DO YOU BELONG TO YOUR NAME?
My Name Story is a portrait-video project that examines the AAPI experience through the lens of our names at the intersection of race, gender and class. This project explores themes of identity, belonging, and reclamation in a country that oftentimes labels AAPIs as the other and perpetual foreigner. The project includes women from different generations, ethnicities and experiences who have had, at one point or another, struggles with their names and the meanings attached to them.
Participants of My Name Story were asked to share the stories of their names through portraits taken with a photograph of themselves that represent the story of their name. They wrote letters to the version of themselves that they were photographed with to help them process and reflect on their name stories. Video interviews were conducted with each participant.
While videos are not yet available, portraits, written excerpts of their interviews and audio are available for most participants. Click on each portrait to read and listen to a condensed preview of each woman’s story.
I thought that maybe for the first time, I would feel this connection to a land, to a people, to a place...I felt very much far away and ultimately, this is how I’ve kind of felt my whole life.
A month after we moved to the US, my parents decided to move us all to Georgia. When I started school that fall, my mother was talking to a neighbor of ours and she asked, ‘What's going to be her name at school?’ My mom said, ‘That's obvious―Zhen Yi’ and the neighbor says, ‘You can't possibly name her that because she's never going to fit in.’ So my mother asked what my name should be because not really speaking English, there's no way that my parents could have come up with a name. My name being Zhen Yi, my neighbor thought, why not Jeannie? As old as I am at 44, I should have, at this point, really enmeshed myself with that name and I haven't. I just don’t identify with it. I've just sort of accepted it.
This picture was taken shortly after graduating from high school and we got an opportunity to go to China. I had high expectations. It's like a motherland for us and for any of us who are Chinese, who were not born in China but feel this kind of pull to go and visit and see where we're from and our history and and all the places that my parents or my grandparents talked about… I thought that maybe for the first time, I would feel this connection to a land, to a people, to a place. Truth be told, I didn't. I felt as much of a foreigner as I did coming to the US the first time or even going back and visiting South Korea. I felt very much far away and ultimately, this is how I’ve kind of felt my whole life…this kind of a separateness and distance from myself and everybody else around me.
I always felt uneasy about having changed my name. I felt like I was a sellout. It was always a source of shame for me. Honestly, it was a reminder of how I couldn't stand up for myself.
When I entered my career, I was really proud to be one of the few Cambodians working in TV news (Kiro7) and I knew that it was a source of pride for me, but also a source of pride for my community. It was made clear to me that in order for me to accept this job, I would have to be okay with changing my name, that I would have to accept this as a condition of employment.
I always felt uneasy about having changed my name. I felt like I was a sellout. It was always a source of shame for me. Honestly, it was a reminder of how I couldn't stand up for myself. But I still wanted to be proud of being Cambodian and proud of my refugee roots so on World Refugee Day, I wanted to share that I am a refugee. I found a baby picture, one that was taken of me at the refugee camp before we came here to the United States, but in that picture there's also a small chalkboard in front of me that has my name on there, Siemny Chhuon, and also some numbers associated with my status. I wanted people to know that refugees matter and I wanted people to know that refugees are among us.
But I also felt really uncomfortable because then I would be opening up more questions because people knew me on air as Siemny Kim, even my coworkers. It was nothing that I'd ever discussed publicly before, so I felt really uncomfortable about opening up that conversation and I wasn't ready. I wasn't ready to admit publicly that I wasn't strong enough to keep my own name. So instead, I cropped out my name and I just shared the baby picture.
So though my mom had told me, don't let your skin get any darker, that was the first time that I realized everyone thinks brown skin looks like dirt. I just remember feeling like I was ugly and I would always be ugly.
I got to be really aware of noticing all of the differences, all the things that aren't ideal. I didn't want to be who I was...I've only dated white guys so I knew I would marry someone white. Growing up I thought, oh, I'm not going to take my husband's last name but I definitely did and one of the reasons is that he has a very American last name...and even after getting divorced, I kept that last name. I liked my identity, at least my name didn't sound Asian or Filipinio.
