I’m writing this in wake of Akim Aliu’s Players Tribune article, an article that broke my heart and brought me more shame than I’d ever felt. An article that articulated how he had endured and fought through so much unfair and relentlessly humiliating crap in order to play the sport that he loved. It was a devastating read for me.
It was a reminder that hockey isn’t for everyone, and that if you’re trying to convince yourself that it is, you’re lying to yourself. That the sport we all love is not a safe space for athletes of color, and that we are so far from equality and equity that we’re only kidding ourselves if we believe otherwise.
But for me, it was also a reminder that I had given up so much of my cultural identity in order to pursue the career that I wanted so desperately to have.
I’ve always hated my last name.
Let me explain that, since you may not have even been aware that Kelly isn’t my legal last name.
My actual last name is extremely short. It starts with the same letter as my first name. And growing up, it was so different from a lot of my peers and friends.
I was born in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in Canada. When we moved to North York and then further into the GTA years later, it was to a predominantly Asian town. My classmates finally looked more like me. Our last names sounded similar.
But our lives were not.
Try as I might, I never truly felt like I fit in. All the Chinese kids were smart, driven, and earning exceedingly good grades in math and science. I, on the other hand, was struggling to add numbers larger than 20 together without a calculator and stopped speaking Cantonese when I was three. I used to be fluent. Now, I can’t even hold a conversation in it.
We didn’t come to school talking about how the Toronto Maple Leafs game had ended the night before. It was about how we struggled with Spirit of Math drills instead.
The way I know how long you’ve been following me on Twitter is if you knew my online name before I was Lauren Kelly. It was Lauren K for years before I finally changed it. A lot of you weren’t here before that, and that’s okay. But just thinking about that reminds me of how far I’ve come, and how much has changed.
Even when I was in high school, I was afraid to be my authentic self online. I used to say it was for privacy reasons, that I thought going by middle initial (and eventually, my middle name) was safer for me. People couldn’t find me. People would never know who I really was.
In retrospect, it was because I was ashamed. I didn’t want my family or friends to be able to find me online. Find out what I was saying, what I was thinking, that I wanted something different than to become a doctor or a lawyer.
I wanted to write. I wanted to work in sports.
The people I saw on TV and online who had the jobs that I wanted and the lives I aspired to live didn’t look anything like me. Their names weren’t anything like mine. So when I started to grow a larger following online, I made a choice. Instead of the K becoming an L, the K became Kelly.
And that’s who I became.
I worked so hard to denounce so much of my racial background - that I didn’t like Chinese food, or I would refuse to watch Chinese movies or wear Chinese clothing, or even learn how to speak the language again. And with what’s going on in the world right now with the pandemic? I closed that part of myself off even more. And that was the realization that truly broke me.
It got to the point where in high school, I asked my parents if I could legally change my name permanently to that. They were shocked (and probably a little horrified). They didn’t understand why. And being an introverted teenager, I wasn’t able to articulate the reasons properly, or even be honest with myself. I liked the identity I had carved out with a Caucasian-sounding name. And I knew that if I changed that, I’d be putting an enormous target on my back.
When I was hired at my first writing gig, I remember explicitly asking if it was all right to use my middle name in the byline. Because technically it was still a part of my legal name, I was allowed to. But I could tell that my request had taken them by surprise. And as I began to further grow my following and identity online, I really became Lauren Kelly and drifted away from Lauren “L”, to the point where hearing and writing my actual last name now seems so foreign and wrong to me.
When I started university and met my classmates, it was a huge culture shock for me. I went from living and going to school with hundreds of kids who looked like me, but didn’t share my interests, to it being the complete opposite. I was one of the only Asian students in the room. People and women of color were few and far between, which is a pretty accurate reflection of the industry today. But we were all linked by our shared love of sports, and that was enough for me at the beginning. It didn’t matter that I looked different. And I was never treated as if I was.
As I started building connections with my classmates, do you know how many times we would submit group projects and someone would accidentally write my name in as Lauren Kelly before I had to correct them? That was an experience I won’t ever forget. And it was weird, but I acknowledged that it was an honest mistake. It wasn’t their fault. They didn’t know. Because I didn’t tell them beforehand and they were going off what they saw online.
Honestly, I might have been the only fully, 100% Asian in the room, but I finally felt as though I belonged, at least from an intellectual standpoint.
I have been incredibly fortunate in my very young career to have never endured racism or been mistreated by people I have met in person: my classmates, peers, coworkers, and friends. I know it’s naive of me to expect that to be the case forever. But their unwavering support and unconditional love has pushed me forward every day (no matter how much pain and suffering my body puts me through).
Though I can’t necessarily say the same for what I’ve encountered online, I know I have been way more fortunate than a lot of people and women of color. Is that because I come across as a Caucasian female online? Sometimes I wonder if that’s the case. I wonder if my choice nearly a decade ago to use my white-sounding middle name online (though I have never insisted it is my last name) has led to that being the case, where it looks like I have the racial privilege I normally don’t when I meet someone in person.
I’ve been trying harder lately to find that part of myself again, because like it or not, it’s who I am. And even though I still hate Chinese food, I will never turn down the opportunity to get myself a bubble tea (or two), and I absolutely love sitting down with my family to play a full, four-round game of Mahjong. When Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before came out in the same summer, I was overwhelmed with both pride and shame. My culture is beautiful, and it’s what makes me unique. And I shouldn’t feel like I have to hide that part of me when I’m online.
I don’t want to live in fear anymore. And I want to take back the identity that I let myself give up all those years ago. And more than that, I want to pay it forward. To help others like me, to not feel ashamed of their ethnicity and spend every day online afraid that they’re going to be torn down because of something out of their control.
So while I’d still like to keep what I have online going, I think it’s time that I finally introduce myself to the world. Hit me with your best (cheap) shot. It won’t change who I am. And if you’re still here after reading all of this, thank you. Your support means more than you know.