How I Got That Name

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How I Got That Name




Published in 1994 in The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, Marilyn Chin's poem “How I Got That Name” is a self-described consideration of the issue of assimilation. Much of Chin's poetry explores this theme, and her personal struggle between two cultures is apparent. Not wanting to let go of her heritage, she honors it while taking aim at Chinese stereotypes that serve only to minimize the humanity of individual Chinese Americans. The poem explains how she got the name “Marilyn,” but in the process, she covers themes of family, Americanization, and prevailing social attitudes. This poem appears in Chin's second volume of poetry, and it reflects the poet's comfort with her own voice. The book does not have a dedication, although Chin includes a brief prelude to her mother at the beginning of the book. Her mother is mentioned with honor in “How I Got That Name,” and her disinterest in blind patriarchal honor for its own sake is abundantly clear.

“How I Got That Name” is a long, four-stanza poem in free verse. Its complexity is subtle, as the poem flows in a natural, conversational way. Yet, Chin changes tone and thematic focus with each stanza, all the while incorporating literary devices such as irony, alliteration, and assonance with a natural flow. This makes the poem very accessible to a wide range of readers, and this explains its continued popularity.


Award-winning poet Marilyn (Mei Ling) Chin was born on January 14, 1955, in Hong Kong. Her father, Gwock Gon, was a restaurant owner, and her mother's name was Yuet Kuen. As an infant, Chin was exposed to music, both informally and formally. In 1962, Chin and the women in her family joined the men in her family in Portland, Oregon. Chin's parents had a son and another daughter (in addition to Chin and her younger sister) in Portland. Her father worked as a chef in Chinese restaurants, but despite his efforts to invest in some partnerships, he struggled financially. He finally left his family, leaving them to depend on his parents. He remained estranged, although he never officially divorced his wife. Chin once described her painful confusion over his choosing a white woman over his own family. Her feelings of anger, rejection, and betrayal have colored her perspective on the traditional patriarchy of Chinese culture. Much of Chin's poetry praises womanhood and female strength and influence. As for her own relationships, she met, fell in love, and lived with a French Algerian man named Charles Moore, whom she met in 1992 in a coffee shop in California. In 2000, they enjoyed time together in Bali before returning to Taiwan, where Chin had been awarded a Senior Fulbright Fellowship. Tragically, Moore's plane exploded on takeoff, and he was killed.

Chin attended the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where she earned a B.A. in ancient Chinese literature in 1977. She then went on to the prestigious M.F.A. program at the University of Iowa, where she completed her degree in 1981. Following that, she taught comparative literature courses there and had previously worked as a translator for the university's International Writing Program. Chin currently resides in La Mesa, California, and is on staff with the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University. She is a professor of English and the director of the M.F.A. program. Additionally, she has served as a visiting professor and lecturer all over the world, including at National Donghwa University in Taiwan and at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.

Chin writes poetry reflecting her unique experience and sensibility as a Chinese-American woman. Before seeing her poetry published, Chin worked as a translator and editor for other writers. Her first book of poems, Dwarf Bamboo, was published in 1987. This was followed by The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty (which includes “How I Got That Name”) in 1994, and Rhapsody in Plain Yellow in 2002. This last volume includes moving tributes to mother-daughter relationships, and includes a dedication to her own mother, who died in 1994. Chin's grandmother died in 1996, driving the poet to consider deeply the ties that bind generations of women together. Chin's poems are known for their direct style and their representation of a woman torn between two cultures. She also writes to express her political views and to destroy stereotypes. Reading her work as a whole, the reader begins to understand how different the American experience is for immigrant families and for those trying to find their social and ethnic place in the fabric of the United States. It is both complex and emotional. Identity issues figure prominently as Chin seeks to find the proper balance between the individual identity and the collective one. An undercurrent of Chin's work is the impulse for artistic expression and its role in Chinese and American cultures.

Chin has successfully tried her hand at short stories and drama, and saw her first play published in 2002. As a literary scholar, Chin has a strong reputation for her expertise and insight in the field of Asian American literature.


Stanza 1

The overall theme of the first stanza is family and surface assimilation. The speaker discusses the names her parents called her, while taking care not to equate what she was called with who she really is. The stanza opens with the speaker (in this case the poet) introducing herself. She makes a straightforward, declarative statement and takes pride in the ownership of her name as well as her identity apart from her name. She says she loves the “be” that lacks the uncertainty of “becoming.” She then explains to the reader how her father changed her name from Mei Ling to Marilyn because he was fascinated by Marilyn Monroe. The two names sounded similar, so he thought it was a good idea. This was a decision he made while literally crossing to America on a boat with his family. The reader gets a strong sense of the father's willingness to uproot his family in every sense of the word, from lifestyle and culture to names, for the sake of better opportunities and a brighter future. He shares the same dream as countless immigrants to America, but here Chin only hints at it. Regarding the decision to name her after Marilyn Monroe, Chin says “nobody dared question / his initial impulse” despite the irony of a little Chinese baby being named after a blonde Hollywood bombshell. Chin disparages blind patriarchy, noting that men are driven by lust and turn their backs on decency.

