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“Did you say SHY-YAN? SHU-YEN? … Can I just call you Sheila?”

11 October 2009

Recently, I was confronted with a kind of discomfort I haven’t felt in a long time.

I started this Business Planning class at the Renaissance Entrepreneurial Center a few weeks ago. In some ways, new class means what new classes have always meant – fresh, clean notebooks; pens; binders & the paper to fill them; dividers with colored tabs; shiny, new accoutrements; & new friends.

But for me, and other Asian people who tunneled through that period in their adolescence when a person was supposed to “get an American name” with their Asian names still intact, the first day in a new class also means having to explain to new people what your name is, how to say it, and why no, no matter how difficult your name may be to pronounce, it’s YOUR NAME, and they cannot make up a nickname for you.

All the while fielding comments like, “Wow! That’s so EXOTIC. What does that mean? Does it have a special meaning?” and “Whoa, are you, like, Chinese? Can you say something in Chinese? Hey class! Shiyuan has something she’d like to say in Chinese.” (True story, BTW – 3rd grade, Harding Elementary School, Corvallis, Oregon.)

The appeal for Asian people (& others with names from languages that English speaking tongues just can’t manage) to get American names is pretty obvious:

To fit in.

To make friends.

To not be made to feel uncomfortable every time somebody takes it upon themselves to give you a name that’s easier to pronounce without your permission, or makes fun of you or your name for being strange. (Yeah, I know. You’re not laughing at me, you’re laughing with me.)

To move forward in your career. (My mom was convinced that  using an American name on her CV would get her more call backs than her Chinese name, Jing. I told her that wasn’t true & nobody is going to discriminate against a Chinese person in the biotechnology field. That’s just crazy. Evidently not: Macon’s post at Stuff White People Do cites recent studies done in Canada and the US that show that my mom could be 50% more likely to get called back if she changed her name to Jill.)

For the opportunity to just blend in, for once in your life. But also, to not be ignored. (White people are either exoticizing you & your Asian name, or ignoring you because they can’t pronounce your Asian name. Both situations suck.)

And, in case Asian people didn’t get the message through all those years of teasing & ridicule, Texas Republican Betty Brown lays it out:

No easy choices

Although there are distinct advantages to adopting an American name, there are also some real costs.

Changing your name because nobody can pronounce it & your embarrassed is a process with its own kind of awkwardness. Unless you change your name on all your legal documents, every time a teacher (or anybody else) calls your by your on-paper name, you’d have to correct them and relive the discomfort in that way, over and over again.That’s why I never went through with it.

As a kid, nothing seemed more unbearable to me  than being the only person in my grade school class to change their name because it was too weird. Shiyuan becoming Julie or Alison would have said, “I know I’m not one of you & I really want to be, so if I pretend that I belong here, will you pretend I belong, too?” That’s not an comfortable position, either.

Also, Chinese names aren’t like American names. In the English language, there are designated “name” words. For example: John, Lisa, Dan, and Susan. Everyone knows that John is a name, not a species of tree, or a kind of computer part. In the Chinese language, however, there are no specially designated “name” words. That is, you can take any combination of Chinese characters to form a name. “Tree potato” – that’s a name. Not a good name, but a name nonetheless.

Because there are words set aside in the English language for names, the process by which Americans choose a name isn’t complicated. Most people go with the name of a family member, or a friend. Or, whatever their favorite celebrity named their kid. If they’re super picky, Americans’ll consult baby books & Google for unique ideas that nobody else will think of. (The 4th most popular baby name for 2008 was Madison.)

As a result, most English names aren’t that creative. I mean, Jessica? Two of my closest friends from college are named Jessica. I bet two of your best friends from college are named Jessica, too.

But for Chinese people, choosing a baby name is a wholly different experience. My parents choose “Shi” and “Yuan” out of the 20,000 or so characters in the Chinese language to represent the good wishes they had for me, & the kind of person they hoped I would grow up to be. In China, there’s no such thing as “oh, I didn’t like my name so I changed it.” Names mean something different there.

For many people, their name is their connection to where they come from. No matter how many benefits there may be to having an American name, leaving behind your “ethnic” name isn’t without its costs.

– Shiyuan

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 11 October 2009 11:02 pm

    “SHIYUAN” is a glorious name!

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