Four years into her life in the United States, Aria Young realized she wanted more balance between the two halves of herself – Yáng Qìn Yuè from Shanghai and Aria Young from New York. Image: Mohamed Sadek for NPR
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Aria Young did not become Aria Young until the age of 16.
She was moving to Lancaster, Pennsylvania from her home in Shanghai for high school. His Chinese name, 杨沁悦, or Yáng Qìn Yuè, was “too hard to pronounce for the English language,” Young says in “What’s in a Name,” his NPR’s College Podcast Challenge entry. The judges selected Young’s audio story as the grand prize winner from 10 finalists.
In the podcast, Young, now a sophomore at New York University, tries to coach her English-speaking friends in pronouncing her Chinese name correctly. It’s not going well.
“Imagine doing this on the first day of school in front of a classroom or at a party correcting every person you meet because they just can’t get it right,” Young says in his podcast.
She knew it would be easier to settle in the United States if people could say her name.
It takes more than a new name to feel like you belong
Taking an English name is not an uncommon practice among Asian international students. As one of Young’s former high school teachers explains in the podcast, “The [international] students from Spain and students from Italy kept their names. The students from Asia did not keep their names. There may have been a student in the five years I was there who kept his Chinese name. Everyone had an American name.”
After hours of going through lists of baby names, Young chose Aria because it reflected her hopes for her new life in the United States.
“It’s a musical term. [An aria] is like a song,” she told NPR. “It’s almost like my new life is going to be melodic.”
But changing her name didn’t necessarily mean she fit in at her new Catholic high school in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch Country.
“Being Asian wasn’t really accepted or appreciated,” she explains. Young says she and other Asian international students faced microaggressions and racism at their new school.
“People would come up to us and ask if we ate dogs,” she recalls. “People would come up to me and ask me questions about, you know, ‘How does it feel to be Asian?’ Like they’ve never seen an Asian person before.”
Still, she was determined to to belongand a lot of that meant assimilating into American culture.
“I rejected my name. I rejected Yáng Qìn Yuè. I rejected my Asianness, because I felt like that was all I was,” Young says in his podcast.
Four years into her life in the United States, Young realized she wanted more balance between the two halves of herself – Yáng Qìn Yuè from Shanghai and Aria from New York. She wonders how to honor her Chinese identity while continuing to build a life for herself in the United States. She says that’s why she did “What’s in a Name”.
A name to reflect where she’s going and where she’s been
In her podcast, which Young recorded for her college radio station, she tells the story behind her first name: Her parents used the Chinese characters for “water” and “heart” in hopes that she would be ” sweet, pure and nourishing like water”. “, as well as having “a brave and good heart”.
For a long time, her Americanized name, Aria, didn’t seem so meaningful to her. But now, she says, “this life in the United States – it’s important to me. And these people know me as Aria. So that name has meaning for me because there are people who are close to my heart here and who know me by this name.”
She feels like her Americanized name is a part of herself that she has power over – it’s a way for her to shape the person she wants to be.
“I chose that name by myself, for myself. And that’s the person I made myself,” she says. “In a way, I think it’s liberating.”
As she continues to find her place in the United States, her old name seems more and more distant. But his surname, Young, no longer suits him.
“It’s me as my parents’ daughter. Not just my mother’s daughter, but also my father’s daughter, and that bothers me a bit,” she confesses.
Young says her relationship with her father is strained and she was primarily raised by “two very, very strong, resilient women” – her mother and her grandmother. She wants to take her mother’s maiden name, Xu, to honor her mother’s role in her life.
It’s a step closer to building a home for herself in the United States while paying homage to her home country.
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