The year is 1978. I am 8 years old. Mom is white and she has full custody of my brother and me. We have moved with her to a tiny town in Maine in what feels like a lifetime away from our father, who is black and lives in Washington, D.C.
In D.C., black people stop me on the street and stare like they are seeing something magnificent. They sing as they stress the first syllable of my name and make it sound like Billie Holiday wrote the song: FANNNNNN-shen.
In Maine, I’m on the receiving end of tilted heads and stares. I am not magnificent. I scare them. I tell a classmate my father is black and for the first time ever I see a person go pale and bright red at the same time. In Maine, white people add a question mark to my name when I introduce myself: Fan-SHEN?
My parents tell me my name is Chinese and it means “to share.” And I love to share. I share my toys. I share my lunch and snacks with other kids at school. I share everything I possibly can. I hope it helps people see that I am safe.
My mother comes out to my brother and me with her “best friend” a few months after we move to Maine. Now we are the only black people this town has ever seen, with a lesbian mom, and I have this name: Fannn-shen. Fan-SHEN? Fanshen.
I love Scott Baio. Scott Baio plays Chachi on “Happy Days.” When I am much older, I learn how vastly different our politics are — but right now, at 8, I am certain he will one day be my husband. I write to tell him how handsome he is and how much I love watching him on TV (I decide to hold off on the husband part until after he gets to know me better).
Mom says a letter has arrived for me. Who would write to this blonde-afroed girl in Maine with a queer mom and a strange name? I look at the return address: Scott Baio. I stop breathing. My hands quake. I look down to the addressee.
To: Farshen Lox.
My heart collapses. I do not need to read the form letter inside, because my misspelled name tells me everything: I am other. I desperately want to be same. I want to be a Brady kid. I want to be Jan or Marsha or Cindy. I want a mom and a dad together. If I have to live in Maine, I want to be white.
I tell everyone to call me Joanne. Joanne is close to my mom’s middle name, Joan. Maybe this name can bring me closer to being the same.
They laugh, “You don’t look like a Joanne.”
I am still an other.
I am in high school. We have moved from Maine to a progressive college town. My history teacher recognizes me from my name. He and my parents attended Black Panther meetings together in D.C. He says my name like it’s royalty. I learn the true meaning of my name.
Fanshen was the title of my parent’s favorite book just before they had me and decided their next child, boy or girl, would carry this name. It means “to turn the body” or “to turn over.” It symbolizes turning over power structures like poverty and sexism and land ownership. It means “start a revolution.”
I am an adult. I learn that none of us are same. There are people who pretend to be same, but really we are all other. Same doesn’t make us safe, and doesn’t guarantee our joy. And it turns out Mike Brady was gay and Chachi was a conservative in liberal Hollywood.
I learn that neither the songs nor the screwy faces of others define us. Whether I call myself Jan or Joanne or Fanshen, I am a black woman sporting a blonde afro with a Chinese name and a queer mom. And now I share it. I share it all.