Chin tells that her mother could not pronounce the “r” in her name, so she named her “Numba one female offshoot.” This is because Chin was the firstborn, and it shows how the name her mother calls her is more personal and fitting than the one her father chose. Chin then casts her mother in a loving light, although she acknowledges her mother's naïve ignorance, and she describes her father as something of a lowlife. Again she says: “Nobody dared question his integrity.” In this case, nobody dares challenge Chin's father because of his wonderful, hard-working children. Chin finds it ridiculous that a man would be measured by his children's goodness rather than his own. Chin's distaste for patriarchal bias is clear in this stanza.

Stanza 2

The second stanza is cynical and sarcastic, with an overall theme of stereotypes. She reiterates how trustworthy the daughters are and how hard-working the sons are, ideas that continue from the first stanza. By linking this stanza with the first one, Chin is following part of her family's history, showing how they came to America with certain ideas of what it meant to be American, and then learned about ugliness such as stereotypes, prejudices, and the struggle of being from two cultures. As she opens the stanza, she seems to equate “daughters” and “sons” with Chinese women and men. She says how they have collectively fooled the experts into thinking that they are good at learning from books, but not at being creative. Given that this idea is presented in a poem by a highly talented and creative Chinese woman, the irony is sharp. In a line dripping with angry sarcasm, she writes: “Indeed, they can use us.”

Chin next describes the turmoil of being caught between two cultures, longing for the East while working to make life work in the West. In very subtle terms, she explains the pain that often accompanies assimilation. While it is important to become part of the Western culture in which she lives, she longs to reconnect with her Eastern self. This stanza is not presented as a personal struggle, however, but as a collective one. She ends with the desperate statement: “We have no inner resources!”

Stanza 3

Moving from the intensity of the last stanza, the third stanza carries an air of resignation. Here, the overall theme is of indifference. Chin describes her family's Great Patriarch looking down on his family from heaven and seeing them as ugly. Their heads, noses, and profiles are all wrong. But Chin's patriarch probably sees them as ugly because of the ways they have assimilated. Perhaps if they were truer to their Chinese heritage and did not reconcile parts of it with life in America, he would be more approving. The patriarch describes Chin herself in the in-between terms of “not quite boiled, not quite cooked.” She is neither one nor the other—the uncertainty of assimilation. She feels “listless” and unable to fight for her people's future, so she quietly awaits “imminent death.” In the last lines, she admits the death is metaphorical and is thus a “testament to my lethargy.”

Stanza 4

In the fourth and final stanza, Chin writes about herself as if she had died at the end of the previous stanza. The theme is Chin's life itself, and she offers a summary in a matter-of-fact tone. It is written as a lengthy gravestone text, complete with “here lies” in the beginning. In this stanza, she seeks to sum up her life. She has been a family member to some who were good and others who were not; “she was neither black nor white, / neither cherished nor vanquished,” indicating she never really found her place in the world; she was a poet; and she was almost swallowed whole by forces much greater than she (“a mighty white whale” and “the jaws of a metaphysical Godzilla”), but she found herself strong and capable of overcoming the attempt at swallowing. This reference to her own death links this stanza with the one before it, providing a sense of continuity that is fitting in a poem about the poet's life. She is “a little gnawed, tattered, mesmerized,” but she stays. In the last lines of the poem, Chin says she was mindful of all she was given and all that was taken away. In a vague way, she seems finally to have reconciled her identity and family crises of the rest of the poem.


The Challenges of Assimilation

The subtitle of “How I Got That Name” is “an essay on assimilation.” This alerts the reader right away to be sensitive to what Chin has to say on the topic of assimilating as a Chinese American. Throughout the poem, she shares her experience in direct and indirect ways. Explaining her name, she is very direct. Her father gave his daughter an Americanized name, and chose to name her after Marilyn Monroe. This shows that not only was her father beginning to characterize his family as Americans, but that his interests were in American pop culture. As her father began his process of assimilation, he led his family to do the same. Still, Chinese culture and traditions remained strong in the family, and with the example of Marilyn's name, she adds that “nobody dared question” her father, which is in keeping with traditional respect for the patriarchy in the Chinese family.

