Study Guide

How I Got That Name Analysis

  • Sound Check

    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.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    "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.

  • Setting

    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.

  • Speaker

    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.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Base Camp

    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.

  • Calling Card

    It's All in the Name

    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).

  • Form and Meter

    "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.

  • Names

    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.

    • Line 1: The poem begins with Marilyn Mei Ling Chin stating her name. Already, just in that name, we can see certain cultural contradictions at play. "Marilyn" is an American name, "Mei Ling Chin" is a Chinese name. 
    • Lines 9-12: In telling us how her father changed her name, the speaker points to how little control we have over our own naming. Our mommies and daddies name us. And we're stuck with the names that they give us—whether we like it or not. 
    • Line 20: By talking about how her mother couldn't pronounce the R in Marilyn, the speaker suggests the way in which her new name estranged her not only from her native culture (China), but also from her own family. If our own mom can't pronounce our name, then yeah—we've got a problem. 
    • Line 21: Marilyn's mom called her "Numba one female offshoot." This is yet another name (a third) that the speaker is given by one of her parents. It's not a very endearing nickname, either, is it? What about Snookums or Monkeypants? If we were given so many names, especially one like this, you'd bet we'd be confused. 
    • Lines 74-79: The speaker's full name, "Marilyn Mei Ling Chin," comes up here again. There are also a whole bunch of other family members named in these lines. The emphasis on names here indicates just how important names are: not only do they influence our sense of who we are, they link us to other people.
  • Geography

    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.

    • Line 8: The speaker refers to Angel Island in California here. Angel Island is the location of an immigration station that a lot of immigrants—especially those coming from Asia—passed through. Angel Island was her father's first stop in America. 
    • Lines 26-29: There are references to two locations in these lines: Hong Kong and Piss River (a nickname for Rogue River), Oregon, where the speaker's family first settled in America. These two locations indicate what a huge geographic (and cultural) gulf the family crossed in coming to America. 
    • Line 46: The speaker's use of geographic imagery here suggests how we can't escape our roots. If we're from the "east" and keep going "west," we'll end up right back in the east again. Also, "China," the country, is always there beneath the surface of the soil. 
    • Lines 86-87: In these lines, the speaker imagines being swallowed up by a "chasm." A "chasm" is a hole in the earth or rock. So here, the speaker uses geographic imagery in imagining her own death. The "chasm" also refers to the gulf between her Chinese and American cultures.
  • Stereotypes

    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.

    • Lines 36-37: By referring to the children of Chinese immigrants as "trustworthy" and "thrifty," the speaker presents common stereotypes applied to Chinese-Americans. '
    • Lines 38-39: Here the speaker says that "experts" who study immigrants are fooled by stereotypes about Chinese-Americans. These immigrants are not as "trustworthy" or "thrifty" as these experts in education, statistics, and demography like to make out. 
    • Line 42: The "Model Minority" is the most common stereotype about Chinese-Americans. It's a stereotype that depicts Chinese (and other Asian) immigrants as hardworking, law-abiding, and of course "thrifty." By saying that this stereotype is "a tease," the speaker suggests that it's just an empty label. The "Model Minority" stereotype doesn't do justice to the complexity of Chinese-American life.
    • Steaminess Rating


      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.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • William Carlos Williams, "The Red Wheelbarrow" (51)
      • John Berryman, "Dream Song 14" (57) 
      • Herman Melville, Moby-Dick ("the white whale") (88)

      Cultural References

      • Paperson (9): "Paper son" was a name used for Chinese immigrants who used fake papers to enter America.
      • "Kitchen deity" (24): This is a reference to a god in Chinese popular religion, known as "Zao Jun," who is believed to guard families.

      Pop Culture References

      • Marilyn Monroe (12, 18): She's the "blond bombshell" who was a famous movie star in the 1950s.
      • "Santa Barbara" (53): It's a popular American soap opera set in Santa Barbara, California, that aired between 1984 and 1993.
      • Godzilla (89): Yipes. He's a scary monster that first made an appearance in a 1954 Japanese film called—wait for it—Godzilla.