The Story and Question of my Name

I was born in Taiwan. There is no reason my parents should have named me or my sister any “American” name. They gave us names that fit the context of our homeland, our culture, our ancestry. My parents named me “Hui-wen,” pronounced ‘hway-wen’ (though I usually get ‘hwee-wen?’ or is it ‘hue-wen?’). “Hui” means clever, bordering on mischievous. “Wen” means wisdom or literature. I have a mischievous streak and I love reading voraciously, so the name fits me well on many levels. 

Our family moved to the United States when I was one year old. We lived first in Nebraska, then in Ohio. Neither were places with large numbers of Taiwanese folks or with much exposure to the ways the spelling of Chinese names actually translated into American phonetics. Thankfully, I was generally too young to really feel my “otherness” as a young Taiwanese child immigrant growing up in the Midwest. I remember, however, being quite struck by the number of Asians that suddenly surrounded me when we moved out to Los Angeles by the time I was in elementary school.

I have lost track of the number of times I have corrected people in the pronunciation of my name. Lost track of the number of times I’ve been in a classroom with a teacher reading alphabetically through the roster of names, and I’ve felt myself tense when the teacher does that inevitable three-second pause and hesitatingly attempts a warped version of my name. Sometimes I correct them, sometimes I just quietly say, “I’m here.” Lost track of the number of times I’ve answered a phone call at work, “Hi this is Hui-wen, how can I help you?” and heard again that brief pause, “Hi… Leeland..? This is so-and-so…” Lost track of the number of times I’ve introduced myself and heard someone awkwardly say, “Oh, that’s… an… interesting name.”

When I was naturalized as a citizen in junior high, I remember sitting in an office as I went through the naturalization process talking with a kind man going through the paperwork with me. I remember him asking me what the National Anthem was. I was so nervous, I blanked out on the title but told him I could sing it for him, and started, “Oh say, can you see…” He smiled and said that was fine. The only other moment I remember was him asking me, “Do you want to choose an American name?” Come to think of it, I don’t know if that was a rhetorical question or if he actually had the power to change my name upon request then and there, from Hui-wen to….? Well? What would it be? What will you name yourself? I was wholly caught off-guard, though I remember the option feeling quite appealing as I was by then a very awkward junior higher who was very hyper-aware of my otherness. I wasn’t ready to rename myself on the spot, so I shyly, reluctantly declined and we moved on.

On I went through high school, college, graduate school, and more graduate school, correcting the pronunciation of my name, offering clever ways for people to remember it. “Just think, way-back-when!” I still use that little trick to this day when I introduce myself to patients and their parents, write my name on the board, and see their eyes flash with the most subtle discomfort. The little joke immediately puts them at ease and we all have a good laugh at my name.

There was a point where I almost officially, legally renamed myself. Before I met my husband, before I discovered that nursing was the profession for me, I did a brief stint as the assistant to the Director of Asian-American Ministry in a small Taiwanese seminary in Los Angeles. The director, my boss, wanted me to network amongst the Asian-American Christian community and promote our classes and workshops. One day early on in my time there, he sat down with me and gently suggested, “So you’ve told me you’ve thought about changing your name to a more American name. If and only if you still want to do that, this might be a great time for it. See, you’ll be doing all this networking, and you’re representing an Asian-American ministry, but your name Hui-wen is very… Asian. If you take on an “American” name, it’ll be easier for people to remember you in networking, and it’ll represent Asian-Americans better.” He had a point, and I had in fact still been thinking about taking on an “American” name, so I went about it. I looked on a baby name website and chose a name I liked for myself. “Alina.” I liked the sound of it, liked that it was unique, and felt it suited me. I would be Alina.

Some friends advised me that if I was going to change my name, I should make it a hard, swift, all-encompassing change, no compromise. I should insist that everyone, including people who knew and intimately related to me as Hui-wen since childhood, should call me Alina. As expected, my childhood friends balked and said they could call me nothing else but Hui-wen. I didn’t push. It felt weird to me to hear them call me Alina. But I introduced myself in new environments as Alina, and very slowly started getting used to it. So in half my world, I was Hui-wen. In the other half, I was Alina.

