The Naming Conundrum
#Before You Read 前言
Hi, it’s me. This shall be the last time I abuse Medium as my article debut stage. This is a project from a course I’m taking at National Taiwan University, Journalistic Writing, and you could find our official Tumblr here. Also, if this article seems familiar, it’s probably because it is an extension from this article a few weeks past.
While I was deciding which name I should use while opening a new account on a service whose interface was in English a few weeks back, I initially attempted to type “Susan Hsu” in the column, then I faltered.
I realized that I am unsure of who I am and what my identity is with all the fusion between cultures. Am I proud of being a Taiwanese? If so, why do my instincts scream at me to give my English name under Western context? I am no longer certain of where I stand. Should I worry or care about the importance of being an Asian in Western countries? Does cultural identification / dignity matter to Taiwanese youngsters nowadays? I have friends like me who are Taiwanese from root, and have little experience in interacting for a long term with different cultures, and I have friends who do. I reckoned that I shall ask around my peers to glean some insight on this matter.
J was working on convincing my computer to run Python codes for him when I caught him off guard with my inquiries. I have known J for my entire life and could say that we grow up in identical environments. “What kind of question is that? Of course I would tell people my name was Jason if I were to study or work in San Francisco. I wouldn’t want to be discriminated against or be treated inferiorly, would I? Best stick with a name that would not draw much attention.” J answered with such conviction that shook me.
“Would you not want to at least keep a fraction of who you are and where you are from?” I asked tentatively. “Ok, first of all, if I were already in America, or just an other foreign countries, why would I care? I would want to blend in and make sure that people don’t remember me just because I am one of the minority. I want to prove myself as a strong techie as soon as possible. Also, I think the name Jason sounds much cooler than my Chinese one.” “So using your original Chinese name is out of the picture?” “Definitely.” He raised his eyebrows challengingly and went back to demanding my computer around.
I asked A to help me purchase some things since she’s studying in Boston. After checking the exchange rate and making sure how much I own her, I further distracted her from her lab duties with questions that had been swarming in my head. A was born and raised in Taiwan, only starting her life in the US since being admitted into her current university, so I figured she might have found a way to strike a balance.
“When I first came here, I asked people to call me by my English name,” she sent me long voice messages in lieu of text, sounding like she was trying to organize her thoughts as she spoke. “I didn’t mention my Chinese name because people wouldn’t know how to pronounce it anyways.” “No one here calls me by my Chinese name — not even my Chinese friends — we all call each other by our English names, and even though my Western friends would ask for my Chinese name or even attempt to pronounce it out of curiosity, they would eventually revert to my English one; my nicknames are also all derived from it.” She already sound fatigued from all her research works in the lab, but she pressed on stubbornly.
“I guess I want to feel like I belong here, so I wouldn’t mind sticking with my English name. But it is required here that the name on any credential should be the same as your passport, thus I always feel unbalanced when they call out your name on the ID card in health service. I mean, it’s a bit awkward and embarrassing since you are the only one with an obviously Chinese name.” She sounds uncharacteristically unsure of herself.
“Therefore, I reserve respect for those who are willing to understand both of my names or would at least try to pronounce my name. I am always pleasantly surprised if people are willing to get to know both of my worlds in a formal setting.”
Y attends university in D.C. Like A, she’s never been abroad long-term until she was eighteen. She is wonderfully barmy and dorky and would willingly abandon her studies immediately to reply to my serious identification-crisis messages properly. It is obvious that she has faced similar struggles as A has, however, the difference between those two strong-willed girls is that Y has really intense feelings towards her Chinese name.
“Although I go around by my English name, I still put my full Chinese name on my examination papers and school credentials — my school allows us to change our names on those to preferred name, but my Chinese name is what I prefer.” “I feel like the name represents my background, where I came from, therefore I am proud to use my original name on official documents.” She stated fiercely.
“There is nothing wrong with ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’, but keeping Chinese names here means something to me. Our Chinese names carry some sort of blessings from our family, whereas English names are mostly chosen because it sounds good on the ear, and that’s why I think English names are more like a convenient substitute, not capable of representing our full selves.”
Z was my roommate for the first half of this school year, right after she came back from strengthening her language skills for half a year in Canada. She has always known where she stands when it comes to identity issues and political grounds, so this issue had naturally made the topic of our first late night talk a few months ago.
“You know I have changed my Instagram profile name from Chinese to my English one a few weeks before I took off to Canada, but changed it to my Pinyin name after staying there for a while,” she started.”Yeah, I have always wondered.” I replied, genuinely curious.
