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!