Asian photographers share the stories behind their names
It started with a conversation. It felt good to be in the company of other Asian photographers after two years of interacting with this community through screens. We drifted onto the topic of our names — not only their meanings and origins but also how our identities are often shaped by our cultural and familial traditions.
In the journey to feel at home in our Asian American or Pacific Islander identities, we may encounter different versions of ourselves. We asked AAPI photographers, "What is the story of your name? What does it mean to you?" In considering photographers for this project, we did not factor in who has American citizenship or permanent residency status, but rather who calls the U.S. home at this moment.
My name was found in a forest in a dream. Shuran Huang's name was chosen by her mother in an act of agency in the shadow of her family's disappointment that she had not given birth to a boy during China's one-child policy initiative. Ian Morton discovered his Korean name, Lim Hae-dong, on a manila folder that contained his adoption files. To Amir Hamja, "This name bears everything I create and it carries the weight of all my existence."
- Arin Yoon
I am a woman of color with a non-American accent. When I meet people and introduce myself, I often sense some are wondering where I'm from, and others are trying to catch my name. Over the years, I have seen some people mock my last name ("Satan with an 'm,' you mean?" they ask) while others focus on pronouncing my first name right (Not Nee-tah, it's "Knee"-"tāā," I'd correct). Most don't even realize that mispronouncing an ethnic name is a form of invalidating and othering an individual.
When I moved to America 21 years ago, I first reflected on what is in a name. It's also when I first experienced pride and discomfort with my name. I defied adopting a different name or different pronunciation for my name. Instead of running away from my name, I have endeavored to live up to it. Over the years, my name has shaped my sense of self and been a guiding force in my personal life and work as a visual journalist.
Neeta is a Hindu name, with its origin in Sanskrit. It means "the one led by knowledge and seeking justice." In the Hindu culture, an astrologer determines your birth star (Nakshatra) and suggests a sound with which your name begins. It's also common to take your father's first name as your middle name. And your last name often reflects the roots of your community, family, caste or village of origin. Your family typically announces your name in an elaborate religious ceremony.
When I was born, my family neither consulted with an astrologer nor was there a religious naming ceremony. My sister insisted I be named Neeta after a woman next door, whom she found cheerful, endearing and charismatic. My family agreed.
I'm originally from the Philippines. "Geloy" is actually my nickname. My real name is "Bergel," which really doesn't have any meaning in it.
When I moved to the U.S. in 2017 from the Philippines, explaining how to pronounce my name to everyone I met was one of the tasks I needed to do before even having a conversation. It's kind of tiring, to be honest, but I guess it comes with being an immigrant, especially if you're from Asia. Some people are willing to learn, but most just don't really care about it. "I'll just call you G."
Before coming to America at the age of five, my mom translated my name from Korean to English from 아린 to A-Rin for my passport, honoring each character, separating them with a dash. I soon realized that the dash created a chasm in my name and between me and the other kids in my rural Missouri town whose names were not divided by dashes. I don't remember when people started calling me uh-RIN when my name is phonetically closer to AH-lhin. Did I stumble shyly saying "uhh ah-lhin" when someone first asked me my name? To native speakers, I am AH-lhin, but to non-native speakers, I am uh-RIN; they are both a part of me now. In sixth grade, I decided to take that dash out and I became Arin. Even though I did this discreetly, without telling anyone — not even my parents — a boy in my class picked up on it. He'd call me "A-took the dash out in sixth grade-Rin" whenever he felt the urge to provoke me. In my attempt to transcend othering, I ended up shining a spotlight on my otherness.
Despite these cross-cultural growing pains, I've always felt my name embodied my true nature. It fit me. My name comes from my mother's conception dream, called 태몽 "taemong" in Korean. Conception dreams are common in Asian cultures, usually dreamt by the mother or someone close to her before or while she is pregnant that foretells the coming of a child. It is the relationship between the dreamer and the symbols in the dream that is meaningful. Common symbols are those found in nature, animals, fruits and jewels. My mom had her taemong as I was growing in her belly but she didn't know it yet. When the doctor told her she was already four months along, she started thinking of names and then remembered her dream. For my wedding, I asked my mom to write a poem and she wrote about her taemong. When she read me her poem, I felt even more connected to my name.
One day on my dream path
I walked by a stream in the forest
I saw jewels sparkling in the clear water
I scooped up a handful
And held them to the light
Soon after a baby girl arrived
아 (Ah) is beauty
린 (Lhin) is the sparkle of a jade
She grew up like her name
Lighting up different paths
It was decades before my Korean name was mine.
I learned my name from a plain, manila envelope. To a young adoptee, it wasn't my name. It was the title and barcode from my listing in a catalog.
More than 30 years later, I found my biological father. Or, rather, he found me. In the early 1990s, he immigrated to the United States, fleeing the prejudice of Korea, where mixed-blooded Koreans were shunned as aberrant reminders of an imperialist past. When he eventually worked up the courage to begin a genealogical search for his own father, he learned he had a son.
The first time we met, he asked my name. When I replied "Lim Hae-dong," he was taken aback. My sister's name was Lim Hye-kyung; the rhyme of our names had been the only way for my biological mother to keep me connected to my family. For the first time, I recognized my name held meaning. It wasn't assigned by the Korean government or fabricated by an adoption agency, it was given to me to carry as a piece of the family I never knew.
"She is a girl, not a boy," my paternal grandfather said, expressing his disappointment. Like most families in China, he believed that his bloodline passes down through the male side. Because of China's one-child policy, my mother wouldn't have a second chance to have a boy.
In keeping with the traditional household hierarchy, my grandfather had the honor of naming me. He chose Xiăoxiá, which means "early morning light" — the time of my birth. "Xiá" also shares the same character as Dānxiá Mountain, referring to the place where I was born.
