Behind a name

Behind a name

One’s name is one of the most salient features for one’s identity. Some parents suffer from extraordinary indecisiveness when giving their newborn a wonderfully auspicious and proper name, all with utmost good intentions and expectations. English language learners often have the same experience later in life: how did you get your English name, especially if your mother tongue is not an alphabetic language?

If you ask overseas students how they named themselves in English, you probably will get some surprising and amusing answers. For instance, a young man from Taiwan shared this experience with me: He was given a name by his English teacher when he was a kid. “You are George,” said the teacher to him with a book of names in her hand. After he went home and told his mother about it, he started to hate the name. It was because the way his mother, whose first language is Taiwanese and who doesn’t speak any English, pronounced the name. The way she pronounced “George” made it sound like the Taiwanese word for “toad”. This made him feel upset and humiliated. After a few years, he was given another English name by another teacher. This time, he was called Wilson. He liked it and has kept using it until now for two reasons. Firstly, it is not so common in English textbooks. Secondly, the 28th President of the United States was called Wilson, although that was a surname.

As for me, I decided to name myself in preparation for the educational setting just before I entered college. It was not an easy choice for me, because I didn’t feel any English name sounded like myself and could express my identity. Finally, I named myself Grace after the wife of the US president in the movie, Air Force One. It sounded very elegant to me and surely I could not go wrong with the name of a fictional US first lady. However, in the first semester of college, a teacher played some TV episodes to us in which an “old lady” who was always telling tales had the same name as mine! I felt very embarrassed sitting in class. However, somehow I have just kept on using it. In addition to the English name that I use for English speakers, I have my Chinese name transliterated into the Latin alphabet on my passport as the official name on my documents. Nevertheless, I always feel distant from it because the spelling, which merely presents the sounds, misses out all the great meanings my parents bestowed upon my birth name, which is unique and unlike any other. Never mind all that talk about the Chinese being collectivist, we are very individualistic when it comes to names!

In addition to the many stories you can hear about choosing an English name, I found something interesting in interactions among overseas students introducing themselves to others in Australia. When meeting with non-Mandarin Chinese speakers, some prefer using their English name to make it easier for the audience. Some prefer using the spelling or homonym of their Chinese name, so it feels more like themselves in a sense. There are also some, but very few, using more unusual names to impress people, trying to stand out in this individualist culture.

When we meet other people from Taiwan, things become even more interesting and sophisticated. While meeting for the first time, one may start with one’s English name since the setting is in Australia. However, once the interlocutors realize they come from the same country, become familiar with each other, and maybe begin to converse in Mandarin or Taiwanese, at some point they start to exchange their Chinese names. This action implies that “now I know you in person,” no matter which name they would prefer calling each other afterwards. Asking and giving our birth given names symbolises a further level of the personal relationship. It is as if one’s real identity has been revealed and is suggestive of the potential for longer and deeper relationships. On the other hand, if a person purposefully refuses to mention their birth given name, the subtle underlying implication is “I am not revealing myself to you” or “I do not want you to know me.” By implication, the English name becomes a mask behind which we can hide.

Have you changed your name in another language environment? I’d love to hear your story!

Author Grace Chu-Lin Chang

Receiving a 2011 Endeavour PhD Postgraduate Award from the Australian Government to fund her research, Grace now holds a PhD degree in Linguistics from Macquarie University in Sydney. Building upon her experiences in student services as an English teacher, a student affairs coordinator, a translator and a researcher, Grace devotes herself to cross-cultural communication and social participation of transnationals.

More posts by Grace Chu-Lin Chang
  • Thanks Grace Chu-Lin Chang for inspiring me to write my story behind the name. Interesting you mentioned that English aliases have become a mask behind which we can hide. I have always rejected my English alias that was arbitrarily assigned to me on the day I came to this continent with my parents. Based on their limited acquaintance with English names at the time, they selected the name of an English royal. Huh? It was a name that I never identified with – just felt strange and sounded rather clumsy with my surname. And I didn’t understand why I had to relinquish my name or identity when I came to this country.

    After elementary school and high school and in advance of post-secondary studies, I thought it would be an opportune time to revert to my birth name. Over the years, I observed it was typically newcomers from Asia, Southeast Asia in particular, who sought to adopt an English alias while immigrants from other parts…ran out of space, continue reading at .

