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:


  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
  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

    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! //


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.”


“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.