The Name’s Zhu, Ting Zhu

“The name’s Bond, James Bond.” I blow the smoke from my imaginary gun and aim a mysterious, penetrating glare at the TV screen. Sean Connery does the same to his arch nemesis, the titular Goldfinger, but he somehow manages the look considerably cooler. I’m having a James Bond marathon again- playing on TV is the second of nine films. My collection of James Bond DVDs litters the living room floor. These disks are among my most prized possessions, and not just because they are my favorite movies. I’ve always had a secret, passionate longing to be a spy. I want to travel the world living multiple lives, go on dangerous covert missions, fight enemies with my slick spy moves, and use high-tech gadgets. Most of all, I want James Bond’s sense of self-assurance, his confidence, and his absolute comfort in his own skin. James Bond is the exact opposite of who I am, and exactly who I want to be. He knows who he is and he is confident in himself and his abilities. Once he sets out on a mission, he never fails to succeed. There is no question in his mind of who he is or how he should act. James Bond is always cool, always smooth, and always confident.

I wish I had that same self-assuredness, but I am not even sure of who I am as a person. I have not yet found my identity. I am split in two. I come from two countries: China, where I was born, and the United States, where I have grown up since I was six years-old. I belong to two cultures. I have two fathers. I am a part of two families. My first father, I am related to by blood. He held me in a hospital room on my first day in this world. He raised me until I was six years-old in a small city in China. He is my Chinese father, and the part of my life I associate with him represents one half of who I am. I still keep in contact with him; we talk occasionally on the phone and I visit him in China every year or so. But I can sense the growing, gaping cracks in our relationship every time I speak to him, and I know he can too. After living in the United States for over ten years, I cannot speak fluent Chinese anymore. Our conversations are awkward and stilted. They are full of language misunderstandings and- worse- thick, unbearable silences that settle uncomfortably when we have nothing to say. My biological father is the half of me that seems to be slowly fading from myself. He is my Chinese heritage. I try to desperately hold on to what is left of the Chinese part of me by relearning Mandarin, visiting my relatives, and taking part Chinese traditions. But, there has always been an irreconcilable disconnect between the Chinese me , and my other, American half.

My second, American father I have had since I was six. At that young age, I moved to the United States to live with my mother and my stepfather. My stepfather and I grew close quickly, and he is still one of my best friends. I call him “Dad” because I feel as if he is my real father. In my household, it has never been my mom and me, and my stepfather, but always my mom, my dad, and me- a single family unit. My second father represents this other half of me, where I am Ting from New York City. I eat pizza and bagels, bristle at suburban tourists, skim the New York Times for election news, and celebrate the Fourth of July with a barbecue. I know that I am American, but a large part of me is also trying to embrace my Chinese roots. I want to nurture the Chinese part of me, but at the same time, I also want to keep the American side of my life stable and secure. However, I never feel as if I am completely a part of either culture. Instead, I am stuck in some weird, confused space in between. All I want to is to feel comfortable in my own skin.

James Bond, with all his cool certainty, is my antithesis. Despite all his professional

masquerading, he embodies an undeniable sense of identity and purpose. Whenever he give his signature introduction, I cannot help but be struck by the unwavering self-confidence, the assuredness in his speech. The ability to express personality and temerity in the mere utterance of a name struck a wounded, insecure spot with me. My conflict with who I am expresses itself in my name. Objectively, there is probably nothing particularly awful about the name Ting Zhu, but for me, these three syllables perfectly display the identity crisis I am experiencing.

My name has always felt awkward on my tongue. Ting Zhu. It fits in nowhere. When I am New York, it is an uncommon name and immediately signals: She’s Different! And not cool, exotic-different like Fabrizio, but weird and foreign. On every first day of school, every teacher always pauses when taking attendance, then slowly reads aloud my name, phrasing it like a question. Most of the time, they mispronounce it, and I politely correct them, feigning nonchalance. All the while, I am hoping dearly that no one laughs at the strange two-word sound. When I introduce myself to the group of fourth graders I am mentoring in Harlem, they snicker. “Ting? What kind of name is that? Sounds like a bell or something. Ting-ting-ting-ting!” One boy comments, and the group of ten year-olds giggle. I attempt a good-natured laugh as my colleague chides them on their disrespectful behavior, but on the inside, I die a little. Whenever a cashier asks for my name to place an order, I have grown accustomed to always saying Jane because I know that if I say Ting, he will look at me with a puzzled expression and ask me to repeat my name. I will comply, but he will glance back at me with the same confused stare, then sigh a little, finally requesting if I could “just spell it out, please.” My name feels clumsy because it does not fit in with everyone else’s, and automatically I am “that Asian girl.” The label makes me self-conscious; it separates me from everyone else and in my mind, I am isolated. I do not fit in.

In China, my name is not an uncommon one, but the way I completely butcher the Chinese pronunciation makes me immediately different, immediately an outcast. In Xi Yan, my hometown, I attend a large family dinner. Mandarin swirls around the room at dizzying speeds, and I can’t keep up with any of the multiple conversations- mainly because I cannot understand half of what anyone is saying. A distant relative asks my name. She is an elderly Chinese woman who I can guess right away does not speak a word of English. “Zhu Ting,” I mutter reluctantly in Mandarin. I can hear the inevitable American accent in my voice. I am so embarrassed- I cannot say even my own name correctly in my birth language. Cringing, I silently hope she does not judge me. The woman leans toward me, then inquires in Mandarin, “Are you not from here? You have an accent. You must be laowai.” I groan inwardly. Laowai is slang for “foreigner.” It is a fairly neutral expression, but mostly used to describe Westerners, or people who look clearly non-Chinese. “Actually, I’m Chinese, but I grew up in America. I forgot my Mandarin, but I am relearning it right now,” I squeak out in my half-formed, probably grammatically incorrect Mandarin, offering the same stale explanation I have given to at least forty other Chinese relatives. “Oh! You are the American girl,” she exclaims excitedly, “I know about you! My brother told me.” In the time span of this dinner alone, I have been called the “American girl” too many times to count. It has been engrained shamefully into my consciousness that these relatives who are a part of a culture which I am trying so desperately to find my way back into do not even see me as a part of their culture at all; I do not belong in China. My time away has been too long- I am a foreigner.

I am on the third Bond film now: Thunderball. Sean Connery walks into a grand chateau, prepared to fight and defeat the villain with the same, consistent levelheadedness. My biological father is supposed to call the house phone later for our weekly “casual conversation” (which always manages to end up strained an awkward), but right now I immerse myself in the action. I am James Bond, and when I meet my nemesis face-to-face, I look him in the eye and state my name with confidence. I know who I am; I am not awkward or unsure of my place in the world. Then the last scene ends, and I am left with my real self- the one that does not really fit anywhere. But, as always, the movie has left an effect on me. I hold up my imaginary smoking gun again, and declare with underlying bravado, “The name’s Zhu. Ting Zhu.”

Jing Jing Ma
Age 16, Grade 11
Hunter College High School
Gold Key

One Comment

  1. cmsaunders

    What a great piece of writing by someone so young. Well done, Ting Zhu! I understand your unease, but maybe you can try thinking of your dual identity as a positive. You are fortunate to have a deep knowledge of both east and west. the vast majority of people only know one or the other, and spend a lot of time and energy trying to understand the other!

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