‘How I Got That Name’ by Marilyn Chin begins with an epigraph that reads, “an essay on assimilation.” Although this piece is clearly a poem, by calling it an essay, she’s elevating it to a different level. Now, the reader can consume the text while also considering everything she says as a factual depiction of what life is like for immigrants attempting to assimilate into American culture. Chin uses interesting images and figurative language throughout the poem, especially at the end when the last stanza turns into a eulogy of her own death.
Explore How I Got That Name
Chin spends the poem addressing her life as a Chinese-American immigrant, brought to America when she was young. She notes how her father changed her name at the beginning of the poem, attempting to Americanize it. At the same time, she also discusses her father’s personality and the dishonest way that he made his money. Throughout, she tries to explain how difficult it was growing up in two different worlds and trying to get the approval of both. The poet also depicts how she believes her ancestors judge her while also trying to judge herself more fairly.
Chin engages with themes of identity, race, and family in ‘How I Got That Name.’ The first of these is the most obvious and the one that readers will likely find the easiest to relate to. The speaker spends most of the poem, talking about how she came to be the person she is and how multifaceted her upbringing was. Although she’s determined in her name and being, she is also very aware of the contrasting elements of her cultural identity. Her race is often on her mind as she tries to find her place in America without disrespecting or forgetting her Chinese heritage. One of the most interesting parts of this poem is towards the end when she considers what her ancestors would think of her. She believes that they would likely disapprove of the person she is.
Structure and Form
‘How I Got That Name’ by Marilyn Chin is a four-stanza poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza has thirty-five lines, the second: twenty-two, the third: sixteen, and the fourth has twenty-three. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, although they are mostly short, around six words in length, giving the poem a visual unity in the first stanza.
Chin makes use of several literary devices in ‘How I Got That Name.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, imagery, and alliteration. The latter is a type of repetition, one that’s concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “first” and “followed” in lines three and four of the first stanza, as well as “be” and “becoming” in lines five and six of the same stanza.
Enjambment is a formal device, one that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transitions between lines three, four, and five of the second stanza. This technique can be found in all the stanzas. In fact, more lines are enjambed than are end-stopped.
Imagery is a very important literary device. It occurs when the poet uses particularly evocative language that helps the reader imagine a scene in the highest or most poignant detail. For example, these lines from stanza two: “History has turned its stomach / on a black polluted beach— / where life doesn’t hinge / on that red, red wheelbarrow.”
Allusion is another interesting literary device at work in ‘How I Got That Name.’ Within the text, readers can find allusions to two popular poems, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ by William Carlos Williams and ‘Dream Song 14’ by John Berryman. Readers who are unfamiliar with these pieces are less likely to notice the change in the speaker’s language, but the unusual words and images should lead one to seek out the subject. Chin also alludes to her personal life in a way that readers will never fully understand. This is a very personal poem, one that was inspired by her own experiences and family members. What’s true, what’s false, and what’s even more emotional than it seems is personal to the poet.
I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin
Oh, how I love the resoluteness
lust drove men to greatness,
not goodness, not decency.
And there I was, a wayward pink baby,
named after some tragic white woman
swollen with gin and Nembutal.
In the first lines of ‘How I Got That Name,’ the poet starts by naming herself. She takes pride and feels strength when she names herself so solidly without hesitation. She is this person. She is not becoming this person. Before going too far, though, the speaker addresses the fact that “the name had been changed.” When her father arrived in American in the 1950s, her father changed Mei Ling to Marilyn because he was obsessed with Marilyn Monroe. He was a “paperson,” a Chinese person who entered America without proper documentation. Her father wanted to assimilate her into American culture by giving her an American name. No one thought to question this choice. They likely all understood the lust for acceptance and greatness.
The speaker hints at Marilyn’s tragic death in the nineteenth line of the stanza while at the same time alluding to the fact that her name did not accomplish what it was chosen to do. It did not make “assimilating” into American culture easier.
My mother couldn’t pronounce the “r.”
She dubbed me “Numba one female offshoot”
for brevity: henceforth, she will live and die
While my father dithers,
a tomcat in Hong Kong trash—
a gambler, a petty thug,
by which all earthly men are measured.
The next lines confirm that things aren’t as easy for this new American family as changing their daughter’s name. The mother couldn’t pronounce it and decided to call her daughter “Numba one female offshoot” instead. The name separated the speaker from her family in a way that her father likely didn’t intend. Her mother, the speaker suggests, won’t ever understand the way the children are stuck between their American life and their Chinese heritage. Even after suggesting this, the speaker mentions the “kitchen deity,” a reference to a Chinese god who is said to protect the home.
