The name on my birth certificate is Jane Willy Hseu.
My parents gave me, the middle of three daughters, the name Jane when I was born during my parents’ first decade living in the US as they were getting acclimated to life in their new country. My father had initially come to America to go to graduate school and then returned to Taiwan to marry my mother and bring her to the US.
I remember my parents telling me that, growing up in Taiwan in the 1950s and 1960s, they read the classic American Dick and Jane books in school to learn English. My parents and all Taiwanese schoolchildren of that time took the sole foreign language requirement of English in junior high, high school, and the first year of college.1
The English language requirement supports the ideology that English will improve Taiwanese individuals’ lives and career prospects and insure the island’s competitiveness in the global marketplace.2 While my mother recalls her English classes as “fun,” she also thinks they were too focused on reading and writing instead of the speaking skills she would need to greatly improve after she later immigrated to the US.3
The Dick and Jane books of the 1930s to 1970s are a symbol of the normative white, middle-class, suburban American family. The breadwinner father and stay-at-home mother raise their children Dick and Jane in a single-family home with a yard, white picket fence, and dog named Spot.
Dick and Jane are the childhood versions of typical adult masculinity and femininity. Dick wears a shirt and pants or overalls, aping his father’s suit and fixing, constructing, and grilling. In contrast, Jane wears a fitted dress with collar, bobby socks, and Mary Jane shoes. She has blue eyes and blonde curls tied back with a hair ribbon. Like her mother, Jane usually engages in domestic forms of activity and play.
My parents chose the name Jane for me because it was conventionally American, and, for new immigrants, simple, short, and easy to spell in English. But for a second-generation Chinese American girl growing up in the white, middle-class, conservative, and conformist suburbs of south Orange County, California, the name highlighted my racialized and gendered body’s conflict with white American female beauty ideals.
Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel The Bluest Eye begins with a prologue that deconstructs and critiques the idea of the normative American family embodied in the Dick and Jane books. The prologue starts with a passage that uses standard punctuation and capitalization. The paragraph repeats with punctuation removed, and then once again as an unspaced, unpunctuated, and uncapitalized block of text:
Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door.
It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy. See Jane. She has a red dress. She wants to play. Who will play with Jane?
Here is the house it is green and white it has a red door it is very pretty here is the family mother father dick and jane live in the green-and-white house they are very happy see jane she has a red dress she wants to play who will play with jane
Also deconstructed is the ideal of white feminine girlhood that Jane embodies, which the African American protagonist Pecola Breedlove yearns to become, believing that she can attain love and acceptance if only she could trade her dark skin for whiteness and blue eyes.
As a child, I experienced an Asian American version of racial otherness. I recall a common playground taunt—“Me Chinese, me play joke, me go pee pee in your Coke.”—accompanied frequently by the children pulling their eyes slant. At night, I slept with my eyes pressed against my pillow in hopes of my epicanthic folds becoming the large, European double folds I saw the adult Chinese women in my community try to imitate with an eye pencil-drawn line.
In the books, Dick looks at his image reflected in the pond and says, “See what I see. . . . See me.” In contrast, Jane hovers at the edge of the pond, but her image is blocked and distorted in the water: “Who sees what I see? It is something funny. It is not Jane.”5 While the white male figure of Dick is able to see an accurate reflection of his image, the female Jane sees a distorted version of her self, and her gender subordination is furthered by the racial subordination of Pecola and myself.
Critiques of the Dick and Jane books have shown the books’ representation of the ideal American family to be a myth, and furthermore, gender and racial oppression intersect to question my identity as the quintessential American “Jane”:
It is --- ----.
Morrison’s prologue also plays with and breaks down the syntax and mechanics of standard US English used in the Dick and Jane books to teach English. I, as a tenured English professor who holds a PhD in American literature, am by training and profession an authority who upholds the tenets of standard US English, but I also try to broaden the view of American English as more diverse and inclusive in its users and vernaculars. My credentials and authority are constantly under suspicion, subverted by students, colleagues, and the average American on the street who perceive my racialized and gendered body to clash with their expectations of the expert white, male, middle-aged, bearded English professor with a corduroy jacket and elbow pads. Strangers assume my Asian body is “foreign” and unfamiliar with basic English when they ask me if I speak English. My name is thus both fitting and ironic in my specializing in the English language, albeit at a far higher level than the basic language learning embodied in the Dick and Jane books.
“You didn’t speak English when you started kindergarten,” my white elementary school classmate told me. His face and voice contorted in a grotesque, high-pitched exaggeration: “You went, ‘Ching Chong Ching.’” I grew up in a white, English-speaking neighborhood in which I spoke English with my white best friends across the street since I was three, and my older sister had gone to the same English-speaking kindergarten two years before I did. My classmate’s remarks were factually untrue, yet his continuous perception of my racial and linguistic otherness persisted into the later elementary school years.
While my first name emblematizes a nostalgic, 1950s American norm, even if Jane is not a popular name today, the remainder of my name is not standard. “Willy” is my parents’ achingly quaint and awkward effort to Anglicize and Americanize my Chinese name, which would be rendered more standard in the form of “Wei-Li.”
Chinese immigrants to the US often give their children the diminutive form of the name as the official name: not Ann or Anna, but Annie; not James, but Jimmy, or even, as in the case of my childhood friend, Jame. In elementary school, I would tell the kids that my unusual-for-a-girl middle name was because I was named Willy after my father. Of course, Bill was only my father’s nickname, and he was never a William. Perhaps, though, my attempt to claim to a more typical white American naming lineage exhibited not only the desire to assimilate and suppress my Chinese name, but also marked me as the daughter with the most “masculine” traits who would be the closest to the son my father never had.
