Self-Made Woman?

The Author in 1952 when she was 15-years-old.

Unlike most of you, I got to choose my name, my religion, my citizenship, my race. Was that a privilege? Or was it a lifetime spent trying to find exactly who I was?  Most of you born into a family, given your name and raised in a religion knew who you were, where you belonged, and what was expected of you. What about me?

My German mother, my Mutti, married my Chinese father in 1933. I was born in Berlin only because my mother, pregnant with me, had to leave China. My parents were living in Nanking, which was about to be ransacked by the Japanese. My father’s job required him to remain in China, but he urged my mother to take my sister Hsiao Hu out of the country before the attack.

Mutti flew home to Berlin and subsequently gave birth to me in December of 1937. The doctors told her I was jaundiced, my skin was so yellow. But my mother laughed. “You have never seen a Chinese baby!  There is nothing wrong with my baby.“

My mother, holding me when I was a baby. The German nurses told her I was jaundiced. She told them I was fine; that they’d just never seen a Chinese baby.

The administrators of the hospital repeatedly asked her to give me a name, but Mutti didn’t think it necessary, explaining: “I’m here only temporarily. This is my Chinese child; she does not need a German name.” To settle the quarrel between the administrators and my mother, my grandmother eventually offered to formally name me. It was many years later when we escaped from China and needed my birth certificate that we discovered the names my grandmother had given me: “Lila Barbara Monica.” I have no idea why. My grandmother must have liked these names and relished the opportunity to name me.

Several months after my birth, my father became acting ambassador to Rome, so my family moved to Italy and lived in the Chinese consulate, a grand palace which had been given to Mussolini as a bribe. Mussolini disliked the briber and later sold the palace to the government of China. I remember much about this elegant home: our huge garden with 27 fountains, our pet turtles to which we tied helium balloons; we could then keep track of our pets as they wandered around the grounds,  the huge marble staircase where my sister used to slide down the banister, the statues and the marble columns in our living room.  

During those glorious three and a half years, I grew up without a name. As my father was only the acting ambassador, a charge d’affaires, he expected the permanent diplomat to be appointed any time. I think each month my parents expected to return to China, so giving me an Italian name never seemed important. Everyone called me simply “Baby.” Finally, when I was age four, Chiang Kai-shek asked my father to return to the war capital to be a member of his cabinet. One of my father’s duties would be tutoring Chiang Kai-shek’s son who had recently returned from his studies in Moscow; my dad was to surreptitiously discover how much his Russian education had influenced Chiang’s son.

Me at three years old in our palazzo in Italy when my father was the Chinese ambassador in Rome.
Me at three years old in our palazzo in Italy when my father was the Chinese ambassador in Rome.

When we moved to Chongqing, my family named me “Hsiao Yu” (“Little Jade”). Neither I nor any of my siblings was ever baptized. My mother had been raised in a strict Lutheran household; she felt she had had enough religion shoved down her throat, and swore to save her children from it. My father was raised with no religion and happily allowed us to grow up and chose a religion if and when we saw fit.

When I was 11-years-old, the 1949 civil war in China caused my mother to flee once more with her children. The Communist regime blamed much of China’s ills on Western influence, and all of us with Western blood were not safe in China. My father remained in China to protect his reputation. No visas were available for people with Chinese citizen passports; luckily my mom was able to use her German passport to escape with my sister and me.

On the ship to the U.S., my mother decided to give me and my siblings American names; she believed names like Hsiao Yu were too difficult for most Americans to pronounce. She had seen Laurence Olivier’s Henry V and decided to name me after his wife, Catherine of Valois (only Mutti spelled my new name with a “K”). I now sported yet another name.

Our ship to the continental U.S. stopped for three days in Hawaii; when we walked around in Honolulu, I saw all the mixed race people around me, and for the first and only time in my life I felt like I belonged!  I looked like everyone around me.

