Study Guide

How I Got That Name Themes

  • Identity

    "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.

    Questions About Identity

    1. What does the poem suggest about the relationship between identity and naming?
    2. How does the speaker's relationship to family shape her cultural identity?
    3. What are some of the difficulties involved in navigating the two cultural identities—Chinese and American?
    4. How does the metaphor of the "chasm" (87) relate to the question of identity in the poem?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Foreignness and 'The Other'

    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.

    Questions About Foreignness and 'The Other'

    1. How does the speaker's name change reflect her father's attempt to overcome his own "foreignness" in America?
    2. When the speaker says that she's "mesmerized/ by all that was lavished upon her/ and all that was taken away" (94-96), what is she referring to? What does her experience as a foreigner give her and what does it take away?
    3. How does the speaker's description of herself as a "squatter" (84) reflect her own foreign identity?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Language and Communication

    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.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. When the speaker refers to the grammar of the words "I am" in the first six lines of the poem, what is she suggesting about the relationship between language and identity?
    2. How does the English language alienate the speaker from her parents?
    3. In what ways can language allow us to create new identities for ourselves, according to the speaker of this poem?

    Chew on This

    Language fixes our identity for us. It traps us.

    Au contraire, language allows us to break through the confines of our identity.

  • Race

    "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.

    Questions About Race

    1. The speaker suggests that Chinese-American racial identity differs from both "white" and "black" racial identity in what ways?
    2. Is the "Model Minority" a racial or a cultural stereotype, or both? What's the relationship between race and culture in the poem?
    3. The speaker's father names her after a white movie star, Marilyn Monroe. What does this suggest about the father's aspirations for his daughter?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Family

    "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.

    Questions About Family

    1. How does the speaker relate to her ancestors? How does she think they relate to her? Why is she concerned about what they might think of her?
    2. The poem suggests that family relationships shape our identity in what ways?
    3. How does the immigrant experience alienate family members from one another?
    4. What sorts of expectations and pressures do children of immigrants confront, according to the speaker of this poem? Are these pressures placed on them by parents, or by mainstream society, or both?

    Chew on This

    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.