It starts because I don’t have a middle name.
As a sixth grader transferring from public to private school, it’s only one of many things I want — a Vineyard Vines shep shirt, a pair of Sperry boat shoes, a ski home in Vail, an actual sense of self — but that missing middle name drives me to the edge. Because the middle name is a crucial component of the monogram.
And they’re all over my new school, these pretty little trios of first-last-middle initials. They’re embroidered onto backpacks, plastered onto Camelbak water bottles, peeling off laptop cases.
Worst of all are the necklaces. Florid, twirling script hangs from every pale neck; plated gold flashes under every popped collar. Just like the girls who wear them, they are shiny, golden, and classy. Each is technically unique in composition but perfectly identical from afar.
Part of my 11-year-old brain registers that this is ridiculous—how wasteful and expensive and strange!—but I look at those pretty girls with their pretty names like Charlotte Laura and Lucy Josephine and still I want, I want, I want.
I spend a lot of time window shopping.
We can’t afford much more than hand-me-down polos and khakis, so I drag my feet as I pass the Ralph Lauren and J. Crew window displays on my way to the food court. Later, I’ll sketch from memory the scarves and shoes that I’d buy if I could.
I window shop for a middle name too. I spend so much time on babynames.com that I feel like an expectant mother. Elizabeth, Isabella, Valerie—I try them on in my mouth, in doodled script, in the mirror with my best ‘ello guvnah accent.
None of them fit, probably because they’re so blatantly fake. No one could look at my face and believe my name is Rachel Elizabeth. Rachel Elizabeth is the name called across a field of poppies to the heroine of a romance novel. It’s the polished nametag of a blue-eyed debutante in a lace petticoat. It doesn’t belong to a suburban Chinese girl in borrowed polos and khakis.
The hunt ends over lunch.
My mother is speaking, as she often does, about the trials she endured to earn the gleaming, granite-countered kitchen we’re sitting in.
“When your father and I first came to Richmond from China,” she starts, blowing on her congee, “we had nothing but a suitcase and $50.”
This is a familiar story; I know my cues. I do not personally remember the crooked floorboards of Apartment 1118 (“yao yao yao ba”), the crowded townhouse where I learned to crawl. We moved to New Jersey before I turned two, but my mother describes Virginia so often that I can’t help but feel like I remember it.
“We didn’t even have a car, you know. We had to borrow from the neighbors to buy groceries in the winter. It was a tiny Corolla. Stained carpet, very old. They were kind to us.”
I slurp my soup loudly. Smile ruefully. She recalls every cruel taunt my sister endured from her classmates for wearing only secondhand clothing until high school. I shrink into the fluffy, new sweater I’m wearing. I eat more to avoid talking.
“Once, I worked all night at the takeout restaurant for only $20, but when I got home, I couldn’t find the bill. Aiyah, that night I cried so hard. I searched the streets all night. When I finally found it between the couch cushions, I cried from relief. Just for $20.”
She raps the dish in front of me with her chopsticks.
“It was too easy to take advantage of us then. We didn’t know English!” She laughs. “I didn’t even know what to name you. Before I heard of Rachel, I was going to call you Richmond if you were a boy, and Virginia if you were a girl.”
All at once, her voice recedes into the distance. The only voice I can hear in my head is my own, whispering: Rachel Virginia Chen.
Lilting, rounded, its syllables form a soft rhythm that rolls off the tongue. Taste the pecan pie on the porch. Watch the sweet tea melt in the sun. Doesn’t it sound undeniably Southern? Who would question its place in my monogram now?
It is mine, all mine, even if it isn’t on my birth certificate or passport. And, for my 15th birthday, my sister gifts me a necklace of my own: sterling silver, a heart and a key, my monogram on the back in quiet, unassuming print.
Years later, a squash tournament takes me back to Richmond, Va. (Yes, I play competitive squash now. I got a monogram and the rest was history.) Before we head home, my parents want to visit yao yao yao ba, the infamous Apartment 1118.
My father pulls up the curb. As I emerge from the dim, cool car into the blinding sunlight, I feel like a living anachronism, like someone has copied and pasted me into my family’s history. The neighborhood is small; the grass is patchy and brown; the paint is peeling off the front door. Nothing has changed since my family lived here except the tenants.
I will myself to imagine yao yao yao ba in all its ugly glory of 20 years past: a beat up, borrowed Corolla where my father has just parked his beloved Benz; a younger incarnation of my mother trudging up the stairs after hours of underpaid work; my sister skipping onto the schoolbus in a fraying sweater that swallows her tiny frame.
My parents look at it affectionately, reminiscently. My father smiles, and a sigh of pride, wonder, relief, and humor escapes. “Wow, Xiaoyan. We made it.”
Guilt washes over me. I am not part of this team, I realize. I joined the underdogs after they won the championship; I get the glory without the suffering.
The light in Annenberg is dim, but nonetheless, someone notices the monogram printed on my necklace.
“Oh my God, adorable! Did you go to a prep school too?” There is nothing strange about this. She’s complimenting my jewelry. She’s trying to make conversation in these brutally lonely Opening Days. She might even be dropping a casual flex. But I’m shocked for being recognized as a private school girl so quickly, so easily, when I had worked so hard for this years ago.
This is shaping up to be an uncomfortable conversation (“So is your school, like, a feeder school for Harvard? How many did you send this year?”), but I smile and laugh anyway. We are, after all, just sixth graders at a new school who want things — a classic H sweater, a pair of warm snow boots, a single in Apley Court, a chance to prove ourselves.
I feel my necklace burning into my chest, lighting up the hollow between my collarbones. This girl will not recognize me at the Mail Center next week, even though we share HUDS’ butter chicken tonight.
No, my monogram isn’t just my name, or even my successful assimilation into prep culture when I craved belonging the most. It is the paint chipping off the door frame of yao yao yao ba. It is the tears shed over $20 lost and the cruelty of classmates picking on ill-fitting sweaters. It is a plea to borrow a car in the snow; it is the kindness of neighbors who insist on covering the gas. It is two hard-working American Dreamers and everything it means to them for me, Rachel Virginia Chen, to be here, now, sitting in Annenberg.
—Magazine writer Rachel Chen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.