It seems like every movie that features a first-day-of-school scene goes the same way. The young, inexperienced teacher faces a crowd of noisy, rowdy, incorrigible little kids. The classroom, will be, of course, in chaos. And, somewhere in between Jack stealing Andy’s lunch and Molly pulling Becky’s hair, the teacher will, hesitantly, timidly, but inevitably, call roll. But of course, the teacher can never, ever, ever make it to the bottom of the list, because without a doubt, there is always one poor, poor child (be it Johnny Poopenspiel or Mary Humperdink) whose name is just a little, well, amusing. The whole class will erupt into laughter, and thus, the first day of school will end in the same pandemonium with which it started. In comparison to that, I can’t complain. I mean, I’m Amy Pan. That hardly rivals Johnny Poopenspiel in the unfortunate name department. Yet throughout my childhood, I have grown up bathed in antipathy toward my given moniker, for several reasons. First, let me establish the fact that I’m well aware there are worse names out there. I’m eternally grateful that I wasn’t born Imogen Gay Poots. Or Gilda Goggins. Or even Melvin Calvin, that old chemist whose self-titled Calvin Cycle we studied in ninth-grade biology. I mean, Melvin Calvin, really? It’s almost the worst one yet because it seems like his parents actually tried to make his name rhyme, but, you know, failed. Anyway, I digress. Quite clearly, my last name is also the word used to describe a certain inanimate object. In case you didn’t know, I’ll supply a dictionary definition from our dear friend Merriam-Webster: pan pan (noun) a : a usually broad, shallow, and open container for domestic use (as for cooking) b : a round shallow usually metal container for separating metal (as gold) from waste by washing c : British : toilet (my personal favorite!) To be honest, originally I wouldn’t have minded these particular correlations at all; as previously mentioned, having Pan as a last name is hardly worth complaining about. However, the only roadblock in the way of a fine-and-dandy self-satisfaction with my moniker lay in the form of a cruel little first-grade boy – let’s call him Joe. Every morning when I walked into class, Joe would come up with a new way of mocking my last name: “Amy Panning-for-Gold” (obviously he was not a sheltered child), “Amy Pan-Fried Noodles” (gotta love the personalized Asian joke in that one), “Amy Toilet” (props to him for all that originality). I guess you have to commend Joe for his persistence. I thought it was annoying more than anything. Didn’t Joe have better things to do with his time? But soon, much to my dismay, the other kids joined Joe in his crusade. Now that I think about it, I can’t even count how many times I was greeted by the burning, age-old question “Is Peter Pan your brother?” and the oh-so-searing second-grade insult, “Hahaha, your name is sooooo dumb!” Well, ouch. Of course, first grade ended, along with Joe & Company’s endless taunts, and the whole matter didn’t faze me much after that. But, around third grade or so, I had an early-life existential crisis of sorts in which I questioned everything. I remember waking up one morning with the question of my last name’s meaning burning in my brain. I knew it was Chinese because, well, I’m Chinese, but I honestly had no idea what it stood for. A great majority of Chinese surnames have a deeper meaning. “Wang,” for example, translates to “king,” and “Liu” to “willow.” I wanted to know what “Pan” represented in Chinese, so of course, I went to pester my dear old dad, the ultimate bearer of knowledge. My father, after hearing my initial question, answered (and I now quote), “Nothing. It’s just a name, doesn’t stand for anything. It’s like … Lewis, or something. I dunno.” Okay, so I couldn’t find any deep meaning there. But no worries! We were learning Spanish in school; perhaps I could find some significance there. So, being the cool, way-ahead-of-my-time kid that I was, I googled “Spanish dictionary” and typed in my last name – and, alas, this is what I found: pan [pahn] (nombre) a : bread Huh. Bread, really? Really?! I didn’t know how I felt about this. Was it too much to ask for me to find a connotation to my last name that wasn’t inexplicably tied with an inanimate object? My third-grade brain could hardly understand this terrible injustice. Looking back on it, I have no idea why I was so focused on this issue instead of being off playing with dolls or something, but I can only remember my one-track determination. Eventually this obnoxious, inquisitive phase of my life ended and I came to terms with my name’s superficiality. But, whenever I think about the entire ordeal, it provides me with both a sense of amusement and a sense of perplexity. How did I manage to go from a pan-fried laughingstock to a miniature snooping etymologist? By now I’ve come to accept my name for what it is: a name. I suppose the whole point of this experience as a questioning, curious, insufferable little girl paved an appropriate path to my attitude later on in life. Today I am still questioning, curious, and (sometimes) insufferable, but I’m not so little anymore, and I’ve learned that every once in a while, it’s better to just embrace the inexplicable and go with the flow. At the end of the day, my surname will always be a part of me, and I’ve learned to take it as is. And besides, bread is delicious and toilets are useful, so if you’re still out there, Joe With-A-Boring-Last-Name, the joke’s on you.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the December 2014 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.