A Chinese student Americanized her name to fit in. It took more to feel she belonged
When Aria Young moved to the U.S., she adopted an Americanized name. Now, she's wondering how to hold on to the version of herself she left in China.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Now we want to introduce you to a college student with two names, including the one she chose when she came to the United States from China. She's the grand-prize winner of NPR's College Podcast Challenge. NPR's Sequoia Carrillo visited her on campus at New York University.
SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: Aria Young was 6 years old when she became Aria Young.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ARIA YOUNG: Hi. My name is Aria. Actually, let me start over. Hi. My name is Yang Qin Yue.
CARRILLO: The story behind those names is something Young explores in her winning podcast. She was moving to the United States for high school from her home in Shanghai and decided her given name was too hard for Americans to pronounce. When I sat down with her in New York, she told me that changing her name wasn't quite enough to fit in at her new Catholic school - in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch country.
YOUNG: People would come up to me and ask questions about, you know, what's it like being Asian, as if, like, they've never seen an Asian person before, you know? Like, people would come up to us and ask us if we eat dogs, and it was like, oh, my God.
CARRILLO: Despite all that, Young really wanted to make a home for herself there.
YOUNG: Most Asian international students wouldn't, like, go out of their way to make friends with American students, but I did because I really was trying to fit in. I was really trying to, like, be Western, I guess.
CARRILLO: It's not uncommon for Asian international students to change their names to make it easier on those around them. Young talked about this in her podcast - how something is lost when students change their names. Here's a snippet of fellow international students sharing the meanings of the Chinese names they've left behind.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REN FENG YAO: My name is Ren Feng Yao (ph).
WU SOO SHIN: ...Is Wu Soo Shin (ph).
JUN PHU TIEN: I'm Jun Phu Tien (ph).
REN: It means abundance and brightness.
WU: ...Comes from an old Chinese idiom that goes - (speaking Chinese). And since my last name is Wu, which means five, my name roughly translates to think five times before you say or do something.
CARRILLO: Young's given name includes the Chinese character for heart. So when she sat down with a list of English baby names to choose from, she wanted to find one that was just as meaningful. She settled on Aria. It's a musical term that directly translates to air but also means song.
YOUNG: My new life is going to be melodic and, like, musical. It's, like, artsy and elegant. But my last name is also a struggle for me.
CARRILLO: She technically kept her last name but also kind of lost it.
YOUNG: So legally, it's not spelled Y-O-U-N-G. Legally, it's spelled Y-A-N-G - Yang. It's pronounced Young (ph), but in high school, people would say it like Yang (ph). You know, that's the English pronunciation. So I did not like that. I was like, I don't want my name to be pronounced that way.
CARRILLO: Now, four years into her new identity, Young is a sophomore at NYU. When I visited her on campus, she took me to her favorite place - the radio station.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP, DOOR UNLOCKING)
CARRILLO: She walks us down a long set of stairs to the basement of a dorm.
YOUNG: Yep, this is WNYU.
CARRILLO: It's like she's walking in the front door of her home. She seems to relax once we're inside. Every wall is covered in band posters and Polaroids of the student DJs. She says she's always been interested in journalism, and the radio station helped her gain more confidence.
YOUNG: And I did my first piece, I remember, and people were just so welcoming and so encouraging, and they made me feel proud of my work.
CARRILLO: Now she has her own radio show and is a reporter for NYU's news podcast. As she finds her footing in the U.S., her old name feels further and further away. But her last name still isn't quite right.
YOUNG: That's me, as my parents' daughter - and not just my mom's daughter, but also my dad's daughter. And that kind of bothers me a little bit.
CARRILLO: Aria's relationship with her dad is strained, and even though she was raised by her mom and grandma, there's no trace of that on paper. That's why these days she's contemplating a new name-change to her mom's last name, Xu.
YOUNG: I would say that my mom is the only, like, parent I have. And I want to honor her. I want to honor her by having her last name. I want to pass on her lineage and not my dad's.
CARRILLO: It's one more step towards building a home for herself in the U.S. while still paying tribute to where she came from.
Sequoia Carrillo, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.