  • khan

    Dear Grace Chu-Lin Chang,

    Very interesting post. Names are very important as people read loads of things in the name: religious leaning in particular which may or may not be true. My full name is Muhammad Ali Khan. My international friends call me Khan, my friends in Pakistan mostly address me by Ali whereas my professional colleagues and family members especially elders call me Muhammad Ali.

    All three i.e Khan, Ali and Muhammad Ali triggered a different identity in me, I suppose. I resisted MAK consciously given by my colleagues in UK however, few very close friends of mine have started calling me Khan Sebba ( Sebba is the surname of my supervisor). I seemed to have liked it because I admire my supervisor a lot. I sometime think I am all: Khan, Ali, Muhammad Ali and Khan Sebba. What I like most about the last name is the fact that it breaks the traditional category between Muslim and Jews. Combination of both.


  • As a former ESL teacher Ive also long been intrigued by the names English language learners choose for themselves. In fact, when they arrived in my classroom in Australia and I asked them what name I should call them, I always encouraged them to use their own name rather than an English name – but I was only sometimes successful. In my experience, no Japanese speakers changed their names (perhaps because Japanese names are a little easier for English speakers to remember?) but Koreans did most of the time. Their argument was mostly that we native speakers often forgot their names or mixed the syllables up, etc, but my argument was that if they didnt allow us to practice their names wed never manage to get them right! My name (Amanda) is reasonably easily pronounced (or slightly mispronounced, but thats never bothered me) by everyone, so perhaps I would feel differently if people were constantly getting my name completely wrong.

  • Thanks for the story!

    In Esperanto, there are no silent letters and no letter “y” so people would not know how to say my name. They would pronounce Penelope nearly right except that the emphasis n Esperanto is always on the second last syllable, which would be a bit odd. The most-proper way to Esperantize my name is to use the affix -nyo to make a clearly feminine diminutive (Penjo, which sounds like “Penyo”) but I usually just use Peni, which sounds right and means “to try”, which kind of suits me!
    Asian Esperanto-speakers often choose words they find attractive as easily-remembered names. Often males choose nouns (like Ĉielo=Sky) and females choose adjectives (like Natura=Nature) and this allows easy identification of gender by the last letter being o or a. It is a useful consideration that should be more widely used, I think.

  • Maureen

    Our names (whether chosen ourselves or given by others) really do have power. I lived in Tokyo for over a year when I was 10. At the time I learned to spell my name, transliterated in Japanese characters. Thirteen years later, I now live in Japan again (teaching English). When I first arrived, I found that all of my official documents had my name spelled differently than I’d learned thirteen years prior (this time transliterated based on spelling — ma-u-ree-n — rather than pronunciation — mo-ree-n).

    More than anything else in my move, I found this change of name to be most jolting, even though it was only the spelling, and only on official forms. It felt as if someone had taken away a piece of my identity. It also reminded me of a passage in Eva Hoffman’s “Lost in Translation” in which she speaks very eloquently about the same sense of loss she encountered when her name was altered, immigrating from Poland to Canada.

  • Maureen

    Found the quote from “Lost in Translation” (Eva Hoffman, 1989, p. 105) I was looking for:

    “Nothing much has happened, except a small, seismic mental shift. The twist in our names takes them a tiny distance from us — but it’s a gap into which the infinite hobgoblin of abstraction enters. Our Polish names didn’t refer to us; they were as surely us as our eyes or hands. These new appellations, which we ourselves can’t yet pronounce, are not us. They are identification tags, disembodied signs pointing to objects that happen to be my sister and myself… [They] make us strangers to ourselves.”

  • Thanks for this post! This is something that I’ve always been aware of as a prospective ESL teacher. It’s fascinating when I’ll ask how to pronounce a student’s name, especially when it’s phonetically translated from a language I’m unfamiliar with, and they tell me to just call them Kevin.

    I realized that even in immigrating to America from Taiwan, if I had kept to my translated Chinese name (Ku Kuo-Han), I would still only be recognized as Kuo, a third of what I would be in Chinese. For example, in Chinese, we call George Washington by his last name, Washington or Hua Shun-Dun. Now if Hua Shun-Dun were to immigrate to America, Hua would turn into his last name and we would probably call him Shun or maybe Shawn, out of convenience.

    I’ve been learning American Sign Language and deaf people have sign names that are given to them based on personality and character traits. It’s a big part of their identity and who they are. I don’t see how names in other languages are any different.

  • Grace

    Thanks Eric for your comment. However, I am a bit unsure what you mean by the last sentence. Do you mean all names are created based on personality and character traits? : )