Study Guide

How I Got That Name

How I Got That Name Summary

"How I Got That Name" is divided into four stanzas. It's told by a first person speaker called, appropriately enough, Marilyn Mei Ling Chin. In the first paragraph she recounts her father's journey to America from China, and touches on how she got her American name "Marilyn" (her dad was obsessed with Marilyn Monroe, apparently—who wasn't?). The second paragraph describes some of the difficulties of growing up in America as a Chinese-American, including having to deal with stereotypes such as the "Model Minority" stereotype.

The third verse paragraph focuses on the speaker's relationship to her Chinese ancestors. The speaker then imagines herself dying (yeah, because that's just fun to do). In the final verse paragraph of the poem, the speaker talks about herself in the third person, imagining what would be said about her at her death, in a eulogy given at her funeral.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-6

    I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin
    Oh, how I love the resoluteness
    of that first person singular
    followed by that stalwart indicative
    of "be," without the uncertain i-n-g
    of "becoming." 

    • The speaker begins by telling us her name, "Marilyn Mei Ling Chin." Then she gets into some grammar. She comments on the "I am" that the poem opens with, saying that she loves how resolute, or solid, those words are. 
    • The speaker's comments on the words "I am" are a little sarcastic. "I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin" is a statement of fact, whereas actually the speaker suggests that it's probably better to say something like "I am becoming Marilyn Mei Ling Chin." Our identity isn't static or fixed, in other words. 
    • Already, in these first few lines, we're seeing all kinds of questions about identity being raised. The speaker's words make us ask questions like: Who is this speaker? And how do we define her? Is identity a fixed thing, or is it something that is always changing, or "becoming" something else?
    • Another focus of these first few lines is language. By focusing on grammar, and what the words "I am" mean, the speaker is raising questions about the relationship between language and identity. For instance, what's the relationship between a name and a person's identity? 
    • The language in these first few lines sets the rhythm for the rest of the poem. The diction is informal, the meter is irregular, and it sounds just like a regular person speaking to us.

    Lines 6-12 

    Of course,
    the name had been changed
    somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
    when my father the paperson
    in the late 1950s
    obsessed with a bombshell blond
    transliterated "Mei Ling" to "Marilyn."

    • The speaker tells us that her name had been changed by her father "somewhere between Angel Island and the sea." Angel Island refers to an immigration station in California. 
    • So the speaker's telling us that, upon his arrival in America in the 1950s, her dad, who was obsessed with Marilyn Monroe, changed ("transliterated") "Mei Ling" to "Marilyn." 
    • The speaker describes her father as "the paperson." That's a term that was used for Chinese men who entered the U.S. using fake documents. 
    • These lines bring up the issue of assimilation: by telling us about how her father changed her name to the American "Marilyn," the speaker is pointing out how much her father wanted to assimilate into the new American culture he was entering into.

    Lines 13-19

    And nobody dared question
    his initial impulse—for we all know
    lust drove men to greatness,
    not goodness, not decency.
    And there I was, a wayward pink baby,
    named after some tragic white woman
    swollen with gin and Nembutal.

    • The speaker says that nobody questioned her father's desire to change his daughter's name. She says that her father was driven by a "lust" for "greatness." She then describes herself as a "pink baby" who is named after Marilyn Monroe. 
    • The speaker describes Marilyn Monroe in these lines as a "tragic white woman/ swollen with gin and Nembutal." Monroe, of course, was an alcoholic who was also addicted to medications (Nembutal), and she infamously ended up committing suicide. 
    • By referring to Monroe's tragic fate here, the speaker is also hinting at her own "tragic" fate as someone who will not fit easily either in China or America. 
    • The reference to Monroe as a "white woman" also brings up the issue of race. The speaker of the poem isn't white, of course. She's Chinese, so the reference to Monroe's race works to remind us just how different this little Chinese girl is from Marilyn Monroe.

    Lines 20-24

    My mother couldn't pronounce the "r."
    She dubbed me "Numba one female offshoot"
    for brevity: henceforth, she will live and die
    in sublime ignorance, flanked
    by loving children and the "kitchen deity."