Chin describes assimilation in more subtle ways that give insight into the internal struggle of the process. In the second stanza, she writes: “The further west we go, we'll hit east; / the deeper down we dig, we'll find China.” This is a poignant description of her intense need to hold onto her Chinese roots while living as an American. She is intentional and serious about finding the proper balance of the two cultures, and it is difficult. This dual identity not only affects her from within, but also from without. In the third stanza, she writes that the family patriarch in heaven is displeased with his descendants, and sees Chin as especially unfavorable. To him, she is “not quite boiled, not quite cooked.” Then in the final stanza, Chin relates an imagined eulogy of sorts, and she describes herself in the third person as “neither black nor white, / neither cherished nor vanquished.” These examples demonstrate how Chin feels that the outside world sees her as an assimilated woman who is forever stuck between two cultures. And although the poem begins with confidence in identity, the rest of the poem shows how precarious that confidence can be.

The Complications of Family Relationships

Because Chin comes from a Chinese background, family figures prominently in her experience and identity. Her father changes her name from her given Chinese name to a carelessly chosen American one. On the surface, it is a sensible choice because it sounds like her Chinese name (Marilyn sounds a bit like Mei Ling), and it is a mainstream American name, but the poet cannot let go of the source of the name, Marilyn Monroe. Whatever her personal feelings are, she and the others must accept it because it was decided by her father. Chin also explains that for all her father's shady dealings (gambling, bootlegging, being a thug), he is seen as respectable because of his trustworthy daughters and hard-working sons. The children are his validation because of the importance of family in their culture, even though it conceals the truth about her father. The other illustration of patriarchal importance in Chin's experience is her description of “the Great Patriarch Chin” who judges his descendants “from his kiosk in heaven” and declares them ugly. The family divinity is a heavenly patriarch whose words, however hurtful, are not questioned.

In contrast to her descriptions of her father are her loving descriptions of her mother. Chin tells the reader that her mother could not pronounce the “r” in her name (a thoughtless oversight of her father), and so she called her daughter “Numba one female offshoot.” Unlike Marilyn, this new name says something about Chin as an individual. Chin says that her mother will “live and die. … flanked by loving children.” In the last stanza, she calls her mother “virtuous” and her father “infamous.” Her love and preference for her mother is hard to miss, but her ties to her father are hard to sever.


Free Verse

“How I Got That Name” is written in free verse. This means that it is not structured within even stanzas with consistent rhyme or meter. Instead, Chin adopts a very conversational approach to her poem, and the reader must follow the natural rhythms of the text and surrender to the line placement and stanza breaks chosen by Chin. Her lines range from only five syllables to over twice as many, depending on how she needs to break the lines for each particular observation or expression. The length of the stanzas also varies, allowing her to say what she needs to say in each without the constraints of structural concerns. The overall effect is very natural and comfortable for the reader, although it is deceptively simple on the part of the poet. It also lends itself well to the poem's subtitle as “an essay” because the flow of the language is more akin to prose.


  • Choose two other poems from The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty that relate somehow to “How I Got That Name.” Write a profile about Chin based only on these three poems. Include only what you learn about her in the text, but be sure to include your own analysis and conclusions about what the poet is revealing about herself in her work.
  • Select another author or poet who grapples with the issue of assimilation and choose a work that exemplifies the writer's voice. How is this writer's experience and perspective different from or similar to Chin's? Deliver a twenty-minute lecture to your class about how Chin and your other chosen writer are representative of the immigrant experience in America, and take care to note how their experiences are also unique. Conclude with a few comments about individual and collective identities.
  • Read the story of Frances Slocum, a Quaker girl who was abducted and raised in a Miami Indian tribe. What was her process of dealing with forced assimilation like, and how did she finally come to terms with her individual and collective identities? Pretend you are a social worker making a determination about whether or not she could return to her birth family. Write up a report explaining her story and your perceptions of the cultural and psychological issues surrounding her case.
  • Read about the history of immigration in the United States and take notes on the points you think are most significant. Then keep a notepad with you for a day or two so you can make notes of anything you see that can be attributed to having diverse cultures in America. Using your notes about history and your notes about your observations, write a children's book about cultural diversity. Illustrate your text with drawings, photographs, or paintings.

Figurative Language

Chin's education and expertise in literature is apparent in her use of figurative language in

“How I Got That Name.” Various literary devices are sprinkled throughout the poem, but they are all introduced in natural ways so that their use does not make the poem seem at all formal or contrived. For example: “bombshell blonde,” “devout daughters,” “plump pomfret,” and “white whale” are all examples of alliteration, but they blend into the flow of the poem. Chin's use of irony, antithesis, and oxymoron are all used particularly well. Because they are all devices that rely on contrast to make a statement, they provide strong support to the theme of assimilation and dual identity. For example, Chin describes her infant self as “a wayward pink baby, / named after some tragic white woman,” which presents a strong visual antithesis. Chin's sense of humor shows itself in the guise of oxymoron when she writes that her mother called her “‘Numba one female offshoot’ / for brevity,” although her Chinese name was much shorter—Mei Ling. Chin cleverly uses irony in a self-referential way where she writes about negative stereotypes: “We're not very creative but not adverse to rote-learning.” This is ironic because she is a poet parroting the stereotypical view that she is not creative.

