In A Name
My name is Joanna Kimberly Fang, but everyone calls me Fang. My boss calls me Fang, my friends, my exes, my classmates, even my professors and teachers. It's a strange nickname for a raven-haired Taiwanese American girl I admit, but using my family name has always been a source of great pride and great comfort. I was always just Fang, the eccentric who plays guitar and makes strange sounds, Fang, the wild child who would stick a camera into a moshpit. Fang, the class clown who got up during high school graduation to use the outhouse by the endzone of the football field. Fang, the person with many strange talents and strange opinions. The nickname always felt neutral and unique since my adolescence when it kind of just stuck. Luckily, it was the only part of my old name that I kept when in December 2016, I went into Manhattan Superior Court and retired my full legal name and adopted a new one. Changing my name did not change my personhood, it affirmed legally what the world had started calling me, what I started to call myself in June of 2016. My old name, the name on my birth certificate was Jonathan Kevin Fang. It was a name I hated and did not understand, adopt, or agree with for the first 25 years of my life.
I would often stare at the curves and slashes of my retired name and experience a complete sense of depersonalization. Many of us transgender folks use the term "dead name" to describe the burden of having been named in the wrong gender, assigned the wrong sex at birth, and thereby assigned the wrong name. I always found the term a touch too strong for my taste, although I understood the emotional state of the nomenclature. What's in a name? Names are filled with our identifiers, a strange gift in this society, and for many a curse. Our names immediately gender us, immediately identify our culture and ethnicity, and often leave an impression of those around us with who we are and where we've been. It's one of the first things we use to introduce ourselves, our first moment of contact begins with “hello my name is”. Jonathan was always a strange name to me: incredibly formal, and incredibly masculine. It made sense that growing up, I preferred people to use my last name over my first. Fang always felt more gender neutral, fit better, and surprisingly worked with my personality. When it came time to unravel my years of self hate and begin healing my untreated wounds from a lifetime of gender dysphoria, my new name to describe this more authentic self came very late in the process of my coming out. Joanna was a name I uttered in my sleep, a name I longed to adopt, and represented the best possible future for myself and my personhood. Jonathan was history, Joanna was the future, and Fang was what remained in the core of my being. Fang was as much a nom de guerre in my struggle to love myself, an alias, a code name, my super hero identity. It took three weeks of waiting, but when I stood before the judge as she stamped the court order, my full name finally fit my full being. Except for one very inconvenient fact, what the hell was I to do with my Chinese name?
I was born the child of two Taiwanese-American immigrants. My parents met during their graduate studies at The State University of New York: Stony Brook both having left the island nation of the Republic of China Taiwan to pursue their American dreams in the Long Island city of Port Jefferson, New York. They met while she was moving into the dorm. Dad was a strapping young man with a functioning car, a familiar ethnic Chinese face with a wide happy smile emerging in the mist of a strange new country. Mom was the new girl with near perfect English, an anthropology major, one of a select few Taiwanese on student visa at Stony Brook. The Republic of China Taiwan sits across the Taiwan Strait from the People's Republic of China; there are big cultural and political differences between the two. The island has had a long and tumultuous history having been a colony of the Dutch, then the Japanese, then the Chinese, before finally coming into its own following the retreat of Republic of China nationalist forces (the KMT) from the Mainland having been routed by the Communists at the end of the Chinese Civil War. The detente that followed was uneasy and a history lesson on the Cold War in Taiwan would often take up hours of my childhood growing up in suburban California. Taiwan is a nation mostly consisting of ethnic Han Chinese speaking Mandarin and a dialect of Taiwanese. Its linguistic history is a history of colonizers, colonists, and the colonized. My name "Fang" came from China by way of the Fujian province, retreating across the Taiwan Strait following the bloody Civil War, and surviving among the political refugees on the island of Taiwan. My parent's mother tongue is Mandarin Chinese, and as such, I was born in America with both an English name, and a Chinese name.
My relationship with the Mandarin Chinese language has always been a struggle between my assimilation in American culture, and my appreciation of my Taiwanese culture. My command of the language was a casualty of youth little league games, Saturday morning cartoons, and general apathy at the enhanced bilingual workload. I flunked out of Chinese school by the 5th grade, I couldn't keep up and balance Pokémon with my Saturday morning Chinese school. I also generally did not want to keep up. I hated being away from my friends every Saturday morning, learning strange arbitrary scratches on a piece of paper while being lectured by strict Chinese school teachers. As part of my self hate, I grew to dismiss the work as unworthy and my masculine Chinese name as foolish and misrepresenting of my internal female self. Rejecting Chinese school was potentially the biggest mistake of my life, it would manifest as a disconnection from my roots. It drastically hurt my relationship with my culture, my parents, and myself. It was a form of self mutilation and the first cut began when I asked my family to never call me by my Chinese name. 方鐸蔚 is pronounced as fāng duó wèi, and I associated with it an incompetency and doofiness. It represented a moody Taiwanese American kid, filled with gender dypshoria and dread. Dwoh Way, what a foolish and stupid sounding name to my Americanized ear and accent. It was also incredibly hard to write, incredibly difficult to look at, and generally odious of the type of cultural conflict I hated. Why couldn't I just be called Fang?