    • The speaker tells us that her mom couldn't pronounce the "r" in her American name "Marilyn," so she referred to her daughter as "Numba one female offshoot'" instead. That's some nickname. 
    • The mother's inability to pronounce the name "Marilyn," though, brings up the issue of language. The fact that her mom can't even say her new American name properly points to how the speaker's new name estranges her from her own family. There's a tension between the two languages—Chinese and English. 
    • The speaker's mom "will live and die in sublime ignorance." These lines are ambiguous. Could they refer to the fact that the mom has no awareness of her children's cultural struggles? 
    • The speaker says that her mom is surrounded by her "loving children" and the "kitchen deity." The "kitchen deity" is a reference to one of the gods in Chinese popular religion, who's believed to protect the family and home. This cultural reference points up just how much Chinese culture continues to be a part of the family's life, even though they now live in America. 

    Lines 25-35

    While my father dithers,
    a tomcat in Hong Kong trash—
    a gambler, a petty thug,
    who bought a chain of chopsuey joints
    in Piss River, Oregon,
    with bootlegged Gucci cash.
    Nobody dared question his integrity given
    his nice, devout daughters
    and his bright, industrious sons
    as if filial piety were the standard
    by which all earthly men are measured.

    • In these lines, the speaker turns back to her dad, telling us about his origins in Hong Kong. She also talks about how he "bought a chain of chopsuey joints/ in Piss River, Oregon." "Piss River" is a nickname for Rogue River, a city in Oregon, where the family first settled in America. 
    • The speaker tells us that her father bought a chain of Chinese food joints from money he earned selling fake Gucci merchandise. 
    • The picture that the speaker paints of her father in these lines depicts him as a hustler. He's "a "gambler, a petty thug."
    • But, even though her father is a hustler, the speaker says that his nice family—his "devout daughters/ and […] bright, industrious sons" meant that he was viewed as a respectable man. 
    • The speaker's reference to her father as a "tomcat" is an example of a metaphor. She's describing her father in terms of a male cat—a bit wild and roving. In this line (26) we can also see some alliteration happening: the letter T is repeated in the words "a tomcat in Hong Kong trash." Check out "Sound Check" for more on the sounds happening in this poem.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 36-44

    Oh, how trustworthy our daughters,
    how thrifty our sons!
    How we've managed to fool the experts
    in education, statistic and demography—
    We're not very creative but not adverse to rote-learning
    Indeed, they can use us.
    But the "Model Minority" is a tease.
    We know you are watching now,
    so we refuse to give you any!

    • This stanza begins with an exclamation. The speaker refers to the "trustworthy" and "thrifty" children of Chinese immigrants. But she says that these kids aren't the "Model Minorit[ies]" they're made out to be by so-called experts in education and statistics and demography. 
    • The "Model Minority" is a common stereotype about Chinese immigrants and their kids. Chinese-Americans are often depicted as good in school and good at "rote-learning" (memorization) especially.
    • When she says "We know you are watching now," she is referring to all those American experts (and American society more generally), who judge and label Chinese immigrants. Since they are aware of this, it's as though the Chinese immigrants are putting on some kind of show for these experts, not being their true selves.
    • By setting up a contrast between "we" (Chinese immigrants) and "you" (Americans), the speaker is pointing out how the Chinese-American experience is different from the white American experience.

    Lines 45-47

    Oh, bamboo shoots, bamboo shoots!
    The further west we go, we'll hit east;
    the deeper down we dig, we'll find China.

    • The speaker refers to "bamboo shoots" here, which are a famous Chinese plant. The reference to bamboo is ambiguous, but it can be seen to refer to the idea of "roots." This is a poem about planting roots in new places, after all. 
    • The next lines suggest how hopeless it is to try and escape our original culture. The speaker says "The further west we go, we'll hit east." In other words, Chinese-Americans may try very hard to escape their "eastern" culture by going west, but eventually they'll find themselves right back in the east again. 
    • The speaker also says that "the deeper down we dig, we'll find China." In other words the speaker's Chinese heritage is inescapable. This line also refers back to the "bamboo shoots." As we've mentioned, the imagery
      of the bamboo evokes roots, and here the act of digging down also evokes roots. 
    • These lines continue the poem's informal, talk-y tone. We can also see a lot of alliteration going on here, in the repetition of W and D sounds in lines 46-47. Hit up "Sound Check" for more on that.

