What’s in a name?
Everything! I want to shout. My name is a narrative of family, and change, and ancestry. I’m sitting at a dining hall table on my university’s campus with three of my other co-workers. Three of the four of us are student supervisors here, including me. Leslie, who overworks herself with this job and another internship, is scrolling through a database of students and can see everyone’s full names.
“What’s your middle name?”
Such a simple question, yet such a giveaway because it usually precedes explaining.
小迎 in traditional form, or in Romanized letters, Xiaoying.
It betrays the rest of my very white-sounding name. My first name is not overwhelmingly common but not “unusual” to Western ears, and my last name is a simple explanation of hyphenation because it is a combination of my white parents’ last names. However, even in this is complexity.
So instead, I tell them my middle name, or rather, I say it–and probably with cringe-worthy pronunciation since I cannot speak Mandarin. I’m not sure how, but I end up explaining that I’m adopted from China, from an orphanage, so technically everything about me is an estimation, including my birthday which falls on January first. The Western New Years. I feel okay with this, I work closely with them and trust them.
What I don’t talk about is the evolution of my name or my parents.
When I say I’m adopted, I don’t normally explain fully what that means. In simple terms, I have four mothers; to break it down, I was adopted as a baby by my two moms who later divorced and both remarried to separate partners.
By this time in my life, this story falls out of my mouth with ease if I decide to tell it, the ‘if’ being a quick calculation of safety and comfortability: where am I and who am I with? Is it other queer people? If yes, the story comes out more willingly. If not, I tend to not say anything.
It’s not that I’m ashamed of having gay parents, or even that I’m ashamed of being adopted. It’s more to do with the surprised expressions or eagerly asked questions about my family when I say I have four moms. The look that says, how in the world is that possible? It’s well meaning, really, but it still feels a bit odd. Is it really that hard to configure a family that’s not a “traditional” mother and father?
When I explain it to other queer people, it feels more like, wow, you have that kind of family structure! They already have a wider expanse of what a family can be. But even here there is a complexity I don’t always mention: race.
All my four mothers are white.
I say this as a fact and not an accusation. They are all white. And they tried their best. They kept my sister, who is also adopted, and me connected to who we call our cousins, or the people we were adopted out with together from the orphanage. Most of them were given Western names.
Our parents took us to Chinese culture classes and celebrated Chinese New Year with our cousins. We even, with my cousins, took a trip back to China when I was in middle school and even got to see our orphanage. I, however, was too young to really appreciate it or understand what my parents were trying to do.
At the same time, they never talked explicitly about race. I can recall a single time one of my moms sat my sister and me down and read a picture book about being Chinese and being bullied. But I grew up in the suburbs and went to schools where most of the other students and teachers were white. For the longest time, I did not realize the impact of this and as to why all the people around me were white. It has only been over slow time and college that I began to learn more about what race implicates and its impact and the continuing legacies of racism and anti-blackness. And I have been trying to teach myself and learn how to reconnect to my Chinese culture.
I was 19 or 20 when I learned how to spell my Chinese name in its actual characters.
The other part I don’t normally talk about is the evolution of my name. My parents gave me a first name, two middle names, and my last name, which practically is two names since it’s hyphenated. Around my second year of high school however, I started feeling my given name was a dead weight, hollow, shallow. Let me say this: I haven’t always felt like a boy, contrary to many of the popular narratives. I can say with certainty I was a girl. But things change, shift, and grow. My parents weren’t familiar with the transgender community, just the “L, G, and B” as one of my moms put it. I wasn’t very familiar with these feelings either. Cue a couple of years of depression, anxiety around my peers, and heavy doubts about myself. But cutting my hair and changing my name by dropping my now-dead name for favor of my English middle name was a step in the right direction.
This also just occurred around the time my younger sister split from one household to live full time at the other, but not before numerous fights, yelling, slamming doors, and someone storming off from the house in the late evening. I still switched houses every week, and my parents’ attention on me made me wish my sister hadn’t left. This household meant well, but it didn’t always comes across as such.