Her father bought Chinese restaurants with money he earned from selling fake Gucci products, a twisted, a quite realistic feeling family detail. She goes on to describe him as a “petty thug” who judged off his daughters and sons who are better than he is.
Oh, how trustworthy our daughters,
how thrifty our sons!
the deeper down we dig, we’ll find China.
History has turned its stomach
on a black polluted beach—
where life doesn’t hinge
on that red, red wheelbarrow,
but whether or not our new lover
We have no inner resources!
The second stanza is shorter than the first. In it, the speaker takes on Chinese stereotypes, particularly those that are associated with immigrants. They’re supposed to be good at school, memorization, and trying to conform to American life. By mentioning this, she’s suggesting that this isn’t actually the case. These kids are putting on a show for those who judge them. They’re pretending to be the “Model Minority” people want them to be.
In the following lines, the speaker suggests that no matter how far “west” or how western they become, they’ll always eventually find “eat” or return to their Chinese roots. The “beach” that separates America and China is described as “black” and “polluted” as if it’s negative in some way. She goes on to allude to a William Carlos Williams poem when she mentions the red wheelbarrow. In contrast to Williams, she says that the wheelbarrow, or simply wonderful things, doesn’t matter. Rather, in the American world, it’s the “final episode” of a tv show and what happens in it.
The final line of this stanza is an allusion to a John Berryman poem, ‘Dream Song 14.’ The famous lines from his poem read: “’Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no / Inner Resources.’” She’s showing a certain ambivalence to assimilation and how it changes people.
Then, one redolent spring morning
the Great Patriarch Chin
And I, his least favorite—
“not quite boiled, not quite cooked,”
a plump pomfret simmering in my juices—
too listless to fight for my people’s destiny.
“To kill without resistance is not slaughter”
says the proverb. So, I wait for imminent death.
The fact that this death is also metaphorical
is testament to my lethargy.
The third stanza is the shortest at only sixteen lines. The speaker imagines a forefather of the Chin family peering down at his descendants in these lines. He’s dissatisfied with what he sees. She is his least favorite, she assumes. She’s not boiled or cooked. She’s stuck somewhere in the middle as usual. She quotes a proverb in the next lines when she says, “To kill without resistance is not slaughter.” She knows that she’s a disappointment to those who have come before her. The speaker is doing nothing to help her people, nor is she American enough to feel a part of that world.
So here lies Marilyn Mei Ling Chin,
married once, twice to so-and-so, a Lee and a Wong,
granddaughter of Jack “the patriarch”
and the brooding Suilin Fong,
daughter of the virtuous Yuet Kuen Wong
just another squatter in her own bamboo grove
minding her poetry—
The final stanza is written line a eulogy, as though the speaker has died. She lists out details about herself, her marriages, and her relationships with her family. She’s survived by everyone and forgotten “by all.” She wasn’t “black or white,” she wasn’t “cherished” or “vanquished.” She was “another squatter in her own bamboo grove” where she spent the time concerned with her poetry. This is a completely depressing image, but she knows it’s not the one that her ancestors would’ve wanted for her or that they could be proud of.
when one day heaven was unmerciful,
and a chasm opened where she stood.
Like the jowls of a mighty white whale,
or the jaws of a metaphysical Godzilla,
and all that was taken away!
The poem concludes on a dark note as she’s swallowed by a metaphorical white whale “or the jaws of a metaphysical Godzilla.” A chasm opened up and consumed her. She didn’t flinch when this happened, as though she knew it was coming. In fact, she “stayed” and acted as “Solid as wood.” This figurative death ends with the speaker returning to the conflicting life she’s lived. She lost a great deal of her heritage when she moved to America, but at the same time, there was “all that was lavished upon her.” She also got all the opportunities that American presents.
Readers who enjoyed ‘How I Got That Name’ should also consider reading ‘Immigration’ by Ali Alizadeh and ‘We Refugees’ by Benjamin Zephaniah. The latter discusses the ease with which men, women, and children can be forced to leave their homes. He also speaks about discrimination and the brutal nature of racism. In ‘Immigration,’ Alizadeh taps into his personal history with immigration, describing how his family left Iran in order to escape the war and seek out more peaceful lives. Readers might also like to read the two poems that Chin alludes to in ‘How I Got That Name,’ ‘Dream Song 14’ by John Berryman and ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ by William Carlos Williams.