Common app essay-write about anything you want.
I decided to write about my cultural identities and my names. But I'd love advice and some help on cutting down my word count.
"What's your name?" The admissions officer smiled as she looked up from her papers. For most people, the answer comes as easy as breathing. But as I struggled to choose between "Noelle" and "Nok Hei," this question seemed to pick apart my identity.
Since the British colonisation of Hong Kong, it's become a cultural norm to gift children with two names at birth: a Chinese and English name. Chan Nok Hei was my former. My mother told stories of hardships during labour and the rich golden hues of a sunrise illuminating the hospital after I was born. "No matter how dark times are, there's always the promise of a rising sun every day,'' she would say. Thus, the characters of my name "諾晞" translates into "a promising dawn." I was given the endearing nickname of 'Hei Hei' by my family and close friends. This name signifies a precious time of childhood and home--blowing chui pou gaos (popular plastic bubbles for children), lighting lanterns during the Dragon Boat Festival, and of towering skyscrapers decorating a glittering city skyline. However, such sentiments in my name, captured by the rhythmic Cantonese phonetics, feel lacking in English.
Summer of 2007, I attended kindergarten in California. My name stuck out like a sore thumb when the teacher introduced me to the class. "Say hello to your new classmate, Nok." "It's Nok Hei..." I tried to correct her. With my limited vocabulary, I didn't know how to tell her my name consists of more than one character. I didn't understand the jokes my classmates made made at me, but I knew enough to know that they were laughing at my name. Feeling left out of the class full of 'normal American' names, insecurity about my name emerged for the first time.
My second name came a little later. My parents eventually named me Noelle from 'Noël,' the French word for Christmas--my birthday. When I consider life's many blessings, my family's ties to America rank at the top. My aunt's house in Hayward is like my second home. My frequent visits meant inevitably forming deep ties with the community; from hanging out with kids in my cousin's neighbourhood to attending youth group in the local church. There, I only made use of my English name, the lingering hesitance of using my real name clung to me like an ugly stain, in fear that these American friends would mock me as well. I decided that Nok Hei was reserved for Hong Kong--for childhood, family, and a different self.
It was in Hayward that I was graced with a French priest from my church who I knew as Father Jean. He introduced me to the legends of French Santa Claus, Papa Noël, and of the star that marked the birth of jesus on christmas day. As I devoured these tales and scriptures, an appreciation for the meaning of my English name bloomed. I returned to Hong Kong and attended a British school where English was the primary language of instruction. There, everybody went by their English names. Even if Noelle wasn't my legal name, that was what everyone knew me as. For nine years, Noelle was the only name I associated with outside of my family. The neatly framed art awards proudly displayed on living room shelves belong to "Noelle Chan". To me, my mark on the world in everything but legalities was as "Noelle."
When I enrolled in high school in California, things were different. I found myself having to match emails and IDs with the name printed on my passport. I actively tried to correct people and started introducing myself as Noelle- the name I identified with, and the name I know people can pronounce. The deeper my journey to adulthood went, the more I came face to face with my other identity. Bank accounts, green card, and college applications, however, all demanded the resurgence of my legal name. As Nok Hei gradually returned to my life, I felt an aura of home and a buried childhood wash back over me.
So what's my name, you ask? I can proudly say I have two. I am both Chan Nok Hei and Noelle Chan, stretched between two vastly different cultures and places. I'm finding a place between my two identities--between teachers who struggle during roll call, lantern festivals, loving parents, and everything in between. I am learning to appreciate the names that tell stories of a guiding star in the night sky and a blooming sun that rises at dawn.