Excerpt from How I Got That Name
an essay on assimilation
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.” 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
Marilyn Chin is a Chinese American poet, born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Oregon. Crafting literature about the Asian American immigrant experience, Chin describes herself as an activist—her poetry often engages with Asian American and immigrant womanhoods, partnership, and sexual desire, and national identity. In the auto-biographical How I Got That Name, she prefaces the poem by calling it “an essay on assimilation.” Using Celine Parreñas Shimizu’s concepts of totality and infinity, Chin’s reassertion and reprise of both her Chinese and American first names construct an infinity of Asian American female subjectivity; however, her allusions to cultural tropes construct a totality of Asian American male subjectivity. Her employment of both totality and infinity highlight the complexities of counter-hegemonic activism and the risk of reproducing those same oppressive relations that one hopes to challenge.
In Shimizu’s analysis of Asian-American film, she defines the concepts of totality and infinity as “a subjectivity that is known” and “a subjectivity that is not yet, and can never be, fully known”, respectively (pg. 129). Through this conceptual framework, Shimizu questions the role of how the Self is represented in artistic forms.
In How I Got That Name, Chin starts off the poem by stating “I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin” (l. 1). This first line not only provides context for the title of the poem, but also gives the reader a frame through which to view it: Chin invites us to see how her name becomes a site of contested assimilation. Chin constructs an infinity of female subjectivity through challenging intersectional oppression of race, gender, and sexuality. Chin gives more information on the story behind her name: “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’” (l. 8-12). This transliteration of Chin’s name by her father is illustrative of oppression across multiple axes and through intersecting discourses. First, Chin’s father, as an Asian-American man, is excluded from notions of American and white masculinity (Chou pg. 130). Thus, his appropriation of a highly sexualized, white, American woman (implicitly, Marilyn Monroe) in naming his daughter can be seen as a way to bolster his male subjectivity and access white American heteromasculinity. Additionally, he enacts this upon Chin during the process of immigration, thereby erasing a marker of her ethnic and cultural identity and subsuming it under the guise of American-ness. Thus, the transliteration of Chin’s name by her father can be seen as upholding white colonial patriarchy—it illustrates the process by which men use women to perform heteromasculinity, and how markers of racial and national difference are erased to create an ideal white America.
Looking back at the first line of the poem, we can see Chin’s reassertion of both her names as a politically radical exposure of this pervasive and implicit privileging of whiteness and white heteromasculinity, all through the process of assimilation. By using both names, Chin calls forth two totalized subjects: Marilyn, the assimilated Chinese-American woman, and Mei Ling, the perpetually foreign and othered Chinese woman. However, by using and acknowledging both names, Chin also asserts that she is neither one of these totalities—that she exists outside of this dichotomy of assimilated and foreign, and that she refuses to be complicit in the upholding of white colonial patriarchy. She does not allow hegemonic nationalism and masculinity to dictate her female subjectivity. Through this, she approaches an infinity and mobilizes her poetry into activism for the empowerment of women of color.
That being said, there are ways in which we can problematize Chin’s activism in this poem, especially in how she describes her father’s role. Referring to him as a “paperson”, Chin alludes to a totalized cultural trope concerning undocumented Chinese male immigrants (l.9). She continues with these totalized tropes in a list towards the end of the first stanza: “My father dithers, / a tomcat in Hong Kong trash— / a gambler, a petty thug” (l. 25-27). Although she used a plurality of totalities to empower women of color and approach infinity (e.g. Chin is both Marilyn and Mei Ling), her tone at this part of the stanza creates an opposite effect for male subjectivity, where these tropes flatten her father’s character into a Chinese-American male stereotype. Thus, by totalizing her father, Chin can be seen to participate in the oppressive system of totalized subjectivity that she seeks to dismantle. For example, if we suppose that her father was also motivated to transliterate Chin’s name by a fear of deportation, then he may be focusing more on the material benefits conferred to Chin as a resident of the United States. Though that would not negate his upholding of white colonial patriarchy through assimilation, it would add depth and nuance to his character and move the poem away from totalizing Asian American male subjectivity.
But from a personal standpoint, I also believe in the political radicalism of validating the anger of people of color, especially women of color; to police Chin’s emotional response to her father would also be to actively participate in a system of white colonial patriarchy.