Today’s post is from my incredibly talented and kind friend, Dorcas Cheng-Tozun. I LOVE the way Dorcas lives her life, thinks purposefully, and crafts her words so beautifully to express things. I am so grateful she agreed to share her story of her relationship with her name as part of the Words That Changed My World series of reader submissions.
When I was young, I hated the first day of each school year. When the teacher was taking attendance, I always knew she had reached my name when she paused for a long time. “Dor… Doris? Dorsis? I’m sorry, I don’t know how to pronounce this.”
I would then raise my hand and correct her, simultaneously enunciating and softening the central consonant that was the bane of my existence. “It’s Dorcas.”
The laughter always came, and I would always stare straight ahead, refusing to make eye contact with anyone. Later came the questions from my classmates, who didn’t know much outside of their affluent, white suburban existence. “Is that a Chinese name?” Snicker. Giggle. “Or are you Japanese? Do your parents have weird names too?”
I would answer them directly because I didn’t know what else to do. “It’s a Greek name. It’s from the Bible. I’m Chinese, not Japanese. My parents’ names are Robert and Grace.” This was usually enough to confuse my peers into silence. But only for a few moments.
Biblical names are par for the course in my family, now Christian for four generations. After previous generations exhausted all the usual names, my parents wanted to get a little creative with me. But as new Chinese immigrants to the US, they had no idea what they were signing me up for.
By the time I reached high school, I had learned to hide my hurt well. But if anyone had been able to penetrate my outer shell of indifference, they would have found a heart full of shame—over who I was and who I thought I never could be, all because of a moniker that invited ridicule in a majority culture I was desperate to fit into.
The ninth chapter of Acts records a beautiful story of a woman named Tabitha, or Dorcas in Greek. She is described as a disciple “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” When she dies, all the widows in her community gather to mourn, clutching the articles of clothing she made for them. The Apostle Peter comes at the insistence of other disciples and raises her from the dead, the only record of Peter’s resurrecting someone. The town’s grief turns to celebration, and word of this miracle spreads throughout the region.
I love this story, but I have not loved bearing the name Dorcas. More often than not I have felt my name as a burden.
When I was in college, my eyes were opened to the burdens that less fortunate members of our society bore, burdens that were much more oppressive and degrading than a culturally inconvenient name. I then started a student group whose sole purpose was to build relationships with the homeless community near campus. My peers and I would go out and spend our weeknights asking questions and listening, in hopes of offering some dignity and care to struggling individuals.
One evening, a Vietnam vet I regularly saw named Jerry asked me to remind him of my name. As I always do, I hesitated before answering. “It’s Dorcas.”
His unshaven face, wrinkled and dusty, lit up. “From the Bible!” he exclaimed.
I returned his smile. “Yes! Most people don’t know that.”
He looked at me carefully. I couldn’t have been a particularly impressive sight—I was twenty but often mistaken for someone much younger—but Jerry held my gaze as he said, “You’re really living up to your name.”
Something inside of me stilled. I don’t remember what I said in response or what we discussed after that. But in the fifteen years since that conversation, I have not forgotten Jerry’s words. I thought of them when I decided to pursue a Sociology degree; I remembered them when I signed the contract for my first nonprofit job. His words stuck with me through more than a decade of development work, which took me from low-income communities in California to villages and cities in Malawi, China, India, and Kenya.
Now well into adulthood, I still occasionally run into the too-blunt adult who smothers a smirk before saying, “You must’ve been teased a lot as a kid, huh?” Whenever this happens, the old vestiges of shame threaten to return. But, thanks to Jerry’s words, I think instead of my parents and their pure hopes for me when they named me after a compassionate woman with a servant heart. I think of the amazing opportunities I’ve been given to try to change this world for the better. And I find myself being grateful for this unusual name that has helped shape an unusual life. It has occasionally been a burden, but the reality is that my name has always been a gift, a calling truly worth living up to.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer, blogger, and editor who has found healing and hope through words. Previously she worked as a nonprofit and social enterprise professional in the US and Asia. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and adorable hapa son. You can find her online at www.chengtozun.com or on Twitter (@dorcas_ct).
Photo credit: ‘Lone Tulip’, copyright here. Edited by Bronwyn Lea.