My daughter is only 5 years old and recently completed her first year of formal schooling, her year in kindergarten. Throughout the year, I could tell she was having more and more difficulty at school. In the mornings, she didn’t want me to leave when I dropped her off, and she just didn’t seem as excited about going as in the beginning of the year. We already knew she wasn’t going to attend the same school for first grade as she did for kindergarten, and when we told her, she seemed relieved.
The reason for all this 5 year old angst? She didn’t like the fact the other kids in her kindergarten class made fun of her Chinese last name. She also recently confided to me that was her single biggest worry about going to a new school. She was worried about finding friends who wouldn’t make fun of her last name.
Long before my daughter was born, I knew that her last name was going to be a source of ridicule for her, since I lived through it in my own childhood. But I didn’t think we’d have to start worrying about it at such a young age. Last names that are commonly made fun of aren’t limited to the Chinese of course (although Betty Brown obviously had a problem with them), and even Rep. Anthony Weiner (yes the one from the tweeting scandal) prompted another Weiner (Eric Weiner) to write a New York Times piece on the ridicule of his own last name.
As we know from the recent campaign against bullying, name calling does hurt and does cause damage to the kids targeted. As Eric Weiner said in his New York Times piece:
With all due respect to Shakespeare, a rose by any other name just isn’t the same. We look in the mirror and see not a generic person but a very specific one. We see Ted, and Sarah, and José, and yes, sometimes we see a Weiner. Names don’t merely describe. They invest meaning. The river of semantics flows in both directions. Call someone a nincompoop often enough and long enough and they start to believe it. There is no such thing as “mere semantics.” Names matter.
The problem is how do you get a group of five-year-olds to understand that it’s not okay to call each other names? It’s not as if she’s the only one with a unique last name, but still somehow all the kids seem to target her last name. How do you make your own five year old proud of the heritage behind her own last name, one that’s infused with meaning and culture and history? Right now she might hate her last name, but I hope some day she realizes what it means and how it ties her to generations of Chinese ancestors. Until then, all I can do is to be there at the end of the day, and hold her when she’s crying or upset about the name calling from what should be her friends.
[Photo Courtesy of mugley]