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#SayMyName: Chinese students of Columbia University produce viral video to fight racism

A joint event by Culture Shock and the Asian American Alliance on November 19, 2016. Image via Facebook/Columbia University Asian American Alliance.

A video titled “Say My Name”, in which overseas Chinese students at Columbia University explain the meanings behind their names, has gone viral.

In a bid to condemn the actions of certain individuals who ripped the Chinese name tags from their dorm rooms (but left the English name tags in place), the university’s Asian American Alliance produced this video to educate others on the meaning and importance of their Chinese birth names.

The video has since garnered more than 300,000 views and reposted thousands of times.

The vandalism incident on the East Asian students happened during the Chinese New Year holidays and sparked anger in the Chinese student community upon their return from the holidays.

In an opinion piece for The Columbia Spectator, sociology and film studies student Yan Huhe wrote that the incident “poked at a very special cultural soft spot in the Chinese community and incited outrage.”

University administrators have launched an investigation to determine whether the incident was racially-biased. Melinda Aquino, associate dean of multicultural affairs with Undergraduate Student Life, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, requested for anyone who has any information or who has been affected in any way to contact her or to lodge any bias incidents via the EOAA website.

In a statement, the student organisation Asian American Alliance said the instances of vandalism “remind us of our larger, shared struggle for racial justice and against antagonism directed at minority groups”. Seven other student groups, including the Korean Students Association, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and the Global China Connection, also signed the statement.

Cultural inheritance

The video starts with the East Asian students saying their names, followed by an explanation of the characters that make up their name as well as its significance in their life.

In one example, a student named Xu GuoHao said that her name means “heroine” and that her parents took it from the story of Mulan. She aims to break the “glass ceiling for girls” and “fight just like how we expect guys to fight”.

Whereas Yan Huhe, a second year student majoring in sociology and film studies, said in the video that his name means to “preach harmony”, and is taken from the first characters of the city where he comes from.

“It reminds me of where my root is,” said Yan.

Another student, Hai Ge urged others to understand the special meanings of their names, which means a lot to them.

“To introduce how beautiful our Chinese names are might be one of the best ways to let people respect our names.”

The vandalism happened over the Lunar New Year holidays, a time when students and migrant workers return to their hometowns. Image via AP Photo/Richard Drew.

Often, Chinese individuals in English-speaking societies adopt a Western name to make conversations with locals easier, as their Chinese names can be hard to pronounce due to its intricate nuances.

As commented by Yan in the university’s newspaper, students adopt these Western names do not do so to give up their heritage willingly, but wish to “protect the deep and intrinsic significance of the characters from being ‘butchered’ by incorrect pronunciations, and to make life easier for ‘everyone'”.

But this act to accommodate has only silenced the Asian international community more. Until this vandalising incident, some students said they did not realise how much their original names mattered to them until their name tags were torn down.

In his scathing commentary, Yan said it is the same attitude to keep their mouths shut, head down and work hard which has made them the “model minority” in America, resulting in the Asian community being “stereotyped, stigmatised, fetishised, marginalised, and outright discriminated against”.

With the validity of the trans identity being questioned last year in his residence hall and President Trump’s recent executive order on banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, the Columbian student also warns that “the exact same xenophobic logic behind the Chinese Exclusion Act had re-emerged in a 21st century spin-off”.

But the response by these students as reported by The Shanghai Daily do not resemble the historical meekness as stated by Yan. Some students who were affected have taken to Facebook to say that they plan to replace their stolen name tags and challenged the perpetrators to talk to them face-to-face.

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