What My Name Says About Who I Am

Name changes can be an act of self-preservation and confirmation in how we show up in the world — and on paper

Illustration: Jenn Kitagawa

II became Mia Nakaji Monnier in college. I didn’t change my name so much as reveal more of it. While I’d always gone by Mia Monnier before then, the rest of my name appeared on all of my official documents: Mia Gabrielle Nakaji Monnier, a combination of Japanese and French, reflecting both of my parents. In college, I learned that my face alone rarely said enough about who I was. On campus in Vermont, a White roommate asked why I “acted more Asian” than I was. Studying abroad in Kyoto, I felt like crying with gratitude anytime someone recognized me as haafu, mixed-race Japanese, the daughter of a Japanese mother.

I learned to supplement my face with as much information as possible—constant preemptive disclaimers. When people accepted my words without surprise or scrutiny, I was relieved, but I also felt selfish and needy, taking up so much time to explain myself. Adding Nakaji into my public name was meant to be a shorthand, a clue that might save me the trouble, at least when I applied to jobs at Asian American nonprofits or wrote an article justifying my own identity.

Now, more than a decade later, I’m engaged to a man whose race I recently realized I always describe as “like me, mixed” — only his mom is White and his dad is third-generation Japanese American, a descendant of the World War II concentration camps. He has a Japanese last name, one I like, that I could take.

Every time I filled out a form in Japan, I had to decide in which order to write my names, and each time I used kanji, I knew it was a small act of rebellion that would lead to a prolonged conversation about my identity.

Whether or not I take it depends on what I want my name to say. Do I want a fully Japanese name? Do I need to claim my fiancé through my name, or do I want to keep the names that tie me to my parents?

Through names, we reveal ourselves to the world. For those of us who are mixed race or otherwise between cultures, deciding how to present them is a way to confirm or complicate the stories told by our physical appearance.

SSince adding Nakaji into my public name, I’ve slowly found a whole group of women writers who changed their public names in ways that alter the way they’re culturally perceived on paper. When friends and relatives began asking me about my name in the months after my engagement, I found myself wanting to talk with these writers and learn more about their personal, practical, and political motivations for changing their names.

Alex Sujong Laughlin, host and producer of the Washington Post podcast Other: Mixed Race in America, which ran in 2017, added her Korean name during a year of reading books only by Asian authors. “I realized about halfway through the year that I would stand at the bookstore reading the names, trying to see if the author was Asian,” she says. “It occurred to me that if my name was on one of those book spines, I wouldn’t have even clocked myself as Asian.”

While working on Other, she learned that novelist Ruth Ozeki was born Ruth Diana Lounsbury and changed her name for a similar reason — to be recognized as bicultural and bilingual in Japan.

Comedian Anna Suzuki, born Anna Silverstein, took on her mother’s Japanese last name when a casting director told her, early in her career, that she didn’t look Jewish enough to be chosen for Jewish roles. “My switch was less personal identity–related and more for pragmatic reasons,” says Suzuki, who lived in Japan until moving to the United States at the age of 12. “But I will say that I don’t think I have a very strong connection to the Jewish faith. In comparison to that, I feel a lot closer to Japanese culture. So, emotionally, it makes sense to me to use my mom’s last name.”

Suzuki is also a Japanese-English translator, and when she does that work, she goes by Anna Suzuki-Silverstein to show her cultural fluency. One of her brothers goes by Suzuki-Silverstein, while the other goes by Silverstein. Name-wise, she says, “Basically you can present whatever version of you that you want to present to the world.”

Multiple people also told me they chose their names to distance themselves: from an absent father, from a racist family, or just from a connection that didn’t feel significant enough to be given so much prominence.

Journalist Michelle Villegas Threadgould told me her last name came from her father’s stepfather, whom she met for the first time at 16 and hasn’t seen in more than a decade. While she didn’t want to remove her father from her name, she felt ambivalent about the name’s origin. “It was very odd that this man [my step-grandfather] who had nothing to do with raising me was at the center of my identity,” she said.

In 2018, she added Villegas, her grandmother’s last name, to her byline in response to racist treatment of Mexicans and Mexican American immigrants by the Trump administration. She recognized that the name Michelle Threadgould, along with her lighter skin, gave her privilege, shielding her in ways the rest of her Mexican family wasn’t. In 2006, Threadgould crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with her aunt, a naturalized citizen. A Border Patrol agent asked Threadgould only two questions, whereas her aunt was asked deliberately confusing questions and held for longer before entering the United States. “We were the same family, we were right next to each other, and one got different treatment,” Threadgould says. By adding the name Villegas, “I wanted to pay homage to my grandma and the women who raised me, and I didn’t want to make myself complicit in making White people feel comfortable… I really wanted no part in passing.”

WWhen one writer (who asked not to be named) applied to college, her Taiwanese mother, who had kept her last name after marriage, considered changing her last name to align with her daughter’s. “Once we decided that we weren’t changing my mom’s maiden name, it was very much, ‘Thank god I have a White name,’” she says. “For a long time, I thought my advantage was my proximity to whiteness.” Now outspoken about race and representation, she is considering adding her mom’s maiden name into her byline. “I feel like I’m overcompensating, like part of how proud I am of my Asian heritage, especially on platforms like Twitter, is almost remediation for the years I wanted to be as White as humanly possible.”

I’ve caught myself feeling sorry for a biracial child given a White name, wondering how they’ll feel growing up in it. Laughlin, whose middle name is Sinead, told me she did feel confounded by the way her parents named her. “I just always thought it was so stupid that on paper my name was so Irish, but I’m way more Korean than Irish,” she says.

