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