I traded a McDonald’s two-cheeseburger extra-value meal for a tattoo over a decade ago. A friend permanently inked my parents’ house key against my spine, in between my soft shoulder blades, as I hunched over a folding chair in a dining room with bad lighting. Afterward, in my old Corolla, I took us to the drive-through on a rare drizzly Los Angeles winter afternoon.
A couple of years before that, I made my then-boyfriend swear he wouldn’t tell anyone I paid the tattoo shop’s minimum of $50 for a simple drawing that didn’t take longer than five minutes to sink into my skin. I was more embarrassed about having paid so much for the tattoo than about the tattoo itself. Fifteen years later, it’s now a faded, blurry, red line sketch of a two-inch-tall pitchfork. A tiny triangle makes the small point at the end of each of the three prongs. The pitchfork points upward, standing just a few inches above my butt crack.
The pitchfork and the house key are two of the seven tattoos on my body. Each of their creations was a vibrating catharsis, proof of a feeling—a time stamp rather than a tramp stamp. Some of them are reminders to myself—saturated with history and aspirations. Some of them are more like a pitchfork above my ass.
So I’m familiar with the impulsive desire to offer a part of yourself to a stranger with electric needles and a rainbow of inks. I understand that desire to stake claim to your own flesh. Many of us have made rash, regrettable decisions marked by permanence—it’s just some of us did it with tattoos. And yet, I still don’t understand why people get Chinese characters tattooed on them when they don’t know the difference between 媽 and 馬.
In April 2016, Holland Christensen told strangers on the internet about her Chinese tattoo. That wasn’t her intention when she posted anonymously to a popular basketball forum. The /r/NBA subreddit is a place known for discussing player stats and sharing highlight clips, with approximately 360,000 subscribers at the time—myself among them. It isn’t the place to look for a game-day buddy. Still, Christensen submitted a post entitled “Hornets Fans help! I have no one to go with me to the game vs. the Nets tonight, extra ticket is free!”
“The tickets are good seats, and I would give you my extra one for free in exchange for your company,” she wrote. “I’m pretty awesome to be around.”
Christensen was desperate. At the last minute, a friend had canceled plans to attend the game with her, but Christensen needed to see the Charlotte Hornets play. She had recently decided that she would become the biggest fan of the team’s second-string point guard, Jeremy Lin—after unknowingly having his Chinese name tattooed on her.
Christensen, who is originally from the small town of Jasper, Tennessee, had not known who Jeremy Lin was until after his name became a part of her. She discovered that the three boxy Chinese characters stacked in a neat column on her left ankle wrote his name, 林書豪. A few days following the /r/NBA post, she uploaded a twelve-minute video to YouTube, simply titled “Accidental Jeremy Lin Tattoo.” In the video, Christensen sits in front of a colorful, abstract cityscape poster pinned to a pink wall, her straight blond hair under a gray knit cap. Her southern accent pulls long vowels and Lin is rendered a two-syllable word. She admits it was a “complete basic white girl tattoo.”
Jeremy Lin’s second NBA season, in 2011–12, could have been his final season in the league. Though he made headlines as a Cinderella story in 2010, when, as an undrafted rookie, he eventually earned a spot with his hometown Golden State Warriors, the Harvard grad was hardly on anyone’s radar as a breakout player. After a stint in the D-League, a few games in the Chinese Basketball Association in the off-season, and a couple of preseason showings with the Houston Rockets before being waived by the team, he landed with the New York Knicks at the very end of 2011. Lin has since shared in interviews that he was sleeping on his brother’s couch in NYC, the unglamorous reality of an athlete trying to create a sustainable pro-athlete life. He has told the story of heading into Madison Square Garden for practice, like the rest of his team, and being stopped and questioned by security, who couldn’t fathom he was a point guard—an actual basketball player.
But in February 2012—like the third act of a feel-good film about hard work, redemption, and never giving up on yourself—Lin made an upswing and spurred a phenomenon dubbed Linsanity. He became the hero in an (Ivy league) rags-to-riches story of how he led the New York Knicks on a seven-game winning streak following a dismal record of losing at 8–15. Lin, who grew up playing basketball in California, was a version of the middle-school boys I watched dribble up and down cracked blacktop playgrounds on the hot Los Angeles afternoons of my own childhood. He took up space in an arena where Asian Americans had not seen our bodies celebrated in this way—the exception being Yao Ming, who played for the Houston Rockets for almost a decade, ending in 2011. Yao was singular at seven and a half feet tall, a Chinese national who barely spoke English when he was the number-one draft pick in 2002, whereas Lin is an approximation of us, similarly rooted in the nebulous state of Asian America, a place where diasporic Asians are fluent in America but that fluency isn’t returned, where we aren’t granted full admission into the spaces we call home.