Other literary devices include allusion (“red, red wheelbarrow” recalls the poem by William Carlos Williams, and “white whale” recalls Herman Melville's Moby Dick), metaphor (“plump pomfret simmering in my own juices”), and simile (“Solid as wood”). In each case, however, Chin is careful not to let the literary device itself overshadow the idea it is meant to portray. The result is that the poem sounds like an exercise in self-disclosure and not a forum for showing off technique.


Chin's “How I Got That Name” is interesting because each stanza addresses a different aspect of her experience and her struggle with assimilation, but each one also carries its own tone. Tone is an implied attitude, so Chin's changing tone throughout the poem underscores her changing attitudes about assimilation, identity, and external forces. The first stanza is about her name being changed to a Westernized version and her father's questionable ways. The tone of this stanza is very confident, and the speaker is not only proud of who she is today but she is sure of herself in her assessments of her parents. The second stanza is about stereotypes of Chinese Americans, and the tone is harsh and cynical. Here Chin uses sarcasm and ends with a cry to her people. The third stanza is about “the Great Patriarch Chin” and his disappointment in his descendants. The tone of this stanza is resigned, as Chin seems content to wait quietly for her metaphorical death. The fourth stanza is a summary of Chin's life, presented as if she has died, although the reader finds out at the end that she withstood the metaphorical attempt on her life. Although she came out a little battered, she survived. The tone is objective and matter-of-fact. Chin speaks of herself in the third person, giving the stanza an emotionless but kind tone.


Foreign-Born Americans in the 1990s

According to the United States Census Bureau, there were an average of 32.5 million foreign-born Americans in 2002. This was a significant increase since the 1990 estimate of 19.8 million. This means that in the 1990s, when “How I Got That Name” was written, the number of first-generation immigrants in the United States was on the rise. In 1994, 8.7 percent of the American population was foreign-born, with fully one-third of those living in California. The vast majority of the foreign-born population was from Mexico (6.2 million), and 556,000 of the foreign-born population was from China. In 1994, 3,953 babies were born to Chinese-American families, ensuring the growth of the next generation in this population.

Chinese-American Writers

American literature features the voices of diverse experiences and backgrounds, perhaps to a greater extent than any other nation. Chinese-American writers have long included their voices in this tradition, and in the late twentieth century, a number of prominent writers brought their culture and experience to the table. David Henry Hwang is a successful playwright, whose best known work to date is the Tony-award winning M Butterfly. Amy Tan is the author of numerous books about her experiences as a Chinese-American woman striving to honor her family and her heritage, while folding America into her identity at the same time. Among her most famous titles are The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God's Wife, The Bonesetter's Daughter, and The Hundred Secret Senses. Laurence Yep writes children's books about various aspects of being Chinese American. He writes individual stories and series, and has had a prolific output.

Confessional Poetry

“How I Got That Name” is an example of confessional poetry, a type of modern poetry that reveals personal, often painful, insights by the speaker. Although the poetry is personal in nature, it is written with a public readership in mind, and sometimes even addresses the reader directly. In Chin's poem, for example, Chin is her own speaker talking autobiographically about her personal history and experiences. As is typical of the style, Chin's poem is unapologetic and unashamed. Confessional poetry rarely speaks through a fictitious voice, as that puts an artifice between the poet and his or her reader. It rose to popularity in the 1950s and 1960s and made a way for poets to explore themes and topics generally avoided in poetry because the personal nature of the expression calls for complete honesty. Among the best known confessional poets are Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell.

Angel Island

In “How I Got That Name,” Chin relates that her American name was given to her while she was coming to America on a boat with her family. She specifically mentions Angel Island, which is in California and is home to Immigration Station. The station was a complex of buildings that included an administration building, a hospital, employee quarters, and barracks where immigrants stayed while awaiting entrance into the United States. It opened in 1910 and was planned as a sort of Ellis Island on the West Coast.

The first Chinese immigrants arrived in California in 1848 and the numbers grew rapidly with the gold rush and its attendant mining towns. When legislation prevented them from securing high-potential jobs, they were relegated to taking menial jobs or labor-intensive jobs. They worked on railroads, ran laundries, and worked in fisheries. Unemployment problems led to legislation that outright banned Asians, and Chinese in particular, from entering the United States. This was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Angel Island's Immigration Station was seen by many as a way to systematically block Chinese immigrants from entering the country. The Act was not repealed until 1943, but with many restrictions still in place. It was another twenty years before the Chinese were given equal standing among immigrant groups.

Angel Island Immigration Station was closed after World War II and was scheduled to be razed in the 1970s. When it was discovered that detainees had written poems and other statements in calligraphy on the walls of the barracks, funding was secured to restore and preserve it. Today, the station serves as a museum.


