Interviews, Conversations and Insights

To take my research a step further, I decided to speak to friends, colleagues and classmates of mine who had English names. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve conducted about 25 interviews of which some I’ve managed to record on a camera (you’ll find them under the ‘video series’ tab). This post will go over some of my findings and how these interviews helped provide an entirely different perspective to my research.

 

Some basic information and figures:

 

  1. I interviewed 23 people formally, and 2 informally. Out of this sample group, 90% of the interviewees were UBC students/ UBC alumni (I will refer to them as Group A interviewees). The other 10% were Indian family friends of mine who lived in Hong Kong and Singapore (Group B) because I thought it was important to include the views of what we’d call “outsiders”, who weren’t personally involved (i.e. had Western names themselves) but were living in areas where people did.
  2. Of the other 90%, all interviewees fell between the age range of 18-24 and all had East Asian heritage/ were from East Asia. The sample size I selected was: restricted to a certain age range, socio-economic class, were all literate and had assimilated into Western culture. Had the parameters been different, I’m sure my research would have taken a slightly different path. However, given the time and resources available to me, this was what I had to work with.

 

  1. From Group A, 19 out of the 20 interviewees had two names: a Traditional as well as a Western name. My roommate Yiqiu Wang from Shanghai was the only person with just one name (traditional name), and you can find an interview with Yiqiu in my video series. I will elaborate a little more on my conversation with Yiqiu in a later section.

 

  1. The other 19 from Group A said they were either born with 2 names, or acquired their second name by the age of 10. Some of the people I interviewed were born with only English names, and acquired a traditional name later in life, while for some it was the other way round.

 

  1. In my culture, changing a name or acquiring a new one is often associated with a change in social position/ rite of passage and is accompanied by a ritual or some sort of celebration. I was surprised to know that nothing along those lines happened with English names. Most people picked a name either in their english classes, were assigned a name by their teachers/ parents, or picked one themselves. One participant stated that feng shui was involved in deciding her name, but wasn’t sure if it was a ritual.

 

  1. I inquired about legal names, 40% of the group said that their legal name was their english name, while the other 40% had their traditional name on their passports etc. the remaining 10% had both their traditional name and english name as their legal name. For example:

    “I don’t have 2 first names but I usually go with only partial of my first name (full first: Wing-Tung Charlotte; preferred: Charlotte)” —Charlotte Ng

    “They (English and traditional) are both my legal names. My legal first name is Chi Wah Yulanda.” — Yulanda Lui

 

  1. When asked which name they preferred going by, most participants answered that they preferred their English names while at university, work or with friends. However, their families usually called them by their traditional names. Most people associated their traditional names with a more personal setting, and sort of “reserved” those names for their families. This was true mainly amongst the Canadian participants, whose identification with a name usually changed based on the setting. The Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese participants used their traditional names everywhere in their respective countries, and only used english names while with foreigners or when in english class.

    Some of my Canadian friends had really beautiful thoughts on which name they preferred:

    “The significance of having 2 names for me is that there is one side of me that I project to the world and society as a outside notion, and there is another side of me that is inwards, family oriented and somewhat hidden from the rest of the world. […] I definitely prefer Justin these days since it has become the name around which the majority of my life has centred and been moulded; but there is undoubtedly a sort of warmth and pride in hearing ‘Jasim’ from the lips of a family member or a village elder. It’s as if I get to go back to my roots little by little through the mere remembrance of my birth name.” —Justin Lam

    “When I was younger, on the first days of school, teachers would call me by my Chinese name during attendance and I would have to correct them to let them know I use my English name. Sometimes, my English name doesn’t even show up on the attendance sheet even though it’s part of my legal first name. It created a bit of alienation in classrooms. I would get really upset if classmates called me by my Chinese name, because they knew I used my English name and most people didn’t say it right. Since I got older, having a Chinese name feels really important to my identity and the way I create relationships with other Chinese folks. My Chinese name means a lot to me and I think of it as a gift that I can share with people, but only if I choose to. […] In most spaces I will use my English name. In Chinese spaces, especially if I am talking to folks who mostly speak Chinese languages, I will use my Chinese name. For example, when I am organizing for services for Chinese seniors and against the gentrification of Chinatown, I will usually use my Chinese name to connect with the people I work with. My parents also use my Chinese name for the most part.” — Yulanda Lui