After changing my legal name in 2016, I called my parents and told them the good news. They had been supportive of my transition since I had come out of the closet as transgender earlier that June and were happy to see a much more confident and optimistic side of me that I had kept repressed for so long. It took my father a few months, but he realized what my mom had known for a while: they didn't have a son, but instead a daughter of incredible talents and quirks. Their support gave me a fighting chance to breath and feel unburdened by the pain that had held me back for so long. As a peace offering, I realized I had taken away from them their opportunity to name a daughter. My mother admitted to me that she had never prepared for a female name when I was born, they had already known my sex assigned at birth thanks to ultrasound. Joanna was a name of my own choosing. However, I gave my family a challenge; I needed a new Chinese name to represent the woman I was becoming. I was banishing 方 鐸 蔚. My mother and sister accepted the challenge and began to linguistically craft a new one.
Chinese names are full of significance. They represent their own poetry both visually and linguistically. Every word can be made up of characters or pieces from other characters meant to represent its nature. If you look at the Chinese logograms of my retired Chinese name, you'll see besides my eponymous family name of fāng 方, two words each made up of several characters. The two words representing duó 鐸 and wèi 蔚 are built from a handful of characters implying the meaning of each word. My Chinese name can be roughly translated as Fang: The Ornamental Ancient Bell that Rings Luxuriant. Something of this nature was described to me as a child, quickly forgotten and only remembered in conversation, its meaning lost as the sharp tongues of Chinese teachers stabbed the pronunciations into patronizing poetic pricks. In an effort to help reclaim my name, my mom and sister stared at these words and began to craft something beautiful and new. The word for a duo: 鐸, stands for an ancient bell and contains the character for gold metal (金). The word for wèi 蔚 contains a character for grass (艹) as well as a very masculine word 尉 the word for military officer. My mom and sister began to think, brainstorm, and tear apart these characters from their words for significance, searching to give me, my mother’s new daughter, my sister’s new sibling, a new name with meaning.
A few weeks later, my mom called me excitedly. After a long weekend with my second sister Sonia, they had melted down the ancient bell, and produced gold 金. My mother pruned the character of the military officer off the flowers of wei and gave the word feminine life. The two of them produced my new name: 方金莉. Fang, Jing, Li. Fang: the Gold Jasmine. It also worked well with my new middle name Kimberly. They giggled at the puns, my mom jotted down an explanation and texted me a photo of her sketch work. Somehow, she had taken my old name, and turned it into something beautiful and new. A transformation fitting of the woman I had become, a name filled with some of my old characters but imbued with new meanings. A name beautiful to speak, elegant to write, and easy to look at. My family felt like it embodied the real me.
I've always been lucky to have such a supportive family that cherishes me for who I was, who I am, and who I will be. We cannot escape our past selves as much as we would like to. The best thing Jonathan Kevin Fang ever did was give Joanna Kimberly Fang a fighting chance to live and thrive. But it was my mother, my father, my sisters, my friends, my coworkers, my mentors, my tutors, my entire network of those who support and love me who have given me strength to grow, to blossom, to finally seek my roots. Being transgender and the daughter of immigrants in this day and age is still fraught with difficulty both social and political. In September of 2016, I had the honor to walk on stage at the Microsoft Theater with my sound team and accept a Primetime Emmy. It was the closest thing I had to a prom, it was my first formal event as my authentic self, it was the moment when the world could begin to know me as Joanna Fang. 2 months later in the immediate wake of the election, I rushed to get my new legal documents affirming my revised gender and name before Inauguration Day 2017. The joy of having worked so hard and accepted by my peers felt so quickly dashed by my fellow Americans voting into power an administration of bigotry. In trains and on the streets, I rebuke ignorance, march away from bigotry, and ignore slurs demeaning me of my transgender or Taiwanese personhood. The climate for trans folks has gone cold as debates rage over the veracity of our humanity, whether myself or my community can serve, whether i'm allowed to safely use the bathroom of my gender. It boggles my mind that there are people who simply want to look me in the eye and tell me that i’m less of a human than them because of the color of my skin, my gender, and whom I choose to love. I ask myself, in this climate, would my parents have been able to come here for their graduate programs, would they have met and fallen in love, would they have had this mysterious third daughter of transgender origin. In these difficult times filled with difficult thoughts, my mother sends me the occasional simple gift. I stare at some gold stickers she had printed, name tags with my English name and my Chinese name side by side. A reminder of my culture, a reminder of my heritage, a reminder of my childhood and a reminder of my adulthood. Sitting underneath the stack of stickers is a simple ceramic plate, another simple gift. It reads, "Daughter always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter thank you think". For those who think otherwise, good luck.