Study Guide

How I Got That Name

How I Got That Name Introduction

Ah, America: Land of the Free, Home of the Brave—and, of course, country of immigrants. America's chockfull of 'em. Unless we're Native American, chances are that, at some point, our ancestors popped over here on a boat, ship, or plane. Immigration is at the center of the American experience, after all.

Marilyn Chin's "How I Got That Name" is a poem about a name. But on a deeper level it's a poem about the immigrant experience, and specifically the Chinese-American immigrant experience. In exploring how she got her American name "Marilyn," the speaker of Chin's poem—a Chinese-American woman—delves right into what it means to be an immigrant from China.

At the center of the poem is a conflict between Chinese and American culture. It's a conflict that's reflected in the speaker's two names—"Mei Ling" and "Marilyn." In trying to understand the relationship between those two names, the speaker tries to understand her relationship both to China and America. (In a word: it's complicated.)

What is How I Got That Name About and Why Should I Care?

If we dig back long enough, chances are we'll find that at some point we had a granddaddy or a great-granddaddy or a great-great-granddaddy who decided to pack up his bags and head for the golden shores of America. Or hey, maybe our parents packed us up and shuttled us with them to America not too long ago.

The immigrant experience that Marilyn Chin's poem describes is our own, in other words. Sure, we may not have been alive when our ancestors came to America. And maybe we're not Chinese-American—maybe we're Mexican-American, or Irish-American, or some crazy combination of hyphen-Americans.

The point is, no matter how long ago or how recently our family came here, and no matter where we come from, there are certain things that are universal to the experience of journeying from one place to another. Chin's poem gives us a glimpse into what it means to be an immigrant in an America. And with that, she's speaking—directly or indirectly—to nearly all of us.

How I Got That Name Resources

Websites

The Official Marilyn Chin
This is a great place to start in delving into the author's work.

The M.A.P. (Modern American Poetry entry) of Marilyn Chin
A nifty little profile of Marilyn Chin, from the University of Illinois.

Video

"How I Got That Name"
Here's Chin giving a fiery reading of her famous poem.

"The Floral Apron"
Check out Chin reading one of her more recent poems, as part of the Poetry Everywhere project.

Images

Bespectacled Marilyn
This is a lovely snap of Chin in glasses.

Marilyn Monroe Photo
Here's the glamorous blond bombshell after whom Marilyn Chin was named.

Articles and Interviews

"Double Happiness": An Interview with Marilyn Chin
Chin talks about her writing and her literary influences in this interview in the journal Contemporary Women's Writing.

On "How I Got That Name"
Marilyn Chin discusses her poem with Bill Moyers.

Books

The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty
Chin's poem "How I Got That Name" is included in this collection of poetry.

Foreign Accents: Chinese American Verse from Exclusion to Postethnicity
This book includes a chapter on Marilyn Chin's poetry. It's a great place to start if we want to learn more not just about Marilyn Chin, but about Chinese-American poetry as a whole.