    “I prefer going by my English name in most settings, but my parents still call me Zhi Yu at home. It’s more personal and brings out a different side in me” — Julie Liang

    “Using my traditional name connects me to my family, and I also feel like I have a very different, perhaps more animated personality when I talk in mandarin. It really depends on the context” — Ariel Zhang

  2. Most people in these participants’ circle (friends, relatives etc) had english names. Interestingly, my roommate Giselle from Beijing mentioned that her parents didn’t have western names, however her grandparents had Russian names! I found this pretty interesting and realised that one of the reasons for adopting new names was politics and power. Perhaps if Russia was a superpower right now, would all these people have Russian names instead?
  3. The significance of having 2 names, identity politics and the general opinion on this phenomenon.

    Here are some of the responses I got for this section:

    “My personal identity has somewhat been diluted, admittedly, by accepting and promulgating my Anglophone identity over my heritage through my name, and yet at the same time there have been times in the past where I have felt lucky to have an English alternative helping me navigate a culture space that isn’t necessarily my own native space. […] Having two names I don’t think is necessarily a good or a bad thing. A name, on one level, is merely a way to be addressed and to be mentioned. As long as you remain the signified regardless of the signifier, the actual utterance should be of little import. But naturally that’s a very idealistically rational way of thinking about it. People are normally emotional beings with the desire to attach emotion to every aspect of their identity. So essentially having two names for some represent an inevitable bifurcation of their identity that was necessitated by a transplantation into a Western society. Yet I guess for some it is more of a secondary, supplementary identity or branch of their identity that finds expression where necessary but not at all times.” – Justin Lam

    “English name might just help others to pronounce better or make them feel comfortable. Chinese name is kinda hard to pronounce for foreign people. Traditional name is important it represents me. [How does this impact your personal identity?] Not much impact. I don’t think I change because of the names. […]I don’t think there’s any problem that you have 2 names. Reasons that people use English name: easier to pronounce; easier to remember(English name is much simpler than Chinese name); we think that using a foreign help us to get into the foreign culture and be accepted. Some of my friends say they feel so embarrassed whenever their prof pronounce their Chinese name wrong. But recently I start to think that I prefer my traditional name more. Using English name might because a lack of self-confidence/country confidence. Being pronounced wrong is not our fault and we should let people know more about our traditional names cause they are beautiful” – Nora Hong

    “Having my Mandarin name represents the roots of where I am from whereas my English name represents the person I am today and the place in which I grew up in. […] For me, having two names represents the two cultures or backgrounds an individual might be from. It can be something special as the two names are almost like a union of two distinct worlds. At the same time, the pressure for certain cultures to adopt an English name almost attests to the fact that there is a need for cultural conformity (especially to a Western culture) which isn’t necessarily the most positive thing as it implies that one culture is greater than the other.” – Jessica Lai

    “[What do you think about this phenomenon of having two names? How do you view this?] I’m quite skeptical of having second name(English name) since I feel like it makes me to follow Western culture recklessly(?) Since I’m Korean, I always try to use my Korean name when I go abroad and meet foreign friends and I also did when I was in UBC. But some of my English-speaking friends had difficulty to pronounce my name so I used my second name in that kind of case.” – Youyeon Choi

    “It helps me to remember my cultural and historical roots to have a Vietnamese name yet my English name (being my legal one), reminds me that I am Canadian and any issues I face racially etc. cannot take away that birthright. Having the English name shows me my parents want to protect me and give me the best chance at success in Canada but keeping a Vietnamese name shows me that they see strength in where we came from. It gives me diversity in my identity so that I am able to relate to other dual or tri-cultural people. […] I think that it is a great way to display the journey a person has through their names alone. It is the merging and cohesion of two places of belonging.” – Chantel Luu