    Lines 48-57

    History has turned its stomach
    on a black polluted beach—
    where life doesn't hinge
    on that red, red wheelbarrow,
    but whether or not our new lover
    in the final episode of "Santa Barbara"
    will lean over a scented candle
    and call us a "bitch."
    Oh God, where have we gone wrong?
    We have no inner resources!

    • The lines, "History has turned its stomach on a black polluted beach" are pretty ambiguous. What's the "black polluted beach" and where is it? Which "history" is the speaker referring to? Chinese history or American history or both? At the very least, we can say that this is a negative description of a place by the ocean, a border that might separate two countries like… oh, we don't know… China and America, maybe? 
    • We can see the literary device of personification at play here. In imagining history as having a "stomach," the speaker describes it in terms of a person with body parts and organs. 
    • In lines 50-51 the speaker offers an allusion to a famous poem by the poet William Carlos Williams. In the poem Williams' speaker says that "so much depends/ upon/ a red wheel/ barrow/ glazed with rain/ water/ beside the white/ chickens." Yup, that's the whole poem, gang.
    • Chin's speaker Marilyn contradicts Williams, here, suggesting that what matters is not a pretty red wheelbarrow, but what happens in the "final episode" of the soap opera "Santa Barbara." The reference to "Santa Barbara" suggests the way in which immigrants (Chinese immigrants in this case) become assimilated into American culture: they're obsessed with cheesy soap operas. 
    • The last two lines of this verse paragraph point out the speaker's ambivalent feelings toward this assimilation.
    • She asks, "Oh God, where have we gone wrong?/ We have no inner resources." This last line is an allusion to the poet John Berryman; you can watch him read his "Dream Song 14" right here.
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 58-65

    Then, one redolent spring morning
    the Great Patriarch Chin
    peered down from his kiosk in heaven
    and saw that his descendants were ugly.
    One had a squarish head and a nose without a bridge
    Another's profile—long and knobbed as a gourd.
    A third, the sad, brutish one
    may never, never marry.

    • This stanza begins with the speaker imagining "the Great Patriarch Chin" (the family forefather) peering down from heaven at his family. 
    • The speaker imagines that Patriarch Chin thinks that his descendants are ugly, one with a "squarish head" and another one with a profile that's "long and knobbed as a gourd." Ew. 
    • The speaker's description of a face with a profile that's "long and knobbed as a gourd" is an example of simile, albeit not a very pleasant one.

    Lines 66-69

    And I, his least favorite—
    "not quite boiled, not quite cooked,"
    a plump pomfret simmering in my juices—
    too listless to fight for my people's destiny.

    • Here the speaker imagines what Patriarch Chin thinks of her. It's not good. In fact, she thinks that she is "his least favorite" descendant. She must not enjoy cosmic family reunions, then.
    • In these lines, the speaker also uses a lot of cooking imagery. She imagines herself as "'not quite boiled, not quite cooked"/ a plump pomfret simmering in my juices." 
    • The cooking imagery works on two levels. On one level, it depicts the speaker as a kind of "food" that's undercooked or not quite cooked. This points to her own confused identity—she isn't quite American and she isn't quite Chinese. On another level, though, the fish (a "plump pomfret" is a fish, and an ugly fish at that) is depicted as simmering in the speaker's "juices." So what does she mean when she imagines this fish cooking in her "juices"? Well, to "stew in one's own juices" is a figurative expression meaning to brood, or dwell on something unpleasant. That's pretty much what the speaker's doing here, right?
    • When the speaker says that she's "too listless to fight for my people's destiny," she is imagining herself as a disappointment to her forebear, Patriarch Chin. She isn't energetic, she isn't doing anything useful for her "people." She sees herself as the family LVP (least valuable player).

    Lines 70-73

    "To kill without resistance is not slaughter"
    says the proverb. So, I wait for imminent death.
    The fact that this death is also metaphorical
    is testament to my lethargy.