As Linsanity grew that spring, I could feel my own stupor lift. I had been wrestling with a mental health crisis, a depression that had me imagining comfort in the cool soil in an overgrown vacant field. Watching an entire city celebrate Lin offered a semblance of buoyancy to my days. I scrolled through eBay contemplating whether I should spend my unemployment money on his sold-out #17 jersey, even though my wardrobe had never been home to a sports jersey. I was compelled to consider it not so much because this felt like a significant cultural moment for Asian Americans, but more because this was the first time I had seen an approximation of my name emblazoned on people’s backs and I wanted to remember it this way.
Lin is the child of Taiwanese immigrants, while I am the child of Vietnamese refugees. Lin’s parents arrived in America to attend university, while my family arrived here as a consequence of war. Lin earned a degree in economics from Harvard, while I once bought a crimson red sweater with HARVARD across the chest for $1.99 from a thrift store. Our commonality begins and ends here: we’re both of the Chinese diaspora and our family name is 林. The thing about being part of a diaspora is that you grasp at anything that will help you feel as if you belong to a tribe. And now I’m in a tribe where my family name is tattooed on a white lady’s ankle, like a souvenir to a place she has never been.
Chinese and Japanese character tattoos have recently gone out of fashion, which is an odd thing to say since the wearers of them can’t take them off. Kanji tattoos reached peak popularity in the 1990s–2000s. Hanzi Smatter was a popular blog of the time, perfect for a tattoo rubbernecker like myself. Here, the tattooed, or friends of the tattooed, emailed a Chinese-born college student in the US to confirm or disprove the meaning of a tattoo. Of course the blog was a photo album of botched kanji, pure gibberish characters, and terribly translated phrases.
I asked the artist who gave me my most recent tattoo about the bygone trend. I saw Amanda Meyers in the spring of 2008, when she put a bookmark on my chest. She began tattooing in 1991 and still owns a shop in Portland, Oregon, though she stopped tattooing in 2013. I recalled how many American tattoo shops in the 2000s had sheets of flash art made up of kanji and clichéd designs of thorny roses and Celtic armbands to choose from. Meyers said customers were less likely to ask for a custom piece: “A lot of people didn’t know to think of their own thing.” She believes most customers who chose kanji tattoos imbued them with spirituality and exoticism—and who was she to say no? She had bills to pay.
Imagine conflating ignorance with exoticism, thinking yourself deep for branding your flesh with a language you don’t know. Was I unfamiliar with this desperation of seeking home in words I could not read or write? I am of the diaspora, after all.
A 2010 masters dissertation by a University of Toronto student, Karen Bic Kwun Chan, asks questions about the legibility of Chinese-character tattoos and their relationship to Chinese people living in diaspora. In “Chinese Enough For Ya?: Disrupting and Transforming Notions of Chineseness through Chinesenough Tattoos,” Chan purposefully renames kanji tattoos. She coins the term “Chinesenough,” which she explains like this:
Not quite “Chinese” but passing for Chinese in the mainstream, “Chinesenough” corresponds to simulacra that bear enough markers to be recognized as Chinese by dominant society, and enough markers to be recognized as distinctly not-Chinese, literally, by some others.
Chinesenough as a notion, however, is itself a paradox. Chinesenough things are both Chinese and not-Chinese, and at the same time, they are neither.
Chan’s dissertation names the sliver of a liminal space between meaning and nothingness—not just in a bad tattoo. The concept of Chinesenough feels like a biography for so many of us who “bear enough markers to be recognized” as Asian, seldom as American, and rarely feel like enough of either.
My father named me 林正麗.