    “It seems like my different parts of my life is represented by that name, just like one’s personal nickname does. [How does this impact your personal identity?] Hmm. I think rather than the name itself but the language I used impacted my personal identity. I think I felt like a different person not because I was using another name but because I was using that name in the context of English, different language from my mother tongue. English, for me, boost my confidence, made me not to afraid of questioning traditions. It somehow made me as a very open-minded person.” — Haeun Kwak

    “[How does this impact your personal identity?] Nothing much, since I have duel citizenship and am raised in an environment that speaks both Cantonese and English a lot in my daily life. [What do you think about this phenomenon of having two names? How do you view this?] I find it a norm since I’m used to it, though I suppose it can be a problem in the sense that non-English speaking cultures have to give themselves an English name just because it would make things more convenient, or even just to reduce the chances of discrimination.” – Charlotte Ng

    “Sometimes I have sort of an existential crisis: am I Ariel, or am I Ruo- Yu? Would I be different if I had only one name? Would people see me differently?” – Ariel Zhang

 

  1. From Group B, much of the information I received has been covered in the previous post.
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Let’s De-naturalise

An important theme in our last module of the ANTH 300 course has been looking at the idea of what’s natural and questioning it. Through our discussions and the authors whose works we read, we came to this realisation that nature is a social construct. Our idea of what’s “natural” is created and constantly revised by us. For example, the idea of men having body hair is natural, but it’s somehow unnatural when women have it— who decided that? We did. What’s natural is also culturally specific, for example: Eating the meat of goats, pigs and cows is natural in the western society, but the idea of consuming a dog, or a cat perhaps is considered a taboo. Well technically, meat is meat, so why should it matter which animal it comes from? Yet, eating one animal is natural, and eating the other isn’t. The point here was that we create what’s natural, and we have the agency to deconstruct or de-naturalise it just the same way.

There are two instances that I encountered during my research where this theme seemed really relevant. The first one was when I was sitting with my colleagues Tim (who’s interview you can find under the ‘video series’ tab). We were just in the office, doing our work and we spoke briefly about my project, since I had interviewed him a couple of days ago. In the middle of that conversation, he asked me:

“So what’s your Indian name?”
“It’s Isha”
“Oh right, so what’s your English name?”
“I don’t have one”
“What? That’s so weird, why don’t you have an English name?”
“Well people from my country don’t really have English names, that’s basically what my entire research is about— how some people have English names while most others don’t.”

What’s shocking here is that Tim thinks its weird that I don’t have an English name. On the other hand, the entire reason I started this project was because I thought it was weird that some people did have English names. We both had opposite ideas on what was weird and what was natural. It’s because I grew up in a place where no one had English names, so the entire concept was foreign and unnatural to me. Tim, on the other hand, had grown up with everyone around him having English names, so he assumed that people from other parts of the world also had western names, finding it unnatural that I didn’t have one.

The second instance was when I was interviewing my roommate Yiqiu (please find related video under ‘video series’ tab). After the interview got over, Yi told me that she had grown up thinking these names were normal, but after all the questions I asked her, somehow she found herself questioning that and said that “there’s nothing normal about this”. She narrated an incident from her previous summer in Shanghai. She was interning with a firm and everyone in the office had English names. She was the only one who didn’t have one, and a guy (who was also Chinese) told her that she should get one and that he’d help her get one. She didn’t want an English name, because she couldn’t find any name with the same meaning as her traditional one, and didn’t think a generic name like ‘Susan’ or ‘Jennifer’ would do justice to her real name. She was shocked at the supervisor’s persistence, considering he was Chinese himself. She also noted that everyone in the office referred to each other with their English names, which again she found unnatural given that everyone was Chinese in that setting. Lastly, Yiqiu claimed that she didn’t use an English name not because she found that oppressive, but because she couldn’t find a name that really held the same meaning as her real name. Initially, I had assumed that her non-conformity had to do with her not liking the idea of these names and finding them authoritative, but instead she didn’t have one simply because she couldn’t find one as beautiful as her original one. Towards the end of the interview, during our discussion off camera, I noticed her questioning these ideas and really wondering if it was natural at all.