  • 1990s: Many Asian immigrants came to Angel Island before entering the United States, yet Cubans have no formal way to enter the country, even though they are given refugee status when they arrive. Thus, many Cubans desperate to leave Cuba board small rafts in the hopes of making it to the shores of the United States. Meanwhile, U.S. President Bill Clinton decides to order the Coast Guard to intercept Cuban rafters and take them back to the American naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba-the antithesis of Angel Island.

    Today: Immigration policy is hotly debated as the number of illegal aliens, especially from Mexico, balloons. When President George W. Bush promotes legislation that would give amnesty to illegal aliens already working and residing in the United States, arguments erupt between and within political parties.

  • 1990s: American readers have a particular interest in fiction by Chinese-American authors. Many of them, such as Amy Tan, write about living in two cultures and incorporating both into their identities. Other popular Chinese-American authors include Ha Jin, Diana Chang, and C. Y. Lee.

    Today: American readers have taken an interest in the fiction of Indian and Indian-American writers and the unique perspective and storytelling they offer. Salman Rushdie continues to be popular among literary readers, and his work is included in coursework in universities all across the United States. Other authors include Jhumpa Lahiri, who writes about the difficult and sometimes humorous experiences of being both Indian and American; and Rohinton Mistry, who is regarded as having a gift for characterization. V. S. Naipaul, Anita Desai, Arundhati Roy, and Kamala Markandaya are other well-received Indian authors.

  • 1990s: Foreign-born Americans or Americans whose families are from abroad frequently change their names to something similar to their given names but that are more easily pronounced by Americans. In this way, they hold onto the letters or sounds of the names that honor their heritage while adopting more Americanized names. This helps them blend in to their new culture.

    Today: While the trend to Americanize ethnic names continues, more immigrants and their children are retaining their given names. In part, this is because American society is more aware and respectful of ethnic and cultural divides.


Critics are generous in their praise of Chin's work in general, and of The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty (in which “How I Got That Name”

appears) specifically. Matthew Rothschild, writing in Progressive, states that Chin “has a voice all her own—witty, epigraphic, idiomatic, elegiac, earthy.” He adds that in The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, “she covers the canvas of cultural assimilation with an intensely personal brush.” Mary Slowik, writing in MELUS, echoes this assessment when she describes Chin's immigration poems as having “a boldness, even a brashness.” Also a fan of Chin's poetic voice, Slowik remarks: “Marilyn Chin's language is terse, accusatory, bristling with irony.” A reviewer for Publishers Weekly simply describes Chin's writing as “toughened lyricism” with a “stalwart declaration [that] gives the poetry a grounded force.”

Assimilation is an overarching theme of Chin's work, and it is explored fully in The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, especially in “How I Got That Name.” Critics embrace Chin's willingness to be honest about her struggle and her experience. Whitney Scott, writing in Booklist, observes that in her poetry, Chin “reflects her dual-cultural perception in some memorably wry observations.” The Publishers Weekly reviewer applauds Chin for achieving “balance that is literary and also cultural.” Doris Lynch, writing in Library Journal, notes that of all the poems in The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, “the strongest poems … present an immigrant's view, combining old stories and sensibilities with an American idiom.” In LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory, scholar John Gery feels that Chin is not merely balancing two cultures, but a whole range of competing elements. He declares that her poetry is resilient despite being “ensnared in a complex nexus of gender, race, ancient traditions, and literary conventions.” Gery points to “How I Got That Name” as one of Chin's best poems. He notes her willingness to indulge in “self-mockery and satire” and to present a “bitterly satiric depiction of Chinese American stereotypes.”

In an interview with Bill Moyers, a transcript of which is included in The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, Chin speaks openly about assimilation. She says: “I am afraid of losing my Chinese, losing my language, which would be like losing a part of myself, losing part of my soul. Poetry seems a way to recapture that, but of course the truth is we can't recapture the past.” She also adds: “There's a doubleness to nearly all my work, to how I feel about things, and perhaps especially about assimilation.” When asked about the lines in “How I Got That Name” that describe her as “neither black nor white, / neither cherished nor vanquished,” she explains: “I feel rather invisible at times—neither cherished nor vanquished. If I were black I would be vanquished; if I were white I would be cherished. So, I believe that much of my life has been lived in a kind of mysterious opaqueness.”


Jennifer A. Bussey

Bussey is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she demonstrates the intensely personal nature of Marilyn Chin's “How I Got That Name.”

