How your name can be a powerful reminder of where you’re from, and where you’re headed.
You hear it every day, you say it every day. It’s how you introduce yourself, it’s how the world knows you. It’s what people yell when they need you.
It’s your name.
Whether you’ve read Malcom Gladwell’s Blink, or you’ve modified your “given” name with a “chosen” name for simplicity (or even benefit), you probably know that names are powerful vessels of identity.
In the wake of the social and political discourse unfolding across the country, many of us are interrogating how race, culture, and identity permeate our lives. I recently took a moment to reflect on my identity, starting with my name — Clarice Chan.
I was born in the 90s, incidentally when Silence of the Lambs was a blockbuster horror movie. From as early as age 5, I had an awareness for this pop culture reference. I began recognizing a pattern in the reactions I received when people heard my name. It was (mostly) adults visibly holding themselves back from cracking a bad joke to a small child.
From baristas to bartenders, I am routinely victim to some of the best (and worst) renditions of “Hello, Clarice.” A joke usually followed with the comment “I bet you get that a lot.” In response, I almost always reply with the same friendly acknowledgement — “you’re the first one… today” [while smiling politely].
I’ve had this exact same conversation with hundreds of people throughout my life. It never gets old, apparently. What my parents didn’t anticipate was that every homepage would also inadvertently make that joke…
There’s really no escaping this movie reference for me. It may seem twisted or cruel for my parents to name me after a lead character in a horror movie, but there was a rationale. As I entered the inquisitive age of childhood, I asked my Dad how he came to pick my name. He explained…
“So there’s this movie. And in this movie Clarice Starling, played by the incredible Jodie Foster, is an FBI agent. What I love most about her character is… just that — she had character. She is tough, intelligent, and most of all, she’s brave. In this movie, Clarice has the courage to fight the meanest bad guys. And I want you to grow up to one day be just like her — a strong, confident woman, ready to take on the world with the same tenacity.”
Be careful what you wish for. I finally watched the movie when my age caught up. And this memory has stuck with me all my life, like some kind of ninja-mind trick. Well played, family. Well played.
My last name “Chan” also holds its own subtle narrative. You may have met Chinese friends or colleagues with the last name “Chan” or “Chen” in passing. They actually share the same surname. However, the English spelling reveals the dialect, and subsequently the geographic origin. “Chan” 陳 is of Cantonese-speaking origin, and “Chen” 陈 is of Mandarin-speaking origin. Cantonese is predominantly spoken in Hong Kong and Guangdong. So when you meet someone with the surname “Chan” — it is usually a cue that their family is from Hong Kong. Like Jackie Chan, of Hong Kong.
Through this phonetic nuance, my surname reveals a deeper layer of identity and subculture defined by a region. It’s analogous to the difference between being “from America” versus being “from LA” — the more localized datapoint holds a wealth of cultural subtext at a more characteristic level. Imagine if your last name gave away the exact city you’re from — mine does just that.
A Hollywood movie reference with a Hong Kong heritage… my name introduces my narrative as a Hong Kong-American. In two words, a tale of cross-generational immigration, culture, and attitude. And whether or not people can decode this context in real-time, I wear this identity upfront every day.
My personal story is one of East meets West — Dreaming big, while embracing traditional values. My work ethic resembles that of a tireless Hong Kong street hawker, while my personality hits more like a cocktail of American hustle and moxie. A string of words that, if you’ve ever met me, couldn’t seem more fitting.
Never underestimate the simplest and most fundamental stories we tell ourselves — they guide us internally.
We have never lived in more self-reflective times. Times where we are forced to confront our identities across all dimensions. It’s important for us to bring these identities to the forefront, so we can begin to unpack and understand the individual and collective impact they have on society.
So to get here, I asked myself “Who am I? Where am I from? What is my calling? And what kind of impact do I want to have in the world?”
This line of interrogation allowed me to move the subconscious into the conscious. As it turns out, my name was a clue, and my life a riddle. One of searching for purpose, finding new definitions of belonging, and exploring what it means to live with character.
And through something as innocuous as “Hello, Clarice” jokes, I’m reminded (literally) every day that this name was chosen with an intention. An intention I’ve decided to try and live up to.
While no one knows what the future holds, and 2020 continues to outdo itself… I’ve decided that regardless of “what” I do, I’m renewed on “how” — and that’s to live with courage, and to face the world with tenacity.
But enough about me — Where are you from, and what’s your story?