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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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?
- 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
- From Group B, much of the information I received has been covered in the previous post.