Recently, the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” was released and inspired a wave of Asian, namely Chinese, pride around the world. Although I have not yet watched the movie myself, my parents and other friends have, and from them, I heard their thoughts and feelings about the movie.
After the movie’s release, Huffington Post Asian Voices editor, Kimberly Yam, posted a Twitter thread detailing her own experience growing up as an Asian, which ultimately moved the entire Asian community after it went viral. Her stories captured the challenges and racial discrimination that she grew up with, which many of the Asian community were able to relate to. She essentially instilled a deep sense of pride for her culture in everyone who read her story. I am not that much different from her or any other Asian, but I want to share my experience growing up as a Chinese Asian as well.
I grew up in a predominantly Mexican and White neighborhood, in a lower-class area in Pomona. Being one of the few Asians in the area, it was hard to make friends with or even get to know our neighbors. However, the elementary and middle school I went to, Evergreen and South Pointe respectively, were predominantly Asian, which allowed for the struggles at home to not be as harmful to my culture as it could have been.
My real struggle, however, was with my last name. Sha, which is one letter off of the common Middle Eastern surname Shah, as well as the European Shaw, was always misspelled, and eventually, it just became second nature to spell it out immediately after someone asked me for my last name. I didn’t feel Asian with that last name though — I wanted to be your everyday Chang or Wang, and be part of the generalized Asian community at my school.
My mother was another factor. She had not changed her maiden name to my father’s last name when she got married, so whenever my parents were called to whatever meeting or event at school, she would never be called by my last name. I think this may have been one of the biggest underlying factors looking back at it now. At the time, however, it just didn’t come to light.
I came to hate my last name and even wondered several times how hard a last name change would be. Of course, being so young and inexperienced, these were simple kid thoughts that drifted in and out of my brain as they pleased. Even so, I hated when people would call me by my full name, and disliked the sound even more in Chinese.
See, if the pronunciation of my Chinese name, Sha Kai Wen, is verbally tweaked by a tiny bit, it can be interpreted as “dumb Kevin.” Even better was if it was tweaked another way, creating “kill Kevin.” Obviously, I grew up the subject of these jokes time and time again, creating within me a deep resentment and frustration at my last name, wanting to be something widely known and accepted instead of something that could be used against me, or something that even my own church spelled wrong.
Four years later, I am now extremely proud and boastful of my last name. Over time and as I matured, I slowly came to realize that my last name is in fact, one of the most unique ones out there. No one I have ever known has even heard of another Sha, which I started using as bragging rights to friends and family. Once I even joked with my parents that I would have children simply to pass on the family name.
Being Asian is hard, both in your own culture as well as outside. Within the community you are born into, you face the constant competitiveness and unwavering academic stress pushed on to you by your parents, forcing onto you the same methods that they were taught, which more often than not causes conflict. Outside, you are forced to meet expectations of being “good at math” and have “small eyes,” and if any of these or other conditions aren’t met, they question you and your culture.
However, none of that matters to me anymore. I deeply care about and cherish my last name and my culture, nurturing within me the passion about my lifestyle and traditions that took years to develop and blossom, and I will continue to boast the customs taught to me since I was born.