林, or Lin, or Lam. Our family name means forest because our ancestors came from the woods of southern China; 林 is made of two pieces of wood, or 木. My given name, the one my parents and elders call me, is 麗. On Saturday mornings, my parents sent me to Chinese school in a small Buddhist temple in Los Angeles’s Chinatown. I was four years old and learned to write my given name in its simplified form, 丽. When I was about ten years old, I asked my father what my given name means and he pointed to the traditional character in a Chinese-English dictionary. My name means beautiful—I was unsure if this was the right name for me. But this is the only name I know, and I began to write it in its traditional form. I can write 麗 easily, without having to pause to remember if I’m missing a line or a dash or the flick at the end of a tail. It is one of the few dozen Chinese characters I can write and read, tethering me to a country that calls me daughter but that I’m hesitant to call 家.
The artistry behind each character is lost on this page, where they are rendered too straight, too angular, too rigid. What you can’t see here is how the stroke order shapes each character, the exact sequence of how each line should be written—left to right, top to bottom, something Holland Christensen’s tattoo artist probably did not know.
My father has a single tattoo. It is the word 忍.
The tattoo was simply native to his body like a limb or organ. I was in my mid-20s when I finally thought to ask him what the character meant; it was not a word we learned in Chinese school.
When I began this essay, I wanted to show Holland Christensen to herself. I wanted to say, You made a mistake, and your mistake is my name. I wanted this white woman to be the proxy, a wall to spit on. I wanted this to be a catharsis, to exorcise a childhood self-consciousness in which I silently thanked my father for giving me an “American” name too so I could be that much closer to whiteness—could know what it felt like to be called something familiar in this country. I wanted her mistake to feel just as debilitating as it had felt to watch a white man lob a slur at my mother and father, who then turned to me to translate. I wanted to point to the hypervisibility of “Chinese” tattoos on non-Chinese bodies versus the invisibility of the Asian diaspora.
I wanted to understand how her mistake had happened and why my idea of catharsis cannot begin and end with her. I wanted to talk to her about how one ends up with a stranger’s name permanently inked onto one’s body. She agreed to speak with me after I sent her a DM on Twitter and included a link to my website to prove that I was a writer hoping to learn something about her, about myself. So I called her.
Her friends call her Holly and she lives in Atlanta, where she tried to go to all of the Hawks vs. Nets games until an injury completely sidelined Lin early in the 2017–18 season with the Brooklyn team. (He has since been traded to the Hawks, where he finally cut the misguided dreadlocks he began wearing when he was still with the Nets, and then went to the Raptors after being waived by Atlanta. And Holly is now a season ticket holder.) Before moving to Atlanta, she had lived about an hour south of Salt Lake City, in Orem, Utah. It was in Orem that she printed out three foreign characters and brought them into a tattoo shop.
Ask most people with more than a few tattoos and they’ll tell you that at least one of their tattoos was an impulse. Christensen admits she had not done due diligence when she logged on to a language exchange site, where she had been practicing Swedish, and asked for the translation of “My True North.” She wanted the phrase in Chinese because, after catching up with a friend who told her about a recent trip to Taiwan, she immediately put the country on a list of vacation destinations.
Her body is home to eight tattoos. Three of them relate to travel, as if they were passport stamps: the Icelandic word norður to remember her trip to the Nordic island, a poorly executed outline of the African continent that she admits was a bad idea from her visit to South Africa, and an inspiration to go to Asia for the first time: 林書豪.
A “My True North” tattoo in Chinese made sense to her—it would point her to the island nation thousands of miles away across the Pacific Ocean. I asked a friend who is fluent in Chinese if translation is possible for a phrase like this and he said there isn’t a similar idiom in Chinese. But, he said, we could think of the expression to mean, literally, compass, 指南豪, which translates to “point south needle.” Even if a tattoo that was meant to say “My True North” actually read that it was pointing south, it may have been more fitting, since Christensen was feeling lost.
She got the tattoo days before moving away from Orem, leaving behind a period when she was homebound for months, slogging through a deep depression. In the middle of preparing to move, she had to get out of the house to do something, anything. She needed a “distraction” from her depression. I didn’t push her to tell me the specifics of her situation, but she revealed that this Chinese travel tattoo “represented that [she’d] never go to Taiwan because [her] whole life had been destroyed and [she] wasn’t planning on being around.” She didn’t need to explain to me any further; I knew that hunger for the sharp vibration of a tattoo machine as a reminder that you’re still in a body.