I think both these experiences were interesting for me, because I viewed this topic from a new lens: one that de-naturalises.

It’s Complicated

I had all these questions and ideas about English names in my head, but I needed to know more. I needed to know what people had to say, especially those who were directly involved with this. I turned to the internet, hoping it would make all of this less confusing but instead, the opposite happened. After hours of sitting on my laptop failing to find something solid on this topic, I realised: it’s complicated (I shouldn’t have expected otherwise, really). What I initially understood as a one-way expectation and some sort of oppressive strategy was actually seen very differently by people involved in this situation. Quora threads, reddit pages and informal discussion forums/ threads turned out to be gems with information that JSTOR could never provide. Here are some of the things I learnt:

  1. Acquiring an English name:

    A lot of people acquire English names in primary or middle school and at times, these names are suggested by their teachers. Most of the times, individuals acquire an English name after they are 5-6 years old, and are usually old enough to pick their own name. Choosing the names is an interesting part of this phenomenon. A lot of people tend to pick English names that are phonetically linked (sound similar) to their traditional name, so for example, some called Jin-hee would go by Jenny. I have a Taiwanese friend named Yu-Fang Wen, but she goes by Wendy, since it sounds similar to her last/ family name. Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean students tend to pick out names in their English class, where their textbook has a list of English names separated by gender, and the instructor tells them to pick one. Some people like to name themselves after their favourite celebrities or TV characters. I have a friend who had to pick a name at the age of 7 when she immigrated to Canada, and she chose Ariel because she loved Little Mermaid. I also read about a man who named himself Harrison because he loved the actor, and another woman who named herself Venus after Venus Williams. Christians from parts of East Asia (especially Korea) tend to choose Biblical names, and some were even assigned names during their baptism. While some names can be strategic and well thought out, others can be seemingly arbitrary like this one here:
    Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 11.38.33 PM

    Based on my research, English names are most common amongst Chinese, Taiwanese and Koreans. There was a trend of adopting western names between 1960’s-90’s in Japan, however the Japanese have gone back to their traditional names in the past few decades.Just as a side note, I discovered that a lot of Westerners adopt Chinese or Korean names while in those countries. A lot of people also recalled picking French/ Spanish names while in a foreign language class. Personally, I’ve had to learn close to 5 different languages in the past couple of years but I’ve never been asked to pick a name. Just for fun, I tried coming up with Chinese names for myself with some friends and that was a pretty interesting experience for me!
    Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 12.42.02 AM

Credit for both images: http://ask.metafilter.com/187443/How-do-you-pick-your-Anglo-name

 

  1. Reasons for acquiring an English name:

    I have read and heard of so many cases where people were told to choose a western name in English class by their teachers, after which it just stuck. Alternatively, a lot of my Canadian-Chinese friends got their English names only when they immigrated to Canada. A lot of international Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean students start actively using their English names after they move to a foreign country to study. Others claim that they acquire western names for employment purposes, making it easier to get jobs. Businessmen and professionals tend to adopt a western name for the sake of convenience while conducting business with foreigners. Within Hong Kong, the colonial factor has had a huge influence on the use of English names. Not only are students required to pick these names in their language class, but the language of instruction in schools and offices also tends to be English— creating a situation where such names are very common and often required. Most immigrants embrace English names to better assimilate into Western culture. There are, however, multiple layers to this and I’m going to elaborate on the relevance of English names to immigrant communities in a later section. Interestingly, taking on new names can also be viewed as part of an aspirational behavior— having a western name amongst certain groups can signify prestige or can be considered cool. A lot of teenagers in China use English names amongst themselves because they think it makes them look cooler. This phenomenon falls under the larger cultural colonisation of Taiwan by the US, which has made western celebrities, western items and even western names popular. Lastly, Pinyin names are difficult to translate into roman characters, thus some of my friends claim that it’s easier to adopt an entirely new name than having to go through the frustration and/ or awkwardness of foreigners constantly mispronouncing your traditional name.Interestingly, a single individual may go through multiple English names in throughout their lifetime. My colleague’s father changed his name 7 times over the past two decades before finally going back to his traditional name.

