Call me by my given name

Posted in : Blog
Posted on : May 27, 2022

by Elizabeth Lim

My family name is Lim; a deceptively simple name to remember, but notoriously easy to get wrong because as easily as it slips off the tongue, and having the character of assonance, Lim calls to mind other words and names that have a similar sounding ring such as: Kim, Jim, Selim, Asim to name a few – with Kim being the most interchangeable that I have come across. The surname Lim is actually loaded with cultural value and meaning not known in the West. For example, Lim means forest or woods in Chinese. The character for tree or mù, looks like a tree trunk connected to humble roots and branches (木). Lim is written as two trees beside each other (木木), which makes a forest or woods. It even turns out, that there is a story about the origins of my family name, which involves a Prince who spoke out against the injustices of a tyrannical King, that subsequently led to the Prince’s pregnant wife fleeing for her life and a harrowing escape into the woods. What followed next was an enchanted birth, baby and all, protected and supported by two magical trees.

Our names have meaning and for most of us, our names form an important part of our identity. I like to say my name story belongs to the historical fantasy genre in literary terms, similar to the idea that one’s name story  may originate from one’s ancestors, a clan name for example, or village name and may even be derived from the cultural and material production of one’s ancestors and their livelihood. In Chinese culture, your character is said to be pre-mapped in your name, with the hope that you will live up to your name one day and fulfill the potential that lies within one’s name. As example, my father’s given name was Yong, which means strength and courage. To me and my siblings my father embodied these traits and more throughout his life, raising a family as an immigrant, and navigating a new culture and country. I love my family name and am very proud its origin story – and can even claim to be the descendant of a princely social justice warrior, but I confess I did not always feel this way.

When I was a young adult, I first encountered what I now believe is part of a phenomena  known today as  Sorry Wrong Asian , coined by the American writer and culture critic Jeff Yang. Sorry Wrong Asian can be said to be a manifestation of the West’s fear of Asian collectivism and a loss of individuality, originating in the idea of the Yellow Peril stereotype and the homogenization of Asian people into a dangerous and “faceless hive of interchangeable vermin.” For me, the Sorry Wrong Asian experience can unfold out of the blue with a jolt, such as in a waiting room and looking up to someone standing over me and addressing me as “Kim?” Or being in a meeting with coworkers and being offhandedly referred to as “Kim” and no one noticing the slight. Then there is the experience of being sent an email addressed to “Kim” even though my real name is plain as day in the thread. The experience is sometimes funny but mostly annoying and awkward, given that my name is “Elizabeth,” which is in fact the 32nd most popular girl’s name in Canada, and the most common variations of this name are Liz, Lizzie, or Beth, which bare no similarities to the name Kim.

I have come to the conclusion that being called Kim is a racial stereotype, based on the implicit bias that all Asians look alike. It is true that Kim is a common Asian name. In fact, Kim is the most common surname in South Korea. A search of the top ten most famous people named Kim does come up mostly Asian, yet Pan Asia is a vast geography made up of 48 diverse countries and represents more than 60 percent of the world’s population. I therefore question, how is it even possible to homogenize that much diversity?  Unfortunately, I’m not alone in the experience of being mistaken for the wrong Asian, as evidenced in the hashtag #SorryWrongAsian, which will take you to many true, awkward, and sometimes funny accounts of Asian people, sharing their stories of people mistaking their names.

On another level, the experience of being seen as the wrong Asian can be thought of as a form of racial microaggression. Racial microaggressions are common in the everyday lives of racialized people and often enacted by well-meaning and good people, who are nevertheless unaware of any transgressions enacted towards another. Examples of racial microaggressions can be as seemingly innocent as asking an Asian looking person where they come from, or telling a racialized person that they speak English well, or repeatedly mispronouncing a person’s name – which may seem like harmless questions or acts, but in actuality, reveal an inherent bias that people who don’t look like dominant society are foreign and other, and don’t belong. These “everyday slights” add up. In fact, studies show over time that repeated exposure to microaggressions can negatively impact a person’s health and well-being in addition to being a “a constant reminder to people of color that they are second-class citizens.”  We owe our current understanding of microaggressions to the seminal research of Dr. Derald Wing Sue, professor of psychology and education at Columbia University. His work reminds us, that all marginalized people, not just racialized people experience microaggressions, which can be based on any number of aspects of a person’s identity including their gender, sexual orientation, disability, religious beliefs and more.     

How do we dismantle micro aggressive behaviours?  In his Guide to Responding to Microaggressions, Dr. Kevin Nadal, distinguished professor of psychology at both John Jay College, and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York advises as a first step: to be aware of our language and the unconscious messages that may be denigrating, which we may be unknowingly transmitting through our words. Second, commit to learning about microaggressions – the different forms, the messages they impart, and their impact. In addition, Dr. Nadal reminds us that everyone is capable of committing a microaggression. Therefore, if you get the feeling that you have offended another person or have been “called out” for your own behaviour or words, admit your transgression and sincerely apologize. Nadal, also advises that being called out for a racist, sexist or homophobic slight, may result in a defensive about face response, centered in feelings of denial. Instead, try to listen without judgement to the other person, in order to understand what they are experiencing. Importantly, commit to learning about the history of systemic racism in Canada, past and present.

I am grateful to people like Dr. Sue and Dr. Nadal, whose research validates the experiences of racialized and marginalized people. Years ago, my reaction to a microaggression such as being called Kim, would have been to walk away, since I didn’t have the language or tools to understand and deal with these situations. Today, if you call me Kim, my hope would be that you don’t feel defensive if I proceed to engage you in a dialogue about microaggressions and even the #SorryWrongAsian phenomena, and why it matters to me for you to call me by my given name.

Tags Anti-Asian racism Asian Heritage Month Racism Discrimination

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