Years after our arrival in the U.S., I decided to become a Christian at age 15 when I joined an Episcopal youth group and developed a mini-crush on the young deacon. At my baptism I was to choose a middle name; I chose “Elizabeth.” For some reason, half of the people I had ever met would call me “Elizabeth.” Perhaps they remembered only that my actual name, “Katherine,” was multisyllabic. Or perhaps the name somehow suited me. Anyhow, I liked the name and made it my own.

Just before my marriage to Ray Haas, I was told that three official documents HAD to match: the birth certificate, the marriage certificate, and the eventual death certificate. So I went back to the registration office and changed my name from “Katherine Hsu” to “Lila Barbara Monica Katherine Elizabeth Hsiao Yu Hsu Haas.”

I decided to become a U.S. citizen in 1959 while my husband was attending Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut (I believe I could have chosen to become a German citizen at age 18 because I was born there). When I arrived at the immigration office, I was asked if I wanted to change my name. Before I could answer, the official in charge of testing me with all sorts of tricky questions crossed out all but two of my names, saying, “You don’t want to have all these names!” Had I been older and more confident, I would have complained or pled to keep all of my names, I was intimidated by this man who had the power to grant or deny me citizenship.  He left my name only as “Katherine Hsu.”

What tricky questions did the citizenship official then ask? He asked me to explain what the Bill of Rights was and what exactly it contained, and how many amendments had been added to the Constitution. He also asked me to name the Supreme Court justices. I think he was angry at me from the beginning when the first question he asked was to name one of the senators from Connecticut. I answered,“Thomas Dodds, DEMOCRAT!” And he shouted back, ”I did NOT ask you to what party he belonged.”

Over the years, I have been called so many different names that it becomes quite a chore remembering which name to sign on my annual Christmas letters to over a hundred family and friends. To my Chinese friends from the old regime, I sign “Hsiao Yu”; to my Chinese friends from the new regime, it’s “Xiao Yu.” My middle school friends call me “Kat,” my St John’s college classmates call me “Kathy,” and my University of North Dakota friends call me “Kate.” Most of my friends today call me “Katherine,” while others call me “Kate.” I sign letters to my students as “KHaas” (that one I like best because it sounds like “chaos” which aptly describes my life).

I almost acquired yet another name. When living in North Dakota, I was adopted into the Hunkpapa tribe, one of the seven council fires of the Lakota Sioux.  A year later my Indian sister, Mary Alice Brown Otter, planned to give me her Indian name at the next powwow in Bull Head, South Dakota. Names could not be given without the tribe’s permission, and the recipient needed to be deserving of the name. In order to avoid that formal process, Mary Alice planned to give me her own Indian name: “Wea Luta Wi” (Little Red Woman). Mary Alice had been a teacher for many years and later became a beloved administrator for Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, ND. When I asked what would happen to her name if she gave it to me, Mary Alice told me that from that day on, when referring to her in a song or announcement, her friends and family would call her “Oh, Educator.”

Mary Alice Brown Otter (right) holding the eagle design quilt which she will present to me (left) at end of the adoption ceremony.

Though I was immensely honored to be given her name, I was concerned about taking away something so special from her. As it turned out, I was forced to return to Annapolis early that summer for a computer workshop for teachers and had to miss the naming ceremony. I never got the name that was so generously offered to me. Although I was very bitter at the time and did my best to sabotage the computer workshop, blaming it for forcing me to miss my naming ceremony, I am glad Mary Alice kept her name as she lived only a few years more.

I’ve chosen my own name, my religion, my citizenship; on various official forms, I’m asked to mark what race I belong to. So far there isn’t a “Eurasian” category.  Sometimes I choose “Asian,” most times I check “Other.” If there is a blank,  I write “Eurasian.” Sometimes I write “½” in the box that reads “Asian” and “½” in the box that reads “Caucasian.”

On looking back, having all the choices, was it fun or was the longing to fit in, to look like everyone else more palpable?  Both. It was a lark much of the time, and there was a sadness, too.  

Katherine Haas taught at Key School in Annapolis for 42 years. She now spends her time enjoying the arts with her husband, learning Spanish while her Arabic teacher is in China, teaching Chinese, working part-time at Key as Scientist in Residence and engaging in progressive activism.

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