amar baina uu, temujin james?
i don't ever call you by your first name and i harbor the suspicion that you'll ditch it the moment you are legally able- though i would hope you'd just formally adopt james and not reinvent yourself into some bullshit hippie living in a commune calling yourself krishna om rainstorm and misappropriating locs.
i know, without a doubt, you will sit through every roll call of every semester of your education years bathed in a cold sweat of anxiety as your teachers finish with the grahams and move on to the h-names. they will pause somewhere after hicks or hoffman and there is a visible hesitation while they grapple with two distinctly foreign choices and every cell in your body wants to disappear under an invisibility cloak, your knuckles drawing white from the tension of just waiting for the inevitable sheepish chuckle of sorry, i just know i'm gonna mispronounce this one but...
and will it be hoshut? will they opt for the shorter last name with the unknown vowel sounds? your grandfather chose that one, in a nod to his lineage from the oirat mongols. your great-great-great grandmother was the last princess of the khoshut khanate. all my adolescent life i wished my dad had chosen an easier, less conspicuous surname when he immigrated to america. why couldn't he have picked jones, or williams? or if he insisted on being conspicuously asian, why not even chen or lee? man, it'd be so cool to be a smith. i could fit in with a last name like smith.
in sixth grade, a girl named ebony was egged on by her friends during recess to saunter up to me while i stood alone, probably reading a book about shark attacks. they wanted me to tell you that your last name should be ho-shit, because you're a ho and you're made outta shit, she informed me while mean-spirited giggles cued behind her like a laugh track.
i didn't even know what a ho was, but my face burned hot and in that moment i hated my name, hated my ethnicity, hated my foreignness with an anger that i thought would never really leave me. and this idea that i will change my name somehow echoed into the idea that i will change myself. and one day the boys i liked wouldn't pull up the corners of their eyes at me, one day strangers wouldn't call me a chink, and i would live in a good neighborhood that friends would be allowed to visit and i could host sleepovers and my parents would make hot chocolate with peppermint swizzle sticks instead of suutei tsai and i would wear brand-new abercrombie and fitch t-shirts instead of an oversized hakuna matata sweatshirt my mom fished out of the church donation bin. i would be paler, prettier; more normal, more white.
but james, you will never have to know that feeling- except during the roll call. maybe your teacher will bypass the surname and gamble on your first, because they remember coming across that one in the world history books. it's an easier one for sure, except where an american tongue betrays the sound of the j. maybe they will pat themselves on the back for recognizing the birth name of one of the most prolific, accomplished leaders who has ever lived. and maybe they'll wonder why your parents named you after a tyrant. but most likely, they will move on to howard without a second thought.
i go by james, you will explain. over and over and over again. you'll be mad at me in your youth, i know, because i birthed your white body with my mongolian one. because i tell you i love you in three languages and i want to hear them all in return. because we live in texas and i speak with no trace of an accent but i will never stop reminding you how far east your roots truly run. because your peers will make jokes about asian guys and you will shun that half of you with a resentment that runs deep through a toxic channel of racism that questions asian masculinity and sexual attractiveness. and you will hate me for naming you.
but know that i don't regret, even for a minute, blessing you with a name that is synonymous with greatness. and yes, i know it's corny in the way that it might have been for a wave of baby boys named barack in 2009, but i gave you the strongest name i could in the hopes that whoever you become, whatever your motivations- you are able to embody strength in character above all else.
and know that after two solid decades of self-loathing, of resenting the yoke of difficult, anglicized syllables, of yearning for a normal american name, i sat across the desk from a ucsic agent during the final steps of acquiring my u.s. citizenship. she asked me if i would be changing my name. i told her no.
and when i held your father's hands in that courtroom and promised to love him for as long as we both shall live, i finally had the golden opportunity to at long last become a smith. i told him no.
james, you will have your father's features and the comfortable upper middle class life of your white peers, so your name is all i could give you. we are mongols, temujin hoshut. no matter where we live or what language we speak or how much trap music we listen to. our blood is the blood of khans; our bodies borne by the bodies of the tengger desert. if you take nothing else from me, just remember that always.
happy tsagaan sar, my little love.