I’m probably fortunate to have the quaint and quirky Willy as a middle name as opposed to my two sisters’ middle names. My older sister received the most unusual American name of us three daughters—Verne Willing Hseu, with Willing standing in for Wei-Ling. Perhaps this unusual name was a spark for the smoldering resentment my sister has had towards her parents and sisters since birth. When we were younger, I would jokingly ask my sister if she were “willing” to serve me. My parents picked Verne because the baby name book said it related to spring, and my sister and I were both born in April, two years apart, or, as my mother likes to say, she would go into labor each time while watching the Oscars, which were held in late March or early April in the 1970s. Poor Verne’s most well-known namesake was Jules Verne of the giant squid, and the name is also gender ambiguous, leading her to being the only girl placed randomly in metal shop class one semester in high school.
My younger sister has the middle name Willfond that stands in for Wei-Fong. Her first name is Marie. It was 1976, and my parents were big fans of the Osmond family. If she had been a boy, she would have been named Donny, not Donald, Hseu. I think she lucked out being born a girl.
Like my parents’ quirky spellings of our middle names, our surname “Hseu” is also an unusual Anglicized version. Typically, it is written “Hsu” in the US by Taiwanese immigrants. Mainland Chinese spell the same surname “Xu.” I have never met anyone in person besides my parents and two sisters who spells his or her surname “Hseu,” although several other Hseus can be found online through a Google search. After my father completed his bachelor’s degree and mandatory year of military service in Taiwan, he filled out the I-20 to apply for graduate school in the US. My father elected to add the extra “e” on this international student form, which he says enables a more accurate Chinese phonetic rendition of our surname.
Rita Kohli and Daniel Solórzano studied how teachers who mispronounce or ridicule students’ names enact a racial microaggression that others students, names, and identities that are not considered normative.6 On the first day of my classes when I tell my students what to call me, I further explain my last name. I say it is pronounced “shoe, like a tennis shoe, although it’s not pronounced like that in Chinese.” When I studied in Paris one summer during graduate school, the British student group leader, after hearing my explanation of the pronunciation during roll call, called me “Jane Tennis Shoe” the next time. To avoid this kind of microaggression, I try to research the native pronunciations of students’ names before the first day of class. And, right before the first roll call, I explicitly tell my students I connect the perpetual mispronunciation of my name on the first day of class to my attempts to accurately pronounce their names with their help.
A truism in my family is not to pronounce our name “Shoe” over the phone when giving our name but to spell it instead: H as in Henry, S as in Sugar, E as in Egg, and U as in U-turn. Pronouncing “shoe” will lead to much unwillingness to allow the H to come first.
My father’s legal American name is Shih-Shien Hseu. Imagine spelling that name over the phone hundreds of times during your American lifetime. His American nickname is Bill. After my father arrived in College Station, Texas, to earn his master’s degree in engineering at Texas A & M University, he applied for a Social Security card in order to open a bank account. While filling out the paperwork at the local US post office, my father gave his Anglicized Chinese first name “Shih-Shien” to the white clerk. The clerk paused and asked for my father’s American first name, and he replied with his easier to pronounce nickname “Bill,” the name of a character in another book he used to learn English in Taiwan. So “Bill” appeared on his Social Security card, an identification that differed from the “Shih-Shien” on his passport and driver’s license. My father was called Bill in his workplace, and Bill surfaced on most of his work-related documents. But the difference between his two official American names created conflicts.
One weekend he was livid because an unfamiliar teller at a bank to which he had gone for years refused to cash his paycheck because she said “Bill” didn’t match the name on his bank account. Bill and Shih-Shien co-existed uneasily for decades on my father’s official documents. When it came time for him to retire, my father realized the different names were confusing for American institutions and finally changed the name on his Social Security card in order to receive his retirement benefits. When my mother found out my father’s names were inconsistent on his forms of identification, she uttered a laugh of superiority and said that she knew to always put her legal name—Shui-Chin Hseu—on official documents and use her American nickname, “Jenny,” for social purposes only.
In her book about the term, Evelyn Ning-Mien Ch’ien defines “weird English” as occurring when polycultural writers “denormalize English out of resistance to it, and form their own language by combining English with their original language.”7 Thus, my family’s story shows how Chinese language and culture affect our English names and how our strikingly unusual and difficult names resist assimilation into the normative and homogenous American image.
1. Chiou-lan Chern, “English Language Teaching in Taiwan Today,” Asia Pacific Journal of Education 22, no. 2 (2002): 97, doi:10.1080/0218879020220209. ^ back
2. Jackie Chang, “Ideologies of English Teaching and Learning in Taiwan”(PhD diss., University of Sydney, 2004), iii. ^ back
3. My mother’s view is supported by Chern’s discussion of how, prior to 1968, English instruction in Taiwan focused on grammar translation rather than oral communication (98). ^ back
4. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Vintage, 2007). ^ back
5. Dick and Jane: Who Can Help? (New York: Penguin Young Readers, 2012), 14, 16. ^ back
6. Rita Kohli and Daniel Solórzano, “Teachers, Please Learn Our Names!: Racial Microaggressions and the K-12 Classroom,” Race, Ethnicity, and Education (2012): 1–22, doi:10.1080/13613324.2012.674026. ^ back
7. Evelyn Ning-Mien Ch’ien, Weird English (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 6. ^ back