Being Asian American in the United States, I often get asked these questions: “Where are you from?”, “Are you Chinese?”, and “What is your name and how do you pronounce it?” My usual reply is that I am ethnically Hmong while being born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Regarding my name I often say, “My name is Chuyee, (pronounced CHEW-YEE) but you can call me Sam.” Chuyee Samuel Xiong is my full legal name. My paternal grandmother named me Chuyee which, in Hmong, can mean “idea”, “thought”, or “knowledge.” My parents named me Samuel after the Old Testament prophet.
Growing up, I was called by both of my names, but they were used in very different contexts. When I was at home, at church, or in my Hmong community I was Chuyee. In those settings, I spoke Hmong, ate Hmong food, watched kung fu movies, and spent most of my time with my extended family. To everyone outside of those settings, I was known as Sam. To my friends at school, I was Sam–someone who was nice, friendly and just wanted to be included. To my teachers who eventually gave up trying to pronounce Chuyee and called me Sam, I was a good kid who worked hard at academics. To my violin instructor of ten years, I was Sam—someone who showed musical promise and talent but, at a certain point, stopped practicing and giving violin my all (it became more work than fun). Having these two names that were used in different contexts made me feel like I was living life in two different worlds. I had a foot in both and could bounce between them at any moment but very rarely did my worlds blend together.
Fast forward to 2023 and practically everyone aside from my family calls me Sam. My wife calls me Sam or Samuel. My co-workers and the college students I work with know me as Sam. My friends in small group and the people at Hope call me Sam.
Every now and then, I get asked if I would prefer to go by Chuyee instead of Sam. I tend to brush off the question with “Only my parents and extended family call me Chuyee” or “You can just call me Sam. I’ve been Sam forever and it’s easier to say and remember.” The truth is, I do enjoy and prefer being called Sam. That’s not to diminish or devalue my Hmong name or heritage. Sam is my given middle name and it is a part of my identity. I value both names and consider them equally important to my identity.
Having processed and grown in my ethnic identity (which I continue to do), I’ve come to see my two names as representative of my experience as an Asian American in the United States. I know this isn’t true for every Asian American in the U.S., but I would consider myself a third culture kid. Third culture kids can be individuals who were raised in a culture and context that differed from the culture, context or country of their parents. Unlike my parents, I was raised in Wisconsin and therefore learned to speak English, cheer for the Green Bay Packers, and eat brats. Being from a third culture, I do not fit in perfectly in either Hmong culture or in American culture. There are times when I have experienced internal tension due to differences in my cultures but, luckily for me, I don’t have to choose between one or the other. I can choose both. The reality is that I don’t have to choose to be Asian or American because I am not just one or the other. I am both fully Asian and fully American which means I get the best of both worlds.
The name Chuyee represents my identity as an Asian. It includes my Hmong culture, my family, our history, and the pride I have in being Hmong. The name Sam represents my American identity. It captures my love of football, my enjoyment of pop music and dance, and my love for our country and its ideals. Being Asian American means I get to enjoy burgers and brats on the grill while also enjoying homemade pho and eggrolls. I get to drink boba tea and Dr. Pepper. I get to watch kung fu movies while waiting for the latest update in the Marvel Cinematic Universe!
As I reflect on 32 years of being Chuyee Samuel Xiong, I am filled with gratitude for the Lord’s intentional design in my life and I thank Him for both of my names. I am still on a journey of discovering my ethnic identity and hope to best glorify and steward what the Lord has given me. Names can be many things. They can be a first impression, hold meaning and significance, or be completely random. I believe my names do not define me, however, they are and will forever be integral parts of who I am.