"How I Got That Name" is a poem about identity. Who am I? Where do I come from? Where do I belong? Whose pants are these? Oh wait—scratch that last one. The rest are the types of questions that Chin's poem raises. It is, after all, a poem that focuses on the immigrant experience. And the immigrant experience, as we all know, leads to all types of identity crises.
The speaker of "How I Got that Name" tries to deal with and reconcile the various aspects of her identity. Caught between China and the U.S., the speaker finds that she's got all kinds of issues to deal with as a Chinese-American. Thanks a lot, hyphen.
Go ahead and try, Shmoopers, but our identity is fixed. We can't escape it, and we can't change it.
Our identity is determined by where we live. If we live in China, we're Chinese. If we live in America, we're American.
It ain't easy being a foreigner. We have to adapt to new places, learn new languages, and eat new food. One of the main themes of Chin's "How I Got That Name" is this experience of arriving in a new place (in this case, America) and having to adjust. But even though being a foreigner isn't easy, the poem suggests that there are also rewards that we can reap from expanding our horizons.
If we're foreigners or immigrants, we're doomed to live as outsiders—doomed we tell you. We're just never going to fit into the countries that we move to.
Actually, being a foreigner is a blessing. It allows us to have many identities and homes, not just one.
Say what? The language we speak defines who we are. It defines our cultural references and how we understand ourselves. Chin's "How I Got That Name" deals with how the transition from one language to another changes our identity. In the poem, this transition is reflected in her two names, "Mei Ling" and "Marilyn." In going from a Chinese name to an American one, the speaker becomes a whole new person.
Language fixes our identity for us. It traps us.
Au contraire, language allows us to break through the confines of our identity.
"How I Got That Name" points to the complexity of race in America. On the one hand, there's the black-white racial divide, which goes all the way back to slavery. On the other hand, the arrival of new immigrants in the twentieth century also meant that racial categories became even more tricky and complex. The speaker of Chin's poem isn't white, and she isn't black. She's Asian. And this racial identity, as the speaker suggests, comes with a whole set of its own issues and problems.
Racial identity is a social construction. It's not a physical thing; it's a social thing.
Race defines who we are, and how we identify with others in the world.
"How I Got That Name" deals with the influence of family on identity. After all, no matter how "assimilated" we are, no matter how far away we move from our family, we're still ultimately our children's parents. They're the ones who name us and raise us, and teach us how to live in the world. (Aw, thanks guys.)
Chin's poem suggests how family determines our destiny. Not only do our parents have the power to name us, they also have the power to take us to new places. The speaker ends up in America because her parents took her there as a baby—and this changes her life in a super-huge way.
What matters is not what culture we belong to, but what family we belong to. Family is what determines who we are.
The immigrant experience alienates us from our families. It takes us away from our mothers and fathers.