“I chose my English name because it sounds a lot like my Chinese one so I could reply more naturally to it, and I thought that it would be more convenient for my foreign classmates to remember,” she recounted with a distant air, “but I have always felt that I don’t recognize myself when being called by my English name, and just after the second month, I taught my classmates the pronunciation of my Chinese name and asked them to call me by that.” “Surprisingly, I met almost zero resistance. I finally felt my soul could settle in my body.” “Do your foreign classmates use their names in their mother tongue though?” I enquired. “Half and half. But our good Korean neighbours do, so I think I am entitled to use any name that makes me feel the most comfortable, feel the most like myself.” She even turned her nose up into the air just to make her point.
“My Chinese name is what I identify myself with, it is the embodiment of my roots, my culture, and is the conduit that connects just every fibre of my self-identification for twenty years back to me. People should respect my choice.”
When I called Xi, we were both eating breakfast and chilling in our respective dormitories, a picture of two lazy people living real near to each other but didn’t bother to meet. I crossed my feet onto the table and let the raspy voice of hers wash over me. “Though you have probably never heard of it, I actually have an English name, you know. Wanna hear it?” She teased, “nah I’m not gonna tell you. I hate it. I hate not being able to go by my actual name, Xi.”
“I was born before the dawn, that’s why my parents called me Xi. It actually means something to me, and I would prefer to be called so, and am more than happy to identify and introduce myself as such.”
Xi has had her fair share in participating in student politics, being the chair person of our student association while being a year older than me in high school. She had been criticized, doubted and loved, all of which she made through and become this independent person who does her own critical thinking over every issue.
“The weird thing is — you know I had been in Spain for a while, but I had never been given a hard time because I chose to use my Chinese name there, or with any foreigners actually, instead it has always been the Taiwanese that question my name choice, no matter in social gatherings or even when I fill out forms for internships.” “People would be like: why don’t you have a proper English name, do you have to use your Pinyin name…” She sounded frustrated. At this, she hung up on me abruptly as per usual.
“I’m just so bloody tired of the hypocrisy from most Taiwanese,” Xi called me back just as abruptly while I was almost falling asleep again. “I am not averse to people holding different opinions — think what you want, and whether you take into account other’s is your own choice — but I do have a problem with people forcing their views on others.”
“I would love to know what Taiwan would be like when people could think for themselves, and thus are actually entitled to their opinions.”
E and W are two of my best mates in the department. They are like me, Taiwanese through and through, have never ventured out of Taiwan for more than a month and certainly don’t have any experiences in staying at a foreign country and obligated to interact with a completely different culture. All we have are a decent command of English and a motive to explore the world by the aid of internet.
“Why are you called Dan, mate?” I asked W lazily one afternoon when the three of us were folding up the posters that were ready to be distributed around the campus. “It’s just a random name given by my English teacher when I was young and it has stuck until today.” “Do you like it? Do you relate to it?” “I hold no negative feelings towards it, but honestly if I could use my Chinese name if the situation permits, I would. So for example if I just meet a foreign person and it seems that it would stay that way, then I’d simply introduce myself as Dan, since it’d probably be easier for the both of us. Still, educating people on the origin of my Chinese name is quite a good conversation opener.’’
E chimed in, “I have always been trying to change my current English name into something that sounds at least like my Chinese one.” “I don’t suppose you would succeed in that field.” I summarized after all of us giving the thought several ridiculous tries. “No.” E sighed, “I like my actual name well enough anyways, and I have always attempted to give my Chinese name to foreigners on the first try.”
Both of them agreed that Chinese names reflect more of our actual self and gives us a better sense of well-being. “It doesn’t seem right to favour my English name over my Chinese one,” W shrugged, “it feels like turning my back on what has raised me, and I refuse to feel like I should be ashamed of or even conceal my roots.”
Taiwanese have always had some kind of identity crisis for obvious historical and political reasons, and we tend to overlook our own rich and layered culture in favour of imitating (somewhat poorly) foreign mainstream cultures. The name choice issue presented here reflects some of this paradox.
After combing through all the various arguments being presented to me, I have come to an conclusion — I could respect and understand the reasons different people in their respective context have chosen and adopted, since different situations call for different adapting measures. Nonetheless, I think the most important thing for our generation is that we should not allow ourselves to go slack and let others do the thinking for us. Instead, we should try our best to collect our own information, try to stay impartial, conduct critical thinking, and reach our own conclusion and stand by it.
To me, I am glad to see that while there are still some Taiwanese who wouldn’t prefer to use their Chinese name in Western regions for fear of being treated differently, more and more of our generation are trying to embrace their identity and face any impending mistreat or slip of the tongue head-on. With this affirmation in mind, I confidently switched back to the registration page and put down “Yishan Hsu” in the name column contentedly.
End Notes: I would like to thank my friends, 蔡、倫、魚、趙、曦、施、陳、茱 , all Drarry author’s vocab nurturing and other anonymous people who might have provided the sparks, if any, in this article. My beloved friends provide stories and compassion for this article whether intentionally or inadvertently.