Study Guide

How I Got That Name Names

By Marilyn Chin

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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.

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