Given that this is a poem written in free verse, it has a very conversational ring to it. Not only that, but the language is simple and clear. It sounds like our friend is just chatting to us. Lines like "How we've managed to fool the experts/ in education, statistic and demography—/ We're not very creative but not adverse to rote-learning" sound like prose, not poetry (38-40).
But just because the poem has a chatty sound to it doesn't mean that it isn't full of poetic sound stylings, too. Lines like "The further west we go, we'll hit east;/ the deeper down we dig, we'll find China" are full of alliteration, for example. In these two lines, there's a lot of repetition of the W and D sounds. In this regard the poem strikes a balance between a conversational and a poetic tone. And balance, in a whole mess of ways (familial, cultural, personal, etc.), is what this poem is all about.
"How I Got That Name: An Essay on Assimilation" is a title that tells us exactly what Chin's poem is about. It's a poem about how the speaker went from being "Mei Ling" to "Marilyn." The title's emphasis on names and naming is significant because it points to just how central names are in defining our identity.
We take our names for granted (probably because most of us don't even have a say in what we're called), but the story of our names is often a complicated one. Chin's title, then, points to the ambiguities and complexities that are inherent in names. Our names tell a story—and Marilyn's name tells us the story of her (and her family's) assimilation into America. "Assimilation," of course is the big word in the poem's subtitle, and it's the central idea—and conflict—of the entire poem.
Given that this is a poem about the immigrant experience, it's no wonder that setting is pretty important. And the two main settings that the poem evokes are China and America. References to "Angel Island" (in California) (8) and "Piss River, Oregon" (29) refer to specific locations in the U.S. And then references to "Hong Kong" (26) and "China" (47) evoke the speaker's native home in China.
The poem also evokes setting in another sense: in terms of time. In line 10, there's a reference to the "late 1950s," when Marilyn's father arrives in the U.S. In this regard the poem also points back to a historical setting: a time when many Chinese immigrants arrived in America.
Ultimately, these two settings contribute different—at times conflicting—cultural identities to our speaker. The poem is her way of working through that position of being split between two different worlds, literally and figuratively.
The speaker of this poem is called "Marilyn Mei Ling Chin." Now, you may have noticed that the author of the poem is called "Marilyn Chin." (If you did, way to be awake out there, Shmoopers.) It's not a coincidence, obviously. We can read this poem as an autobiographical poem, because the speaker and the author share the same name.
But hold on just a minute before you close the book on our speaker. Just because the author and the speaker share the same name doesn't mean we can assume that they are, in fact, the exact same person. Sure, Marilyn Chin (the author) is writing out of her own experience as a Chinese-American. But Marilyn Mei Ling Chin (the speaker) isn't necessarily the same person as the author.
In this way, the poem brings up some interesting questions about the relationship between authorial identity and poetic identity. On one level, this is a poem about a conflict between two identities: American ("Marilyn") and Chinese ("Mei Ling").
On another level, the fact that the author and the speaker share the same name also raises questions about the relationship between authorial identity and poetic identity. To what extent do these two identities overlap? To what extent do they differ? The poem doesn't give us a definitive answer, but it suggests that the relationship between authorial and poetic identity is complex—not unlike the complexities a person of dual culture might encounter.
This isn't a very difficult poem to understand. For one thing, its title, "How I Got That Name," tells us pretty much exactly what the poem is about. It's also a poem that's easy to follow because the language and the diction are simple.
Where we may encounter difficulties are in references to Chinese culture (words like "paperson" and "kitchen deity"). There are also times when the speaker's words are ambiguous. For instance, when she quotes the proverb "To kill without resistance is not slaughter," it's not quite clear what we're to make of those words. Are we to understand that the speaker is killing someone or something (metaphorically, of course), or that she is being killed? That part's open to interpretation.
Most of the poem is pretty straightforward, though. You shouldn't even break a sweat strolling through this one.
We can tell that this is a poem written by Marilyn Chin because the poem begins with her stating her name. Phew, that was easy.
But even if we didn't have the name in the first line, there are other hints that tell us that this is a poem written by Marilyn Chin. The poem's focus on Chinese-American experience is one that we'll find in many of her other poems, such as "Chinese Quatrains", "The Survivor" and "Turtle Soup" (check out both poems at this website).
"How I Got That Name" is a poem written in four stanzas in a form of poetry called free verse. Free verse is pretty much what it sounds like: a poetic style that doesn't stick to any regular meter or rhyme scheme. It was popularized by the American poet Walt Whitman, and it's used in a lot of contemporary poetry.
The free verse form of "How I Got That Name" means that Chin gives herself a lot of freedom to change things up in the poem. For one thing, there aren't the same number of syllables in each line. If we take the lines, "somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,/ when my father the paperson/ in the late 1950s" (8-9), we can see that the length of each line (and the number of syllables) varies. There are eleven syllables in the first line, eight in the second, and seven in the last. See a pattern there? Yeah, neither do we. What's more, the four stanzas vary pretty wildly in length. The first verse paragraph is the longest, with thirty-five lines, and the third is the shortest, with only sixteen lines.
So what's up with this choice? Why go with free verse? Well, free verse is the way to go if you want to mimic the patterns of informal speech. We don't really speak in predictable patterns, do we? Well, maybe this guy might. So, by choosing free verse, Chin creates an informal, conversational tone in her poem. It's like she really just laying all this out to us, as a friend might. As her readers, we feel connected to her on a more personal level than if she were putting all these ideas in, say, a sonnet or a villanelle.
If there is one thing that can affect who we are, or how we think about ourselves, it's our name. People make all sorts of assumptions about us based on our names. If we're called "Mei Ling," people are going to assume very different things about us than if we're called "Marilyn." The speaker of "How I Got That Name" is called both "Mei Ling" and "Marilyn," and the contradiction between these two names is at the heart of her poem.
This is a poem about immigrant identity, so it's no wonder that geography and geographic imagery play a pretty big part in it. If we're immigrants, we journey from one place to another. Chin's poem refers to various locations ranging from China to the U.S., and she uses geographic imagery to get at the complexity of her own culturally-split identity.
If we're immigrants, chances are we'll have to deal with stereotypes. That's because people who are considered "strange" or "different" are often the victims of stereotypes. As a Chinese-American, the speaker of the poem also has to deal with stereotypes. Chin's speaker shows us how stereotypes about Chinese-Americans are untrue or misleading.
This poem is so G-rated, our six-year-old kid brother could read it. There isn't anything in the poem that we'd need to censor. Sex is there, but it's there in a very vague way. It's hinted at in the speaker's discussion of herself and her family. She arrived in the U.S. as a "pink baby" (17). Pink babies, of course, don't come out of nowhere. They're the product of lots of hanky-panky between mom and dad. All the same, babies are perfectly safe for a general audience.