  1. Relevance of English names amongst immigrant communities:

    I’ve interviewed a bunch of my Chinese/ Vietnamese/ Taiwanese-Canadian friends at UBC regarding my project and they had some really interesting things to say. As immigrants, most of my friends find themselves in the middle of two different spaces. They identify as Canadian but also derive their sense of identity from their Asian heritage, and have what my friend Vicky would call a “hybrid identity”. For many, having two names helps navigate and also bridge the gap between these two very different spaces. These names also help them feel like they have their own little niche in both the worlds.Here’s some things they had to say:

“Having two names represents a lot of what it is like to live in the diaspora for me. I feel like I am always navigating the complexities of having two names, shifting between my Chinese name and English name depending on the context and relationships. Diaspora for me is like living in this third space somewhere in the middle, and also somewhere outside of the boundaries of Western and Chinese.”

— Yulanda Lui

“Being Asian-American/ Asian-Canadian [..] those kinds of hybrid identities are very different from just being purely Asian, Chinese, Indian or Vietnamese because it’s a very different experience to live here and have people perceive you to be from a different culture and you’re not really in any of them […] and you’re kind of in your own space”

—Vicky Chen

“It helps me to remember my cultural and historical roots to have a Vietnamese name yet my English name (being my legal one), reminds me that I am Canadian and any issues I face racially etc. cannot take away that birthright. Having the English name shows me my parents want to protect me and give me the best chance at success in Canada but keeping a Vietnamese name shows me that they see strength in where we came from.”

— Chantel Luu

“For me, having two names represents the two cultures or backgrounds an individual might be from. It can be something special as the two names are almost like a union of two distinct worlds.”

— Jessica Lai

Talking to my Asian-Canadian friends gave me an entirely new perspective on the value of these names. English names aren’t necessarily oppressive, like I had initially thought them to be. In fact, they’re a way for people to navigate different spaces, derive their sense of identity and also express the conjunction of two very different cultures.

  1. And Finally:

    Although all this information helped clarify so many things for me, it still didn’t answer why people only restricted to certain cultures (Chinese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese) adopted English names and not other Asians (Indians, Iranians, Pakistanis etc). The answer to this question likes purely in linguistics. Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese (along with some other Southeast Asian languages) are tonal languages i.e. words have different tones and pitches in these languages where as most Indo-European languages are not tonal. The same word might have a completely different meaning with a different tone. It is difficult to write Chinese or Vietnamese names (and words in general) in English because it doesn’t accommodate the tones or certain other sounds and therefore makes it difficult to articulate words from these languages into English. This is not the case with Korean and Japanese— making it easier to articulate Japanese and Korean names into English and also more convenient for English speakers to pronounce.

// Most of the information in this post isn’t cited because it’s either from discussion threads online or from conversations with my friends. I’ve done my best to give credit for any images, though. //

Initial Thoughts

//Before I go ahead with the rest of this article, I’d like to highlight that this blog is tracing my thought process from the beginning to an indefinite end. This specific post follows my initial thoughts on the subject, most of which came from a bias that English names were oppressive. While my take on this has changed after speaking to countless people, I do still think it is important to share my initial thoughts on the topic. //

 

I sat outside on a rare sunny day on a bench in Main Mall with a diary and a pen and scribbled some arbitrary thoughts. I had a lot of questions.