But my parents didn't like the name. They thought it sounded dull and it didn't resonate with their expectations for me. As the eldest son, my dad exercised his right to name me next, dubbing me 晨詩 / Chénshī. The two characters together mean "an early morning poem." It reflects a saying in China: 生活不僅眼前的苟且，還有詩和遠方 / There is bread and butter in life, but also poems and dreams. But in the Hakka dialect spoken by my family, the name sounded like the phrase for "a floating dead body."
On the third day after my birth, my mom decided on 舒然 / Shūrán. It stuck. My name means nature, comfort and harmony. It means to go with the flow. She knew that I, as the only child, would carry the expectations of both sides of our families on my tiny shoulders and it would be difficult not to feel crushed by the weight of those expectations. Like my dad, she hoped that I would be able to freely chase my dreams. She wanted me to become an independent and strong woman just like her.
A month after I was born, she wrote an acrostic poem about my name and her wishes for me:
A diary for my daughter's name
As a descendant of the Yellow Emperor (a legendary leader in ancient China)
Shuran follows the flow with a clear mind and bright eyes
She will become beautiful and look just like Xī Shī 西施 (one of the Four Renowned Beauties)
When she grows up, she will be a great success and do great things
When I was in the eighth grade, I decided to change my name. I had transferred yet again to a school where I didn't know anyone and, I figured, "Maybe if I became an Ashley, I would be more confident; if I became a Rachel, I would have more friends. Maybe if I had an American name like those blue-eyed women on the cover of Cosmopolitan, people would think I belonged here — for a while, at least."
After much deliberation, I settled, quite inexplicably, on Elyse. Perhaps because it was pronounceable, but not basic. Refined, yet approachable. It was also the name of an ESL teacher whom I adored in third grade. My first few weeks as Elyse were blissfully mediocre. No more cringing during roll call. No more correcting — or worse, not correcting — when people mispronounced my name. But as the months wore on, I grew hollow with remorse. Elyse liked makeup and going to the mall and talking about boys. Haruka liked anime and film photography and listening to Rage Against the Machine. By the end of the year, I had not only given up my name, but I had neatly ironed out any quality that made me seem atypical or foreign. And yet, hilariously — and perhaps a little devastatingly — most people still referred to me as the "Asian One." I was due to transfer yet again to another school district the following year, so I changed my name back to Haruka, the one my parents gave me.
Haruka, or 悠 — an abstract and unlikely character for this phonetically common Japanese name — can only be loosely translated as "vastness" or "timelessness." I sometimes settle with the word "tranquility" when I can sense that the inquirer is just trying to make polite conversation. But the truth is, I'm still waiting to discover the true meaning behind my name. In recent years, I've described it as the deep interconnectedness you feel when you stare out into the ocean. Since giving it up and reclaiming it, I have strived to live up to my name — my exquisitely amorphous Japanese name — through every encounter, through every person that I meet.
My name is Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet. Jutharat means "Magic Tiara" in Sanskrit (Thai people usually use Balinese or Sanskrit for names), and my family name is linked to my Chinese ancestor because Thai-Chinese descendants tend to use long family names like mine.
"Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet," a very long and hard-to-pronounce name, sometimes makes me feel unsure using it in publications. Previously, I wished my name were shorter so it would be easier for others. Now, with more acceptance from different communities, I'm grateful to use my official name everywhere.
My name — Amir Hamja, aka Mohammad Amir Hamza — was given by my late grandmother Rahima Begum. It bears everything I create and carries the weight of all my existence.
Amir Hamja is an Arabic name. Amir means "prince," "commander" or "ruler." And Hamja (Hamza) means "strong" and "steadfast" and refers to the Islamic Prophet Muhammad's Uncle "Hamza," who was a skilled fighter and commander. I prefer using "J" instead of "Z" in Hamja, as it's more suitable with my native language, Bengali "হামজা." To avoid confusion, I don't use Mohammad as a first name in my byline (or any other online presence), as it is a very common first name among Muslims.
My name rarely gets mispronounced, though sometimes Amir is changed to Amil or Armil. Instead, very often, my identity as Bangladeshi gets confused because of the name. People I've never met in person assume I'm Arabic or Middle Eastern or Pakistani, simply by hearing my name, while in person, their best assumption is that I would be Indian, which adds more confusion to our already complex identity as Bengali Muslim in our own deeper paradox with strong cultural and linguistic determinants.
My name is Stephanie Mei-Ling. My Taiwanese name is 陳美玲, Chen Mei-Ling. Chen is my family name, surname, which in Chinese culture, comes first. Chinese given names carry a lot of significance and are typically chosen for parents' hopes for their children, symbolism, virtuous qualities and inferences. I asked my mother why she chose my name and she said she wanted something that would be easy for me to pronounce, to write and to say because she knew I'd grow up in an American environment.
Mei-Ling is a combination of my mother's name, 玲玲 / Ling Ling, and my auntie's name, 美美 / Mei Mei. My grandfather named my mother after a famous actress at the time, and the name Ling means the sound of jade or the tinkling of jade. My auntie's name, Mei, means beautiful. According to the 2010 Taiwanese census, Mei-Ling was the third most popular name for women.
Mei-Ling is my Chinese name, as well as my American middle name. Growing up, I didn't always feel comfortable with my given name. I can remember times wanting something more "simple" and less "complicated." Once I reached high school, I fully embraced Mei-Ling — it was a name chosen especially for me, it was special, and over the years, I've leaned into it completely. It has become the name I use in my artistic practice, as I've dropped the use of my last name over time. It is a representation of who I am and is an extension of my lineage. My auntie Mei Mei recently passed away, and having her name makes me feel like I carry a piece of her with me.
Visuals edited by Ben de la Cruz. Text edited by Zach Thompson.
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