But names aren’t the only way of marking or preserving culture, and having a “foreign” name in the United States comes with its own difficulties. Before she got married, writer Lydia Siriprakorn, whose parents are from Thailand, used to wish she had a White surname, something that was easy for Americans to pronounce and didn’t lead to invasive questions or “unsolicited conversations about a stranger’s love of pad thai,” she wrote in an essay for Hello Giggles. When she got married, she took her White husband’s last name, becoming Lydia Mack.

It turns out that as much as I want to be seen and accepted as Japanese, I don’t want to pass as anything other than I am.

“It was kind of a philosophical dilemma, because, as a feminist, I didn’t want to whitewash my own name,” she told me. “I sometimes feel like I copped out a little bit. Had I had any other last name, I would have kept it as my middle name, but I was so tired of the built-in delays to do even the simplest things, like make a customer service call. I had dealt with that my whole life, so I really just opted for convenience for this part of my life.”

Today, Mack is pregnant, and the name she and her husband have chosen for their baby is “fully White.” But she has made sure that the name will be easy to pronounce for relatives in Thailand, and she wants her child to grow up bilingual, traveling often to Thailand. “You have to prioritize,” Mack says, “and that makes you question: What do we value? What can we get rid of?”

MyMy mom took my dad’s last name when they got married. In Japan, married couples are required to have the same surname—a law upheld as recently as 2019. For my mom, the self-preserving act was keeping her maiden name, Nakaji, as a middle name and passing it on to me and my brothers. Because she did this, I grew up thinking of my whole heritage every time I wrote my full name.

Part of my relationship with my name is specifically Japanese. The Japanese language has three alphabets, and native Japanese names are almost always written in kanji, the alphabet brought over from China. Foreign names are written in katakana, a phonetic alphabet recognizable for its simple, angular shapes. In Japan, even though Mia and Nakaji are Japanese and have kanji, my other two names, Gabrielle and Monnier, mark my name as foreign — not just because they are French, but also because they bring my name total up to four, which means I don’t fit the standardized Japanese last name–first name format (Murakami Haruki rather than Haruki Murakami).

Every time I filled out a form in Japan, I had to decide in which order to write my names, and each time I used kanji, I knew it was a small act of rebellion that would lead to a prolonged conversation about my identity. The mainstream Japanese idea of homogeneity is so strong that even Japanese Americans with entirely Japanese names — including Anna Suzuki, who grew up in Japan — have their names written in katakana, in Western first name–last name format.

In the United States, meanwhile, I get more questions about my last name than I do about my ethnically flexible first name. Mia Monnier is read as French, therefore White. After a decade of going by Mia Nakaji Monnier, it feels strange to see my abbreviated first-last name on a piece of mail, like it’s lacking, even though it was my name for 20 years. Similarly, when a Japanese relative writes my name in katakana, I feel sad, like they’ve unwittingly closed a door between us.

When I mentioned this story to my friend Natsuki Atagi, a professor of child and adolescent studies at California State University, Fullerton, who focuses on bilingualism and language development, she reminded me that names are a part of language, and they specifically act as labels. That may be why people always want to know what names mean, she told me, because they’re looking for information on how to see us. I’ve thought about the ways in which my brothers and I have lived out our Japanese names, almost as if they were prophecies: The “a” in Mia is used to spell Asia, the “mi,” which means “beautiful,” is also the first character in the Chinese spelling of America. My brother, whose name means “great hermit,” has lived out of his car in three cities this summer. My brother the pegasus flies out of reach. The names and the experiences reinforce each other, becoming personal myth.

Choosing whether or not to change our names allows us to decide what story we tell the world, but also, maybe more important, what story we tell ourselves. I began using Nakaji to declare my Japanese identity — an act of both defensiveness and pride. If I took my fiancé’s last name, I could say the same thing more simply with just two names, first and last. In Japan, I could use kanji and go last-first, passing on paper, if nowhere else. But in the time that I’ve gone by this name, it’s become more than a cultural credential. It feels like claiming my mom daily, publicly. My dad, too. It turns out that as much as I want to be seen and accepted as Japanese, I don’t want to pass as anything other than I am. I need my fiancé for love and partnership, not access to a community that is already mine.

In our interview, Threadgould told me about a poem by the border poet Heriberto Yépez called “Nada,” from his book Transnational Battlefield, which explores the idea of declaration. When a person crosses the Mexican border into the United States, Threadgould explains, the first question they are asked is, “‘What are you bringing?’ And you’re expected to say, ‘Nothing,’” she says. “Sometimes I feel like that is what having an Anglo surname is asking me to do. It’s asking me to say, ‘Nothing.’”

In diaspora, what remains of our families’ cultures is limited, precious. What can we claim instead of nothing?

Last summer, I visited my brothers in the Midwestern town where they were sharing an apartment at the time. They’re four and seven years younger than I am, both metalheads, different from me in most ways apart from our thick, wavy hair, our shared family experiences — and our names. On the cluttered dining table sat a pile of the older one’s pay stubs, bearing his full, four-part name: Western first name, Japanese middle name, Nakaji Monnier. It was just a name, unceremoniously printed, but looking at it, I felt my experience mirrored, my childhood summed up, the comfort of my siblings and our parents’ gifts to us.

In this prairie town, far from home, I saw where I belonged.

Mia Nakaji Monnier is a freelance writer in Los Angeles with work in BuzzFeed, Shondaland, The Washington Post, and more. She’s also a professional knitter.

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