My full name is Adrian Su-Chen Pei, and I thought I’d introduce myself by telling you the story behind each part of my name.
My last name “Pei” is about as Chinese as you can get, contrary to what you might think if you’ve ever visited a “Pei Wei” restaurant. The name itself is pretty uncommon, which in the recent past has made me extra curious about its origins. My aunt recently traced it back to a village in China, where apparently all Peis originate. They even have a saying on a big banner, translated as, “all the Peis have only one ancestry.” So if you share my last name, we might actually be related! However, I am not related to the famous architect I.M. Pei.
Even having “Pei” as a last name in America reminds me that I’m a little bit different. Just last week, a nurse asked me, “And may I ask how exactly do you pronounce your last name?” I get that question often, and I can understand why. There are two very embarrassing (or funny if you see it that way) ways to mispronounce the name. Hint: one rhymes with “tie”, and the other rhymes with “tee.” Every time I make a restaurant reservation, I think about spelling my name as “P-E-Y,” just so they don’t mess it up. But not as “Pay,” which would be funny for other reasons. ; )
My first name (Adrian) is a surprising choice for such a Chinese last name. I think it has European roots, and only in the recent past has become more popular as a boy’s name (yes, I still get people who yell, “Yo Adrian!” btw, did you know that Rocky also thanks God in his speech?!). Considering my parents’ background, though, the choice makes more sense. My mother grew up in Vietnam, attended a French school, and learned seven languages throughout her life. She was one of the most active members on the multicultural boards of my schools. My father grew up in Japan, and was a bridge-builder in his work between the U.S. and Japan. Despite the fact that he had to teach himself English, he and my mother both adapted to their lives in the States, and brought with them a love and respect for culture.
And that was what shaped me, though I didn’t know it at the time. Because of my father’s work, I lived on three continents (born in upstate New York, then moved to England for one year, then Japan for three years) before I was five years old. My parents chose to spend all their pleasure money on family travel, so I got to visit Australia, France, Italy, Greece, and even Micronesia while growing up! We made good friends with our Iranian, Korean, and Indian neighbors. And on any given night, my mother would cook anything from shepherd’s pie to sukiyaki to tacos.
But despite all this richness to draw and learn from, I don’t think I knew what to do with it. In high school, we didn’t talk about our cultural backgrounds and uniqueness. All we cared about was fitting in, according to what was popular. And was being Asian American “cool”? To be honest, that was the furthest thing from my mind, and from what I saw in society. Most of the time, I found myself wanting to convince my Caucasian friends that I was just like them: that I listened to the same music, played and watched the same sports, and talked and acted like they did. Though I couldn’t put words to it, I was living the reality of a minority in America, whose very status forces him or her to wrestle with an extra layer of identity issues. I’m not like everyone I see around me, so is that okay? Why do I have to work so hard to be known and accepted? Why do people call me names, look at me strangely, or treat me in special ways?
What do we do with these questions and feelings? To some degree, it’s a normal part of growing up. But part of me looks back on my childhood with a measure of sadness, wishing I had been able to make greater sense of the anger and depression I sometimes experienced. I wish I had seen all the learning and growth I was missing, in the unique stories of each person around me. I wish those things had been honored, and platformed.
So now I’m an adult in my thirties, and one of my biggest lessons is that I don’t have to wish, or wait, any longer. In the landscape of this country and these times, we do have an opportunity to bring awareness to, and fight for the things we care about. Even more, it’s a responsibility, and an honor!
I believe we’re doing that in my work, as I serve on the Leadership Development team of the Asian American ministry of Cru, specifically heading up the field of Creative Arts and Resources. At Epic Movement, we are moving towards raising up young leaders who are culturally-aware, emotionally mature, and missionally-minded. College students are some of the leaders of the next generation, and we are seeing future artists and business-people who don’t feel they have to deny their cultural heritage, but are embracing the unique strength that it brings to their life and mission. That’s exciting.
At some point as well, I threw off some of my natural introverted and self-conscious tendencies, and started to simply write. Writing is a powerful vehicle of expression, when you live on the margins of society. I began blogging about topics that ate at me, and that I felt needed to be explored. I collaborated with other ethnic ministries to write an article about how minorities relate to the majority culture.
And of course, there’s this Next Gener.Asian Church blog. I love that this is a collaboration of different voices, which provides so much more color and dialogue than a lone voice. There’s something powerful about the communal aspect of Asian American culture, and to know that we are stronger as we put our minds and stories together. We can disagree and debate passionately, but we have each other’s backs at the end of the day.
I’ve had the chance to meet most of the contributors to this blog in some fashion, and I can say that they aren’t just writers, but they are leaders. They care deeply about the past, present, and future of Asian American Christianity, and are living out that passion and integrity in their work and lives. I have great respect for all of them.
Which for lack of a better transition, brings me to my middle name, “Su-Chen.” Literally translated, it means “honest scholar.” That’s what I try to live up to. Whether or not you know me, well or not, I will always strive to be honest and sincere in my words and life.
And for the “scholar” part, I do believe there is something sacred about the written word. I was talking to David Park about this, and he mentioned how we have a freedom to express ourselves here, that isn’t tied to money or jobs or other motives. But we also talked about how we have a responsibility, knowing that people are reading and in a way, our dialogue with everyone here is being recorded — even if informally in the pages of Asian American history. As a reader, you are part of this as you write in. What will we learn, or stumble upon in the process? It’s up to us… let’s find out!