Conclusions

Over the course of this project, I noticed that a lot of my ideas on the topic changed completely, but more importantly, that I was able to identify certain biases that I had. In our first ANTH 300 lecture, we discussed how every anthropologist approaches a particular topic of study with their own “lens”. For example, if your lens is blue in colour, you might be looking at a yellow object but inferring that it appears green. These lens could be biases, ideologies, one’s limited exposure (to other cultural beliefs and ideas) or so forth. You can’t eliminate your “lens” or perspective from your research, but acknowledging that “lens” allows you to be able to look at your data more objectively. I noted that once I had identified and acknowledged my “lens”, things became clearer. I started seeing English names for what they meant to people rather than what I thought it should have meant to them.

For the purposes of my class project and due to the limited time and resources I had, I have arrived at the following conclusion. English names create a space that help in bridging the gap between very distinct cultures. It allows Asian – Canadian individuals navigate the mainstream North American culture, while also having a connection to their ancestral roots with the help of their traditional names. I still stand by the thoughts I had about power dynamics between the cultures — where one culture is privileged over the other. However, I also think that it’s important to see that while there is a power dynamic at play, this is the lived reality of a particular group and it would be incorrect for me to pass a value judgement on English names being good, bad, oppressive or liberating. My role here was just to explore the issue, create an awareness about it and share my thoughts or theories on it.

I definitely see the scope of this topic being studied further and in greater detail, but it exceeds the capacity I have for this class project. I hope to pick this up at some point in the future and conduct a more extensive study, where I look at the topic of “double naming” being extended to different geographical regions or cultures. Until then, I officially call this project to a close and hope you have enjoyed following my journey.

As always, comments, questions and suggestions are welcome!

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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.

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.