For 18 years, I have mispronounced my own last name for convenience. My last name is Zhao. It is a gift passed down from my grandfather to my father and now to me. It is the first last name listed on the Hundred Family Surnames — the traditional 100 most common Chinese surnames — and one of the few connections that I have to my parents’ homeland.
But, more than anything, “Zhao” has been a burden.
While it slips out naturally when speaking in Mandarin, my last name becomes cumbersome once it crosses the threshold into English. The sound “Zh” is not common, a confusing combination of consonants not usually found in English. So, rather than going through the hassle of correcting others and pronouncing my name the way I had been taught (and the way I said it in my head), I westernized it. It was a simple swap,trading the “Zh” for a more accessible “Z” sound. Losing a letter had been a small price to pay for acceptance.
Before coming to Princeton, I had never questioned giving up a piece of my culture. It had always been a constant battle between being Asian and being American. These identities were mutually exclusive, and I had chosen the easier of the two options.
Growing up as an Asian-American in Newtown, Pennsylvania — a town that is only 1.2 percent Asian — was not necessarily a difficult but certainly a different experience. Even though I never experienced blatant racism, there was always a feeling that I somehow did not belong. Vivid memories from elementary school include being interrogated about the contents of my packed lunchbox or having my classmates tell me that my words sounded like “ching chang chong” whenever I spoke to my parents.
From a young age, I learned how to mask my culture to fit in. Homemade lunches were traded for disgusting but wholly American lunches from the cafeteria. I changed myself to be more acceptable.
While I still spoke Chinese with my parents, celebrated traditional holidays, and watched China Central Television at night, my school life was different. I learned to deny my Chinese culture and wear my Americanness as a shield.
Coming to Princeton uprooted this entirely. I have been thrown into an environment where the idea of mutually exclusive identities no longer exists. Beyond the simple demographic shift from a mostly white high school to a much more diverse student body, the academic structures and organizations here have created a space for Asian-American students to thrive.
This semester, I have been taking HIS 270: Asian American History. It is the first time that I have been in a history class learning about people like me, understanding my family’s narrative, and recognizing that I am not alone within the course of American history. At the end of lecture on the first day of class, I went up to my professor and introduced myself, telling her that I had been waiting my whole life for this class. It sounded glib, even when I said it. It was something your typical overeager freshman would say, but it was the truth. I had spent my childhood grappling with, and ultimately denying my racial identity. Both at Princeton and in that class, I felt that I could settle easily into my own skin, not sacrificing any part of myself.
More so than any program or organization, though, it has been the smallest of actions that has made me feel comfortable with my identity.
When I arrived on campus, I found that my friends pronounced my last name accurately, without any correction. Even if it was just a letter, I felt that I did not have to give up any part of myself to belong here. Here, I can be Dora Zhao — no needed distinction between first and last name. I wasn’t forced to choose between being Chinese or American, nor was I constantly concerned about acting in a certain way to maintain one part of my identity. As I shed away the years of repressing my Asianness, I am becoming a more complete person, accepting all parts of my identity — not just the ones that made others comfortable.
Dora Zhao is a first-year student from Newtown, Pa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.