Chinese international students share the stories behind their names, advocate for more inclusion on campus

Waverly Long, Assistant Campus Editor

After Weinberg junior Yujia Huang came to the U.S. for her freshman year of college, she was struck by the Sinophobia in U.S. media and the racial divide she witnessed in Northwestern’s sororities while rushing. Her experiences inspired her to create a video along with 11 other Chinese international students about the stories behind their names.

“A lot of the intentions and incentives for (Yujia) to start this project was trying to eradicate some of the discrimination and bias that a lot of non-Chinese people, especially people in America, have about the Chinese community,” said Medill junior Skye Li, who participated in the video.

In the video, students share the meaning of their names and why their parents chose them. Li said it was important to include the Chinese characters in the video in order to show viewers an aspect of Chinese names they don’t often see, adding that calligraphy deepens the meaning of a name.

Third-year McCormick Ph.D. student Suwei Liu, who also participated in the project, said the video was a way for Chinese students to share their culture. Through sharing the meaning behind her name, Liu talked about the blessings and wishes her parents and grandparents gave her.

“(This is) another side of me that I want to show to my American friends, or some foreigner friends,” Liu said.

Communication and Weinberg sophomore Ruoyin (Jonyca) Jiao, who also shared the meaning of her name in the video, said students have reached out to her after watching it to ask about her culture. She said she feels this is important because talking about her culture is a way for her to connect with others.

Jiao also said sharing the meaning behind her name is a way for her to share part of her personality.

“The literal meaning (of) Ruoyin is ‘as if shadowed,’ and then my last name, Jiao, means burning, almost like burning fire,” Jiao said. “So Ruoyin — ‘as if shadowed’ — is kind of balancing the fire inside of me… The balance in my name kind of reflects how I think about how to handle things.”

In addition to sharing the meaning of their names, Jiao said the video was important because it helped educate viewers about the importance of respecting names and their pronunciations.

Jiao said she feels people’s fear of mispronouncing a name can be a barrier to asking about it. She hopes the video shows the audience that expressing a desire to learn the proper pronunciation is what matters.

While Li said she goes by Skye, an English name she chose herself, for “convenience” and to embrace a new chapter in her life, she emphasized the importance of not sacrificing one’s name in order to accommodate other people’s preferences.

“People should never feel pressured to go by a different name just because the dominant culture you are in (says), ‘Oh, we don’t know how to pronounce it. Make it easier for us,'” Li said. “That should never be the case.”

In addition to making the video, Huang recently successfully advocated for NU students to have the option to write their names with their family name first — the order many East Asian countries use — on their school documents, diplomas and Wildcards, according to Li. She said University President Morton Schapiro enthusiastically approved of the suggestion and Provost Kathleen Hagerty is currently working to implement the option.

Jiao said she feels this is an important step toward creating a more inclusive campus. While she said the change itself will not have a significant impact on her, she appreciates the effort to acknowledge Chinese students’ culture, which she said is a key part of both initiatives.

“We are bringing our culture — our names, the first step — outward to the world on a global stage,” Jiao said. “We’re using our really tiny but significant influences to let the world see what China is.”

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Twitter: @waverly_long

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