Published in her 1994 poetry collection, The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, Marilyn Chin's “How I Got That Name” ostensibly sets out to explain to her readers how she, a woman born in China, ended up with a name like Marilyn. Her name at birth was Mei Ling, but her name was changed to something more American-sounding. Her father, fascinated by Marilyn Monroe, decides that “Marilyn” is a good name for his Chinese daughter, so before she moves to America, she is given a new name and she has already moved toward her new dual identity as Chinese and American. This seemingly simple autobiographical anecdote is more than it seems at first, and so is the entire poem. A series of images and comments, the poem seems at first glance to be upholding its subtitle's promise to be “an essay on assimilation,” but a closer look reveals that the speaker is revealing herself both directly and indirectly in the poem. It is intensely personal and revealing, and allows the reader a surprising level of emotional intimacy with the poet.


  • Dwarf Bamboo (1987) is Chin's debut volume of poetry. Already, readers will see her characteristic voice emerging in her handling of themes and language.
  • Chin's 2002 poetry collection, Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, also expresses the poet's concerns about identity and heritage. Her poems touch on traditional themes, but discuss them in modern contexts and with modern subjects with which readers can readily identify.
  • Lawrence A. Fuchs's 1990 book, The American Kaleidoscope: Race, Ethnicity, and the Civic Culture, addresses the topic of immigration and cultural diversity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He includes discussion of major immigrant groups and their assimilation into American culture.
  • Written in 1980 by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940 is a collection of poems taken from the detainee barracks on Angel Island, where Chinese immigrants were held before entering the United States. Accompanying the poems are historical passages and quotations.

“How I Got That Name” has several layers. The first layer is the most accessible and direct. Her first line is a simple introduction. She then reveals that she embraces the “am” as a “be” instead of a “becoming.” As she explains why she has the name Marilyn, she relates how her father gave it to her as they were preparing to begin new lives in America. He was already interested in American popular culture, and was introducing it into his family. But Chin begins to let the reader in on her personal feelings about her father. She notes that “nobody dared question” his decision about her name, and the line has a ring of bitterness to it. She writes that he was fixated on Marilyn Monroe because, like all men, he was subject to lust. Unfortunately, she adds, lust drives men away from decency. For those who have read Chin's biography, it is easy to read between the lines into another layer of the poem. Chin's father, after years of attempting to achieve financial success and working in restaurants, ultimately abandoned his family. Chin has strongly implied in interviews that he left his Chinese family for a white woman. Whatever the reason for his departure and permanent estrangement, he left his older daughter, Marilyn, angry, resentful, and disrespectful of patriarchies for their own sake. All of this history and emotion can be read into the lines in the first stanza of “How I Got That Name.” Later in the stanza, she describes him as “a tomcat in Hong Kong trash— / a gambler, a petty thug, / who bought a chain of chopsuey joints / in Piss River, Oregon, / with bootlegged Gucci cash.” Her ill will toward her father is unmistakable, and her willingness to disparage him publicly proves her rejection of the system of patriarchal respect that is part of Chinese tradition. Her mother, on the other hand, is described as simple, but genuinely loving and loved.

In the second stanza, Chin takes on Chinese stereotypes. She is forthright about her feelings and about the people she represents. In no time, Chin has replaced oversimplified, unfair stereotypes with the image of herself as a strong, outspoken individual who fights back against being dismissed as a stereotype. She begins: “Oh, how trustworthy our daughters, / how thrifty our sons!” Her sarcasm has the same effect as when the curtain is pulled back in Emerald City in Frank L. Baum's The Wizard of Oz. The lie is revealed. Chin says through her sarcasm that while many Chinese women are trustworthy and many Chinese men are thrifty, these are personal characteristics to be judged individually, not applied blindly across an entire people. She joins forces with her fellow Chinese Americans when she writes: “How we've managed to fool the experts,” as if the stereotypes have been nothing but a big conspiracy. Throughout the stanza, she writes “we,” meaning a collection of individuals, not a faceless group with one personality, identity, and group of skills.

Within the stanza about stereotypes is a subtle but deep insight into Chin's personal struggle. She writes: “The further west we go, we'll hit east; / the deeper down we dig, we'll find China.” She expresses her fear of losing China in her assimilation into the west, and she hopes that if she keeps going and does not stand still, she will find China again. She will reconnect with the East that is as much a part of her identity as the West has become. For readers who are not torn between two cultures, this internal struggle is impossible to understand, but Chin allows the reader to see how it has dominated her thoughts.

The last stanza, written as a sort of eulogy to Chin's old self, contains more specific autobiographical information. Again she incorporates her parents into her identity, this time by name. She mentions Yuet Kuen Wong, which was her mother's real name, and she mentions her father only with his initials, G. G. Chin. Her father's real name was Gwock Gon. Her parental biases are again made clear as she preserves her mother's full name in her poetry, but only hints at her father's. Yet her parents are an inextricable part of her past, and she does not cut her father out of her autobiographical poem completely.