What it has meant for me to change my last name back to my birth surname really has meant this kind of autonomy, an independence and starting that journey of accepting who I am, who I was when I was born, my heritage, where I came from. And the irony is, if you think about autonomy and where I came from, being Filipino means that you have a heritage of colonization and not being autonomous and free. I have a Spanish based last name now. What was a Filipino last name 500 going on 600 years ago? I don't even know.
Video interviews coming soon. In the meantime, to hear more, listen to this condensed audio of Maridelle's name story.
Annah Kim Nelson-Feeney
Maybe it's in the last year, very recently, that I decided that I'm Korean. It's for me, it's not for anyone else. I don't need to prove it to anyone.
Each part of my name has a pretty significant gravity to it for a variety of different reasons. Annah Kim, or Kim Annah, that's my Korean birth name which implicates a lot of trauma, being abandoned, adopted, so on and so forth, all the race pieces kind of tied into that. We have Nelson which comes from my mother and it's crazy all the things that she's gone through and then Feeney, that comes from my dad who was bipolar. I really have no reason to ever speak to him ever again. Every every single part of my name includes some really intense form of trauma. I would feel worse if I removed it. That is just part of who I am today.
I've always really liked my name for a variety of reasons but it's shifted over the years. As I got older, I really wanted to reclaim more of the Korean parts of it, like the Kim Annah parts of it and incorporate that into my own kind of view of what is Americana. Because in my mind Americana is much more just of a really immigrant story and I feel like my name is strangely, a very strong immigrant story in a variety of different ways.
Video interviews coming soon. In the meantime, to hear more, listen to this audio of Annah's name story.
It was just like one of the hardest points of my life and all of that is very much embedded in the name Tiffany for me.
My name is Rya. I changed my name in 2021. It started with the name Ryan and eventually I dropped the 'n' and I was like that, that feels like me. But Rya, the name, means dream or free-flowing river and it's based off of the Greek name, Rhea and I love my name Rya, It feels very affirming.
When I hear the name Tiffany, I honestly hated it even just saying it out loud right now I get this like creepy crawly feeling on my back. I feel like I've been conflicted with my name, honestly, my whole life...
I selected this photo because I really wanted her to be seen and I think she really deserves to be seen. And she did a lot for everyone even when she didn't have much to give. I remember one day I had talked to my mom and I was like, "hey mom sometimes I feel like, I don't know, maybe I shouldn't exist and I don't know what would happen if I like disappeared" and my mom was like, "oh, everyone thinks about that." And I think she was trying to normalize it, but it just felt really dismissive and so I think during that time, I just felt really invisible.
Video interviews coming soon. In the meantime, to hear more, listen to this audio of Rya's name story.
Help Us Create More Social Impact
We are fundraising to gain more visibility for this project through exhibits and community experiences. While we've exceeded our goals to meet basic materials cost, please consider donating to help expand our goal of creating more visibility and social impact through community centered events and exhibits. Learn more by clicking on the GoFund Me link below to donate.
Total Raised: $2050
Additional Funds Required: $3000
Have You Eaten at Slip Gallery Belltown
Have You Eaten Meryenda at Kasama Space in Pioneer Square
Judy Lee is the creator of My Name Story and began this project when she started thinking about her own name story and how it’s been a reflection of her struggles and journey with identity and selfhood in the context of larger questions about race and gender. She started the project to help her process her own name and to create visibility for a common, yet not well known, AAPI experience. She believes in the transformative power of stories, especially those told by marginalized groups, and the importance of telling them in our own voices, rather than through an outside narrator. She is a Portrait Artist & Storyteller of social justice focused projects that center community and healing for women and BIPOC folks.
Tatyana Kurepina is documentary filmmaker who works with local artists to strengthen their connection to the community around them through visual storytelling. She became involved with My Name Story project not only because of her own experiences grappling with her identity as an immigrant, but because she had a deep sense of urgency to help document stories that have been untold for so long. She will be shooting and editing a documentary about Judy’s name story, while weaving in the stories of the women interviewed for this project. She hopes this documentary encourages all of us to examine the complexities of our identity and how we move through the world.