 

  1. Why were people from a specific area required to change their names? It was almost as if someone said, “Yeah well, I know you have a name, but it’s really inconvenient for me to pronounce. So why don’t you get a new name?”
  2. THIS:
    Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 10.39.59 PM.png
    (Credit: https://www.instagram.com/_dkaur/?hl=en)
  3. Imagine this: if you (someone from North America) went to an East Asian country, would you change your name? Probably not. Why is that?
    It’s because you’re not expected to. So why is it that people from certain areas are expected to change their names to fit into another society? My issue was not that people were adopting English names, my objection was with this one way expectation— that they were expected to do it. This expectation reflects an internalized attitude and inherent power dynamics.
  4. In my understanding, a name sits at the core of one’s identity. Isn’t expecting someone to adopt a new name sort of changing that identity in some way?
  5. I have an analogy. You’ve probably heard of micro aggressions. An example of racial micro aggressions would be: “Wow, you’re really pretty for a black girl” or asking someone “But where are you originally from?” These micro aggressions take place all the time, and while some people might not see these comments as a problem, they can be extremely offensive to others.
    In the same way, let’s think of a micro oppression. I have some examples: “You play football like a girl” or this, for example:
    Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 11.29.54 PM
    (Credit: http://mashable.com/2015/04/16/microaggression/#RhzsQKshHiqp)

    Little comments or actions like these can be extremely oppressive and reflect an internalized power dynamic. It reveals a colonial attitude of ethnocentrism and superiority, where one party (the more powerful one) attempts to force the other party to conform to the former’s ideals and in a way makes them feel like they are not good enough. One of my anthropology professors once said that the central tactic of colonialism was to diminish people by attempting to “correct the essence of their being”. While most people may not see the micro oppression behind English names, I definitely feel there’s a power structure at play.

 

// These were some of my initial thoughts on the topic, and like I said, I approached this with a bias that these names were oppressive. However, as I did more research and spoke to more people, I realised that the situation is complicated and not as one-sided as I initially thought it to be. More content to follow! //

Genesis

I came to Canada just about 6 months ago and was pretty surprised when a lot of my Chinese, Taiwanese or Korean friends introduced themselves with two different names. One was considered their traditional name (one they used in their respective countries) and the other was an “English” name, used primarily with foreigners.

 

I was confused at first— “why two names? Do you mean that one is your first name and the second is your middle name?”

“No, we have two first names. One we use with English speakers and the other we use in our countries.”

“Why?”

“English speakers find it difficult to pronounce our traditional names, so we just use an English name to make life easier for everyone.”

 

This concept still seemed new to me; almost everyone I know has just one name, so why were people from a certain cultural background required to have two names?

 

I found myself thinking about this quite a bit over the past couple of months, creating theories and trying to look at this topic from different angles (as you will find out through subsequent posts). Finally, when we had to pick out a topic for our ANTH 300 final project, this topic almost automatically came to my mind. After a couple of conversations with my TA and professor, this is the final product of my journey in exploring this topic.

 

While taking up this topic, I approached it with a set of biases, which I constantly make an effort to identify and acknowledge throughout this blog. Sometimes, you will find me going back and forth on the same issue, revisiting the same topic and sometimes completely changing my take on it. This is because this project isn’t meant to have a definitive conclusion or supposed to have a ‘right or wrong’ answer; this is simply my journey in exploring a topic that I find interesting. And this is my way of sharing this with you. Due to the nature of this subject and how dynamic my topic is, it would be unfair to write a research paper about it and keep it to myself. Anthropology as a discipline is about people and thus needs to be made more accessible to the people— to you guys. My objective, therefore, is just to create a platform where this discourse can take place. Hence you, the reader, become an integral part of this project and it would be incomplete without your engagement and active participation. I want you to share your experiences; I want to hear what you have to say. Use the hashtag #OnEnglishNames and let’s get this conversation going!

Hello and welcome!

Hi, I’m Isha! I’m an anthropology major at University of British Columbia and this blog was created as a part of my final ANTH 300 project. What follows is a series of blog posts on the subject of English Names being adopted by East Asians. My aim is to look at this topic from an anthropological lens and also get this discourse going on social media and other platforms.