Christensen can’t recall who exactly told her the true meaning of her Chinese tattoo. It may have been another person on the language exchange website where she received the inaccurate translation in the first place. Christensen’s viral infamy brought on a lot of hate and trolls, but she also made connections and basketball-loving friends. A new life emerged around her mistake. Lin responded to the tattoo with his own post on /r/NBA, linking to a photo of him holding a Sharpie and his Chinese name written on his ankle, with the caption, “Saw this tattoo online and copied it, anyone know what it means?” She even met him, waiting at the players’ exit after a game, and he gave her a hug. She said it was a blur. The friend she was with said he smelled really good.
Her mistake gave her something. I was salty about it. But to condemn her for her catharsis would give me absolutely nothing. We spoke for an hour and agreed to catch a Hawks game if I was ever in Atlanta.
For some people with Chinese names, the characters that make our names may not merely denote which clan we are from but also show which generation we were born into. Our middle names come from a family poem, with each subsequent generation embodying the next character in the short piece of poetry. Our names mean something; our names are poems.
I, too, went to an internet forum in search of a translation. In the /r/Translator subreddit, I asked for help with my family poem. As a consequence of assimilation, laziness, and Saturday morning Chinese school, my brothers and I never learned beyond very basic Chinese. We can read and write our names, count numbers, and proclaim 我是中國人 (I am Chinese). That’s about it. I uploaded a photocopy of my father’s family poem, one and a half vertical lines of Chinese characters written with a small brush. The longer line is almost the length of a sheet of paper. Nine characters from the top, I recognize the middle name that my brothers and I share: 正, meaning correct, just, and upright. Above 正 is my father’s middle name: 樹, tree.
A stranger on the internet told me that the shorter line merely states that this is the family poem for 林. The longer line is the poem, which roughly translates to:
The great sky with sweet-
smelling flowers in the forest
The splendid mountain with upright trees in the woodlands
They sprout forth, live, and thrive
For all generations in the future, they will complete a beautiful peak of a hill
Our name is a poem about growing so dense we take over a mountainside. Jeremy Lin’s middle name is not in my family’s poem, but I don’t take this to mean we’re not related. There’s more than one splendid mountain in the range.
There is a photo of my father at the beach, a few years after he arrived in Southern California from the beaches of Phu Quoc. I remember him wearing only ocean-blue swim trunks, his arms crossed against his bony oak-brown chest, his body lean from neglect, poverty, and a war that I can only imagine. He is the only Chinese person I know who has a Chinese character tattoo that’s been earned. It rests on his right deltoid. It’s a faded army-green color now, and it is the character for endure: 忍.
Endure is a word made up of knife: 刀, into the heart: 心.
I conjure stories of where he was, who he was with, how he held his arm steady while a friend stuck and poked him during the aftermath of a war. They must have sat on a beach in Phu Quoc, beneath the long shadow of a palm tree at sunset. There must have been a needle, black ink in a small bowl meant for nuoc mam, and his unwashed tanned skin. I think of the stench of body odor, the sheen of hair so dirty that it looked oil-slick clean, and how people were on the verge of tears or had not cried for years. How there was nothing to eat but the heaviness of the humidity in South Vietnam. It is in these imaginings that I conjure what he endured, what my mother endured, how their endurance led them to endure each other to bring me here.
I texted my father to ask him why endure—the tattoo, that is. He replied in English, simply, “Don’t have to fight.”
I tried to ask him to explain what he meant. But his tattoo is more than ink pierced through his skin—it is a scar. How does one ask her father the origins of a scar without the risk of cutting into it again?
Every day I log on and scroll through my Instagram feed for the photos of the many tattoo artists I follow. I want to see what’s been left indelibly on someone else’s body. I zoom in to examine how the line work was done, to contemplate color palettes, how the design fits on a specific limb. It’s been a decade since my last tattoo and I’m ready for a few more. Been thinking about dogwoods and magnolias for years.
Lately I’ve been searching #hongkongtattoos to see what the shops and artists are doing in that small island country. The territory of China is home to a population of Vietnamese refugees, many of whom are of Chinese ancestry. I relish seeing Chinese character tattoos on Chinese bodies by Chinese artists. Perhaps my own true north will point me to Hong Kong, where I can trust that they’ll give me my father’s tattoo of a knife in a heart—a way to show that I, too, survived something.
Amy Lam is a writer and editor based out of Portland, Oregon and Oxford, Mississippi. She is a Kundiman fellow and MFA candidate at Ole Miss.