I am the only non-white student in my class and unable to help my teachers and friends properly pronounce my name. My parents, at the advice of their coworkers, decide I should have an alternative American name to use at school — just to make life easier.
Sophia comes from a dictionary we thumb through at Barnes & Noble, in an appendix listing common English names and their meanings. Its resemblance to my Chinese name immediately seems obvious — it means “wisdom” in Greek, and it too starts with the letter S. That’s good enough for us, and the following week, I board the school bus with light-up Skechers, two pigtails, and a new name.
After Sizhe turns into Sophia, qianbi turns into pencil and pengyou into friend. Starting school means relearning how to read, replacing pinyin tones with soft Gs and silent Es. Where Mandarin is sharp and precise, English enchants me with its roundness and fullness and excess. I love listening to my teacher’s flowery voice, her words gliding up into a musical lilt — murmur, follow, quiver. I delight in putting my tongue between my teeth and blowing out, practicing my “th” sound again and again — thud, thorn, thimble. I fill my workbooks with neat letters that I sound out as I go, savoring each one as it sits in my mouth and melts like dark chocolate.
I help my parents navigate supermarkets, paperwork, and phone calls. Each time I am able to translate a phrase or demonstrate how to pronounce a word, I beam with confidence and joy. At home, my new knowledge mixes with my Mandarin-speaking household to create a language of its own. When my mom asks me what I want for dinner, I ask for jiaozi, dumplings — or, as I now call them with a giggle, jiao-lings. These portmanteaus are fun, and soon I have given everything in the house a new name.
My birthday cake has a thick layer of buttercream, delicate frosting roses, and “Happy Birthday Sophia” written in pink icing across the top. I examine my name in curly script, watching the flickering candlelight dance across the loops, listening to the vowels fill the room with melody as guests begin to sing. Sophia… Sophia… Sophia. I close my eyes, blow out six dripping candles, and make a wish.
By fourth or fifth grade, I have grown tired of being Sizhe.
I have witnessed all the discomfort my name brings to others — I’ve seen the grimaces, received the flustered apologies, and heard every permutation of the five letters, including one substitute teacher who called me “seizure.” With every awkward pause in the roll call at the start of the school year, I feel the tension rise as eyes wander my way. I am back in Mrs. Buxton’s class again, five years old and singled out.
When I anticipate my name coming up, I jump in hastily — “I go by Sophia.” Immediately, the furrowed eyebrows unravel; the lemon-puckered lips turn into a grateful smile; Sizhe is never mentioned again.
My American name was designed to overcome a language barrier, and it does its job well. Sophia was born out of necessity. Yet the more I introduce her, the more strongly I suspect that to the people around me, she is not only more familiar but also more normal. And there is nothing I want more than to just be normal.
Sophia speaks and writes in perfect English; even better, she composes creative nonfiction for fun and discusses “Wuthering Heights” at length. She spends enough time on math to do well in school but not so much as to become a stereotype. She quits piano, swimming, and Chinese school and takes up Latin, French, and journalism. Alas, there are some things she can’t control — a weird legal name, her dad’s heavy accent, the dumplings her mom packs in her lunch — but those are imposed on her, not who she really is. Sophia is like most everybody else in her suburban New Jersey town, and I cling onto her for dear life.
Year by year, Sizhe fades further into the background. My parents, and occasionally the staticky voices of relatives calling from Wuhan, are the only ones who use this name. Sophia is scribbled on the top of my homework, cheered by my teammates during tennis matches, and engraved on my bracelets and keychains.
On official documents that require my legal name, I still write “Sizhe (Sophia) Liang,” a convention I picked up in elementary school. However, I am increasingly irritated by the parentheses. They suggest that there is something to qualify, like I’m interrupting myself with every introduction. This is who I am (but here’s a more palatable version). I come from somewhere different (but don’t worry, I’ve turned into one of you).
In junior year of high school, I become naturalized as a U.S. citizen, and I am presented with the opportunity to legally change my name to Sophia. I want to do it, in large part because it just seems natural; I think of myself as Sophia. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also read the studies showing that people with distinctively ethnic names tend to get their resumes overlooked by employers — if I said I didn’t consider how Sizhe would look at the top of my college applications or posted on my dorm room door. When my parents ask that I keep Sizhe as my middle name, I accept it as a fair compromise, and I make the change.
The court order arrives with a gold seal and blue stamp from the Superior Court of New Jersey: “IT IS on this 5th day of March, 2018, ORDERED and ADJUDGED that Sizhe Liang… hereby is authorized to assume the name Sophia Sizhe Liang.” Panic sets in the moment I see it. It had seemed an obvious choice to make at the time — trivial, even — but now I fear that I have betrayed some part of myself, cheapened my identity through the process of assimilation.
What does it mean, I wonder, to permanently adopt a name constructed for everyone else’s convenience?
The summer after I graduate from high school, my dad and I fly back to China to visit his brother in his rural hometown in Henan province.
In the dark, quiet hum of the plane ride, I recall an interaction I’d had just a few weeks prior, when I’d told a classmate that I was born in Wuhan. “Woah, I didn’t know you were like, Chinese Chinese,” he said. I chuckled without having the heart to tell him that I didn’t know either.
My uncle leads us up a parched dirt path lined with yellow grass and broken glass. The Liang family cemetery sits at the top of a small hill, generations of my ancestors buried together under wildflowers and pebbles. We burn incense, food, and gold foil to send to them. It is the first time I see my dad cry. As the offerings soften and crumple in the flames, they seem to ripple with a life of their own. I watch the ashes drift in the wind and fall into the soil. It’s comforting to know that although Sizhe has already been changed, the other half of my Chinese name, Liang, will always remain here, in the earth.
We have jiaozi for dinner that night, and I think back to the funny language mixtures of my childhood.
I think of jiao-lings and supermarket translations, of the pharmacology professor and the dictionary of names, of a Harvard acceptance letter brought back to aunties and uncles bursting with pride.
I think of a girl who has her feet planted on the hill of her family’s legacy; her head floating in English novels and Cambridge dreams; and, somewhere in between, her heart filled with all the wisdom of two worlds combined.
Amongst all these portmanteaus, there is room for one more: Sophia Sizhe Liang.
—Magazine writer Sophia S. Liang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.