How do you know? they asked on several occasions.
“I just do,” I tried to explain. I could never answer it to their satisfaction.
They meant the best and they helped me in regards to many things. They also made things harder though. If part of my family had such difficulty with me being trans and making it feel as if it was a liability that should come with warning labels, then how was the rest of the world supposed to react?
As a child, I remember my mom telling me that nothing is more important than family, not even friends. But some part of me has always rejected that, even then. I’m not completely sure how “chosen family” fits into this declaration.
The concept of chosen family deeply resonated with me when I first heard it. I remember the first time watching Paris is Burning and it expanding my world to what family could mean, as well as what it meant to me as I was trying to figure out my own history, the stories of my trans ancestors that I had never been taught. I’ve held that closely to myself, especially since a large part of myself seems like a mystery with all the question marks my adoption means. Chosen family conveys to me an alternative to specific kinds of relationships the government normalizes and legalizes while leaving out others. Honoring chosen family then means honoring bonds that are just as intimate, and sometimes even more so, than the “traditional” ties of marriage. It means going beyond both legal and blood ties in relationships. I think chosen family is held highly by LGBTQ people because of a sense of isolation from the rest of the world.
It is a rejection of what is normal and substituting it instead for what feels like legitimate love and care and calling that family.
On the other hand, does adoption count as something chosen? What part? For whom? And what does it mean now that all my moms are now legally married to their partners?
To be clear, I am grateful and love my family and I love my sister. I can also say that moving away for college has allowed me to find another family, this one more explicitly by choice. Currently, I live in a one-bedroom apartment with two other trans housemates and a cat. I relate to them like family, but not in the sense of there being a mother or father, and we don’t exactly act as siblings either. It’s more of a blending of the line between friends and family.
We plan on living together as a unit after we all graduate college.
Family is not always simple. At the same time, it doesn’t necessarily need to be complicated either. It doesn’t need to be labeled and fit into a particular box. And to me, it isn’t limited to just the living or necessarily only the people I know.
I don’t tell many people what my Chinese name actually means. It feels somewhat sacred to me. 小迎, or Little Welcome, an expression and force of compassion and hope for a welcoming world and community for all peoples. I want to be part of that force.
Ultimately when I honor the dead and spirits, I send words, wishes, and offerings to my ancestors, chosen and unchosen, known and unknown, and hungry ghosts and spirits with no intention of harm, because not everyone has family in that sense to make these prayers to them. It’s for the all the black and brown women of color who have been murdered, all the trans people who have passed in peace and in pain. It’s for the all the people who died facing injustice. It’s for the people who’s lifetimes are bound up in my lifetime. It is a promise by me to continue to show up and fight for a future where black, brown, indigenous, queer, immigrant, disabled people can thrive. It is also a reminder to me of all the people I am connected to, in life and death. This does not exactly fit into what many consider ‘family’ or even ‘chosen family.’ But it doesn’t have to.
So I’ll come home from work, fix dinner, and leave an offering and light incense on our shared household alter that even the cat respects. I’ll give my housemates a kiss on the head and tell them I love them, something I don’t do often enough. And I’ll hold my names as a promise to love and fight for the people that came before me, the people, communities, and family around me, and for the people who will come after me. Maybe that is what family means.
An illustration of family portraits hanging above an altar that contains flowers, fruit, and incense. A Chinese child is stepping out of the frame in the middle of the wall, which also shows two white women. Another white family is off to the right. On the left, a Black femme extends out of a picture frame, holding a cat. A brown-skinned person wearing a flower dress is by their side.
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Xiaoying is a 21 year old transgender college student at UC Santa Cruz majoring in Community Studies and Legal Studies. In his free time, he likes to go for a run, hang out with his housemates and cat, and draw. Xiaoying is still discovering himself, growing, and always learning, and while on the shy side, his dedication and love for those around him is infinite.