    • The speaker quotes a proverb: "To kill without resistance is not slaughter," and says she is waiting for death. Good times.
    • But she points out that she is not literally waiting for death. Instead, her death is metaphor, which apparently is further proof of her "lethargy," or laziness. These lines suggest that the speaker is very aware of the fact that she's a disappointment to her Chinese forbears. She's so lazy even her death is just a fantasy.
  • Stanza 4

    Lines 74-81

    So here lies Marilyn Mei Ling Chin,
    married once, twice to so-and-so, a Lee and a Wong,
    granddaughter of Jack "the patriarch"
    and the brooding Suilin Fong,
    daughter of the virtuous Yuet Kuen Wong
    and G.G. Chin the infamous,
    sister of a dozen, cousin of a million,
    survived by everybody and forgotten by all.

    • This stanza is written as a eulogy, a speech that's usually given about someone at their funeral after they've passed away. The speaker imagines what would be said about her if she'd died. Anyone want to bet that it's a bunch of compliments?
    • Yeah, you're right. It's all negative. Because these lines are written as a eulogy, the speaker talks about herself in the third person. She refers to her (multiple) marriages and lists her family relationships. The speaker imagines that she will be "survived by everybody [in her family] and forgotten by all." That's quite a bummer of a send-off.

    Lines 82-85

    She was neither black nor white,
    neither cherished nor vanquished,
    just another squatter in her own bamboo grove
    minding her poetry—

    • There's another reference to race here. The speaker, still speaking about herself in the third person, describes herself as "neither black nor white." Being Chinese she's neither. 
    • The speaker continues, saying that she was also "neither cherished nor vanquished." By referring to herself as "neither black nor white,/ neither cherished nor vanquished" the speaker points to the ambiguity of her identity.
    • She's in between the black and white races, and in between love and hate, just as she is in between China and America. It all sounds pretty uncomfortable.
    • The speaker describes herself as a "squatter in her own bamboo grove/ minding her poetry." A "squatter" is a person who doesn't have a home and who "squats," or takes over, someone else's home. So here the speaker reveals that the location of her "home" is unclear; she's not fully at home either in China or America. 
    • The image of the "bamboo grove" here recalls the notion of roots—and setting down roots—somewhere. All the same, it doesn't seem to be making this speaker feel any more at ease. 
    • The line "minding her poetry" brings up the importance of poetry in helping the speaker make sense of her identity. So maybe there's some hope there? Let's see if this poem finishes up on a positive note…

    Lines 86-90

    when one day heaven was unmerciful,
    and a chasm opened where she stood.
    Like the jowls of a mighty white whale,
    or the jaws of a metaphysical Godzilla,
    it swallowed her whole.

    • Sorry, gang—no hope here. In fact, when Godzilla shows up, you can pretty much count on the opposite.
    • We're told that the speaker died because "one day" "a chasm opened where she stood" and "swallowed her whole." 
    • Was this an earthquake? More likely, the "chasm" that the speaker refers to can be understood as a metaphor. It refers to the gap, or conflict, between her Chinese culture and her American culture. 
    • In these lines we can also see the speaker using a couple of similes. She compares the "chasm" that eats her to the "jowls of a mighty white whale" (that's a reference to the "white whale" in Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick) or "the jaws of a metaphysical Godzilla."
    • "Metaphysical Godzilla" is not only a great band name (dibs), but it also reinforces the idea that this death is a more of a spiritual suffering, not an actual demise. The speaker's divided sense of self is like a huge, angry, nuclear lizard that breathes fire.

    Lines 91-96

    She did not flinch nor writhe,
    nor fret about the afterlife,
    but stayed! Solid as wood, happily
    a little gnawed, tattered, mesmerized
    by all that was lavished upon her
    and all that was taken away!

    • The speaker, still talking about herself in the third person—and in the past tense—describes her courageous reaction to being swallowed up by the chasm. The speaker doesn't "flinch nor writhe" in the face of the big hole that swallows her up. She's strong, as "solid as wood." 
    • Remember that she's still describing her figurative suffering and death here, the result of her conflicted cultural identity.
    • The speaker uses the literary device of simile in describing herself as "solid as wood," even though she's been "gnawed" a bit by those figurative evil beavers of her life experiences.
    • The last three lines of the poem point to the paradox of the immigrant experience. A lot is "taken away" from the speaker as a result of her parent's decision to come to America. But a lot is also "lavished upon her" as a result. In other words, she was enriched by her experience of coming to America, even though she lost a lot, too. Even at the end, our speaker is divided about her experience.