Chin does something very subtle, yet very revealing, as she moves from stanza to stanza. Each stanza addresses a different theme and subject matter, but Chin also adopts a different tone in each stanza that indicates a great deal about her feelings regarding the various forces at play in her identity. In the first stanza, she exudes confidence sometimes to the point of condescension (to her father, not to the reader); in the second, the reader meets with a harsh, cynical tone; in the third stanza, the strength and assertiveness of the first two stanzas is replaced by vulnerability and resignation; and in the fourth stanza, Chin arrives at a matter-of-fact look at her life. She sees her life thus far with clarity, and she ends on an optimistic note befitting a woman who has been metaphorically killed, yet survived as a new, wiser person.

Source: Jennifer A. Bussey, Critical Essay on “How I Got That Name,” in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.

Terese Svoboda

In the following excerpt, Svoboda reviews The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, which includes “How I Got That Name.” According to Svoboda, the collection represents a search for freedom, one in which “the oppressed and the oppressor live together.”

… “Isn't bondage, therefore, a kind of freedom?” (“Composed Near the Bay Bridge”) asks China of Amerigo, her mohawked, dog-collared boyfriend in Marilyn Chin's second book, The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty. That a woman of Chinese descent should make this observation resounds with irony—and truth—of the only kind of freedom she might traditionally expect. But, judging from the role of dominatress Chin takes on elsewhere in the book, the kind of freedom she looks for is more complex. Consider a freedom held in a duality, one in which both the oppressed and the oppressor exist together, at least symbolically. Think of Tienanmen Square, threaded as a place both psychic and physical throughout the book, where once revolutionaries came to rally, now the symbol of tragic violation of that freedom. Chin writes:

The snake bites her own tail,
meaning harmony at the year's end.
Or does it mean
she is eating herself
into extinction?
(“The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty”)

All people in the world dub themselves “the people,” the xenophobic response to who's in and who's out. The Chinese built a wall to make the point. “The barbarians are coming: they are your fathers, brothers, teachers, lovers; and they are clearly an other” (“The Barbarians Are Coming”). They breach that wall and she is soon “only one woman, holding one broken brick in the wall.” Chin acknowledges the inevitability of conquest. “The Ming will be over to make way for the Ch'ing / The Ch'ing will be over to make way for eternity” (“Barbarian Suite”). But knowing that there will always be conquerors does not make assimilation any less painful. “If my left hand is dying, will my right hand cut it off?” she continues. This division is most palpable in “Tienanmen, the Aftermath,” in which a doppelgänger in China dislocates the speaker in America:

I saw her in dream … a young girl in a
bespeckled, forever lingering, thriving
on the other side of the world, walking in my

In “How I Got that Name,” Chin's “essay on assimilation,” she is “mesmerized by all that was given her / all that was taken away!” In “A Break in the Rain,” Chin instructs the recent immigrant on how to make the best of it:

Better dance
with the one named Rochester
who likes your kind.
Let us dub him
“the point of entry.”

Rochester, Jack Benny's straight man? Or Rochester, the seventeenth-century author of obscene verses? There is always an undertone of double entendre possible in these academically correct flush-left poems. Puns stud the final, brilliant poem of the book, “A Portrait of the Self as Nation, 1990-1991” as a way to conflate the personal with the political:

 my recent vagabond love
driving a reckless chariot, lost
in my feral country. Country, Oh I am
so punny, so very very punny.

Chin admits there was “no Colonialist coercion; / sadly, we blended together well,” and in embracing the lover/country, she remembers him/it with fondness: “We were fierce, yet tender, fierce and tender.”

The critic Daryl Chin asserts that what is popular now is “victim subjectivity,” a stage of liberalism that is happy to showcase artists—lesbian or gay, women, or those of color—just as long as they're victims. “If this doesn't please you, too bad,” Marilyn Chin says to her lover in “Summer Love.” This is the artists' only sane strategy.

Source: Terese Svoboda, “Try Bondage,” in Kenyon Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, Spring 1995, pp. 154-60.

Matthew Rothschild

In the following excerpt, Rothschild reviews The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, which includes “How I Got That Name.” Rothschild finds that the poems in this collection are compelling in both their depiction of assimilation and in their portrayal of the sometimes conflicting emotional connections to American and Chinese cultural identities.

Marilyn Chin has a voice all her own—witty, epigraphic, idiomatic, elegiac, earthy. In The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, she covers the canvas of cultural assimilation with an intensely personal brush. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Oregon, she pours herself into her poetry.

“How I Got That Name: An Essay on Assimilation” begins with the declaration, “I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin,” and recounts how her father “obsessed with a bombshell blonde / transliterated ‘Mei Ling’ to ‘Marilyn,’” honoring her with the name of “some tragic white woman / swollen with gin and Nembutal.” She goes on to warn that the stereotypes of Asian Americans are wrong: “We've managed to fool the experts,” she writes, “ … they can use us. / But the ‘Model Minority’ is a tease.”

