What's in a name? Choosing a Western Name When You're from Another Culture
Disclaimer: I completely understand that I am writing this from a place of privilege. Arguably the only person more privileged than I is the ever powerful white male. I don't claim to understand the all of struggles and challenges of diving into a culture that may be far removed from your own. But I do try to think critically and inclusively.
Newsflash: Your friend named Sally who grew up in China, but now lives in Canada was probably not born Sally.
I'm always equal parts fascinated and saddened when people from other cultures choose western names for themselves. I'm fascinated to learn what name this person has chosen for themselves and how they've decided on the name. Most people don't get to choose their own names in adulthood. It seems like such a huge burden, if I'm to be honest.
I'm also always a little sad to know that this person may have chosen a Western name because they may think that their own name is too hard for Westerners to pronounce or they may feel they have a better shot at job or school applications with a western name.
I'm not always successful, but I try hard to learn to pronounce someone's name and to learn some basic sounds in the native language of countries I visit. For example, learning to pronounce "xi" and "zh" sounds in China has come in handy.
If I'm in your life, and you feel as though I don't put effort into staying your name correctly, please pull me aside and give me a lesson.
How does one arrive at their western name?
Over the years, I've been told several common stories on how people came into their western names.
1. It was given to them by an English language teacher.
2. Some westerner who their family very much respects was given the honour of choosing their English name.
3. They chose it themselves when they began to learn English.
Number 3 can produce fascinating results. The adults I usually meet have typical sounding western names. When asked, they often say that they chose a standard western name that they liked. Or they may say that they chose a name that sounded close to their own birth name. I have met quite a few Chinese Waynes or Toms in my time, as it apparently sounds like some common Chinese names.
When I meet teenage students at English speaking schools, they have often chosen their own name somewhere in their early teen years.
This post was inspired by three students I met this week named JayZ, Shakira and Valentine.
You see, I find myself meeting young Chinese students with wacky names. Although, in fairness, I wonder what I would have named myself if I had the option to choose a new name at 14. Maybe I would have gone with Rainbow Brite.
Most of these young people will find that their names are a little ridiculous if they move to North America and will inevitably change their names to something more classic. Other students I have met along the way include Ice Cream, Rainbow and Coffee. Only the children of celebrities can get away with those names!
Young Valentine seemed to be the quickest to catch on. In fact several weeks prior he had changed his name to Eric. In his words, his name was "too confusing for people". And it drew "too much attention and too many questions", the opposite of what a young teenage boy wants! He finished by saying, "I just want a normal name". The only reason I knew he used to be Valentine was because his school had not yet updated his ID badge to reflect his change of heart.