Monday, August 27, 2018

On Real Names

Last week, Kelly Marie Tran had an essay published in the New York Times about the harassment she experienced online for not being white. It's good. If you haven't read it, I suggest doing so do.

That is not the point of this post though. What I want to talk about is how she chooses to end her essay with the words: "My real name is Loan."

While Tran is Vietnamese rather than Chinese, it is common for people in several Asian ethnic groups to have multiple names; an eastern one in their ancestral language and a western one. Growing up, I called the latter my American name.

In my case, my American one is my legal one and the Chinese one unofficial.

For some of my friends, it's the reverse. Their Chinese (or Korean) name is the legal one and they use their American names in day-to-day conversation.

Generally, speaking, the American names are for ease of use. It really sucks repeating your name a half dozen times and listening to someone constantly butcher it as they make a valiant attempt to get it right. To me, both my names are real, regardless of which is the one that appears on a legal document.

A conversation came up on Twitter between Asian American writers about "real names" and what made a name real and how the term might not have sat well with them, because like me they have multiple real names, and it's not as though one of them is more real than the other.

But in Tran's case, without knowing her personally, I feel like the use of "real name" here is that if she had the choice, she might have wanted to be credited as Loan Tran, rather than Kelly Marie. But having an Asian name hurts more than it helps in Hollywood. Chloe Bennet is half-Chinese, half-white, and acts under a white-passing name because she could not get work under her legal name of Chloe Wang. For Tran, even if she used Kelly Marie regularly in day to day life, there probably wasn't much choice about whether she wanted to use it professionally.

I've written before about how hard it is for Asians to get entertainment work in the US. Many times they have to make a go of it in their ancestral country, and maybe if they get popular enough there, they can transition to doing work in English (like Daniel Wu). But that's not an option for everyone.

By saying that her real name is Loan, Tran wanted us to know that there was a part of her she felt she had to hide, and because of that she couldn't fully be herself. But she can now, and I hope she will. I want to see her in more films in the future.