Worse than that, it can be fatal. Her “Elegy for Chloe Nguyen” tells of her precocious childhood friend, “Bipedal in five months, trilingual in a year; / at eleven she had her first lover.” At thirty-three, she was dead. The last line reads: “Chloe, we are finally Americans now. Chloe, we are here!”.

Similarly affecting are the ten little poems that make up “Homage to Diana Toy,” a patient Chin tutored in a psychiatric hospital. When Toy, denied citizenship in the United States and sexually taken advantage of by an administrator, commits suicide, Chin blames herself, an “unworthy tutor,” who “failed to tell her about the fifty paltry stars.”

Chin concerns herself not only with the United States, but also, poignantly, with China. She dedicates a section of her book to the Chinese Democratic Movement. In “Beijing Spring,” she embraces the protesters. “Lover, on Tienanmen Square, near the Avenue of Eternal Peace / I believe in the passions of youth, / I believe in eternal spring.” She offers to “breathe life into your life” so rebellion can “begin again.”

The immense charm that Chin brings to this book comes out in some of her “Love Poesies,” as in, “Where Is the Moralizer, Your Mother?”.

Here and in other poems, Chin parks the reader at the busy intersection of love, sex, family, and politics. This convergence makes for an astonishing conclusion in “A Portrait of the Nation, 1990-1991.” This six-page poem includes sexual puns, remembrances of past lovers, praise for masturbation, remarks the judge made to her when she became a naturalized citizen, reminders of those denied citizenship, plus reflections on being in bed with a lover when the Persian Gulf war began: “Last night, in our large, rotund bed, / we witnessed the fall. Ours / was an ‘aerial war.’ Bombs / glittering in the twilight sky / against the Star Spangled Banner.”

I've read this book three times now, and each time I go through it, I find it more compelling. For me, the most moving poem is “Tienanmen, the Aftermath,” where Chin again juxtaposes being in bed while atrocities are committed: “These was blood and guts all over the road, / I said I'm sorry, darling, and rolled over.” The poem closes with this haunting admonition: “leave the innocent ones alone, / those alive, yet stillborn, undead, yet waiting / in a fitful sleep undeserved of an awakening.”

Source: Matthew Rothschild, “A Feast of Poetry,” in Progressive, Vol. 58, May 1994, pp. 48-50.


Chin, Marilyn, “How I Got That Name,” in The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, Milkweed, 1994, pp. 16-18.

Gery, John, “Mocking My Own Ripeness: Authenticity, Heritage, and Self-Erasure in the Poetry of Marilyn Chin,” in LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory, Vol. 12, No. 1, April 2001, pp. 25-45.

Harmon, William, and Hugh Holman, eds., “Realistic Period in American Literature, 1865-1900,” in A Handbook to Literature, Prentice Hall, 2003, pp. 422-23.

Lynch, Doris, Review of The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty, in Library Journal, Vol. 119, No. 3, February 15, 1994, p. 164.

Moyers, Bill, “Marilyn Chin,” in The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, Doubleday, 1995, pp. 67-79.

Review of The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 9, February 28, 1994, p. 79.

Rothschild, Matthew, “A Feast of Poetry,” in Progressive, Vol. 58, May 1994, pp. 48-50.

Scott, Whitney, Review of The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty, in Booklist, Vol. 90, No. 14, March 15, 1994, p. 1322.

Slowik, Mary, “Beyond Lot's Wife: The Immigration Poems of Marilyn Chin, Garrett Hongo, Li-Young Lee, and David Mura,” in MELUS, Vol. 25, No. 3-4, Fall-Winter 2000, pp. 221-42.


Cheung, King-Kok, ed., An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Frequently referenced by scholars of Asian-American literature, this volume contains essays on topics pertinent to studying literature in this area. In addition to considering literature by ethnicity, the editor includes essays that compare works across ethnicity to uncover similarities in theme and style.

Ingersoll, Earl, Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee, BOA Editions, 2006.

In this book, the prominent Chinese-American poet Lee answers questions about his background and experiences between cultures and between classes, and he discusses the differences in Western and Eastern thinking on a variety of issues.

McCormick, Adrienne, “Being Without: Marilyn Chin's “I” Poems as Feminist Acts of Theorizing,” in Critical Mass: A Journal of Asian American Cultural Criticism, Vol. 6, Spring 2000, pp. 37-58.

By looking at Chin's career as a whole and then examining a number of specific poems (including “How I Got That Name”), McCormick demonstrates how Chin expresses a feminist ideology in her poetry.

Weinberger, Eliot, ed., The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, New Directions Publishing, 2004.

This acclaimed anthology of classical Chinese poems has been carefully translated and edited for students of world literature. The book provides a helpful contrast to modern Chinese poetry, and helps readers understand the heritage of poetry in Chinese culture.

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