A few months into unofficially taking on my new American name, I met Stephen. He met me as Alina, though he knew the story behind my name. We fell in love pretty quickly, and he felt very much like home to me, but it was admittedly strange to have someone I was falling in love with call me by a name that I was barely beginning to emotionally identify with. When we started talking about building a long-term future together, I figured this was perfect timing. I could just change both first and last name with marriage.

As it turned out, it wouldn’t be as easy or efficient as I thought. I put in the application to change my name to Alina Sato, but Social Security replied stating I could not change my first name with marriage because there were no existing documents already identifying me with the first name Alina. I would have to go through an entirely separate process, including placing an announcement in a local newspaper about my intention to change my name from Hui-wen to Alina, to making a court appearance, not to mention doing all the paperwork again. Buried in wedding plans, I figured I’d get through the last name change and deal with the first name change later.

After Stephen and I got married, the process of changing my first name fell very low on my priority list. Life took off and I just didn’t pursue it, though I continued to introduce myself as Alina in all new church and social settings. My legal name remained Hui-wen, however, so I used that in all my official contexts such as school and work, which brought me into nursing school and then my current place of employment with Hui-wen on my ID card. I continued the conversations at work, “Oh…no, it’s not “hwee-when.” Yes I know that’s not how it’s spelled. Yes I know it’s tricky. Just think way-back-when!” Over and over and over, the conversations continued.

Then came my TEDxTalk opportunity. I couldn’t believe I’d been accepted to give a TEDxTalk, and knowing it would be public, I went with the easier name to remember – Alina. We prepared and prepared for the talk until a dress rehearsal, where some coworkers (who knew me as Hui-wen) came to be my mini-audience for the rehearsal. They kept referring to me as Hui-wen, and finally the TEDxPasadena director, Heather, broke into the conversation and asked, “OK which is it? Who are you? You’ve been using Alina but they all call you Hui-wen.” She looked at my coworkers and asked, “Who is she?” One by one, they all quietly said, “Hui-wen.” Passionate about her TEDx speakers speaking from a place of strong identity, Heather looked at me and said, “We have to decide today. Which name is going with you into perpetuity with this talk?” I had to go with Hui-wen. It was still my legal, given name. And as my public platform has grown, I’ve continued to struggle with the fact that the “harder name to remember” is still the one attached to all my public work. Some people can’t tell if I’m male or female unless my profile picture is connected to the work. I know it makes the platform harder to build for numerous reasons I probably can’t even fully name.

And so, to this day, I remain split between the two. I don’t blame my parents in the least. They gave me a perfectly legitimate name, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a tricky one to navigate living out here. I don’t have strong excuses for why I’ve procrastinated this long to legally change my first name to Alina, or at the very least, make it my legal middle name. There are some patients and families who I can still tell would prefer I give a name that’s just easier to remember. I tire of the same explanations, the same laughter, about my name, though I try hard to keep a sense of personal security and a sense of humor about it all. And yet there are some people as of late who have said, “I’m glad you kept your legal name. Some people change it just to fit in better,” and then I have to ashamedly confess that actually, I’ve got this other name I go by, you see…

NPR TED Radio Hour Podcast: What can grief provide us?

My NPR TED Radio Hour podcast episode has dropped! 🎙

In this podcast, Manoush explores a few TEDTalks connected to the topic of Heartache. Starting at 27:00, my interview with her explores some of my bittersweet experiences as a nurse and the hard-wrought lessons grief has brought about over the years in this profession.

I can think of no other time in our lives when we as an entire world have experienced sorrow, heartache and grief as a collective whole for over 1.5 years. I hope a bit of what I share here is an encouragement, a balm for our weary souls.

You can listen to just my segment alone here, find the entire episode here, or you can click below and listen through Spotify.