What’s in a name?

I’ve always felt that using the English names was using the easy way out to avoid actually learning their real names, but things aren’t that simple.

I’ve always found it amusing when Asian people take on English names. The concept of adopting another name was very foreign to me. Why would you adopt and then use a name that is not your own? It also surprised me to learn that each person chooses their English name. How do you sort through the possible names in a foreign language and choose one for yourself? It was hard for your parents to decide on a name, but they had it a bit easier because they had less to consider. When choosing a name for yourself, you have to pick one that represents you, knowing what your parents couldn’t have known when you were born. (That being said there are obviously fads in the choice of names. I’ve met way too many Kevins for it to be a coincidence.)

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Back when I lived in Korea, when I met a local for the first time, they would always offer their real name followed by their English one. I never wanted to learn the “made up” name because it made me feel as though I was taking the easy way out, avoiding the harder task of learning their actual name. This is also linked to the importance I place in learning the local language when moving abroad. I’ve always felt that by continuing to live in English no matter where I live, I’m sending the message that me and my language are superior and that it is therefore unnecessary for me to use my precious time to learn a foreign language. Meanwhile, I expect that they took time to learn mine. Although it is true that it is impossible to learn all the languages of the countries we visit, I think that if you decide to move somewhere you need to spend the necessary time to learn that language.

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Since moving to Taiwan, I have been reminded of the difficulty linked to learning (and remembering) foreign name. This not only applies to my ability to learn Chinese names, but the ability of locals to learn mine. I therefore started to simply introduce myself as Gaby. However, that quick fix began to be an issue once I started Chinese classes. No matter how I shortened my name, it simply did not sound Chinese, making my life and that of my classmates very difficult. I therefore decided to give myself a Chinese name. In many of the Chinese language schools, they automatically give you a Chinese name for administrative purposes. All of the forms have a space for both your foreign and Chinese name. The names given out by the schools are made to resemble your actual name, leaving you with a funny sounding and very hard to write name. In my case, I asked my 老師 (teacher) to give me a few options for me to choose from. At first, I only really used my Chinese name in class. However, it quickly left the classroom space and made its way to the real world. It became not only an easy way for me to save other the trouble of remembering my name, but also a source of personal pride. The fact that I had a Chinese name was proof of my burgeoning linguistic abilities. I didn’t mind that my host family called me 海芸 (hai yun), I actually rather liked it.



The fact that they were using my Chinese name didn’t mean that they were taking the easy way out. By using my Chinese name, they were acknowledging that I had a link to the country and to the language, rather than simply passing by. It was also the best way of making friend as people remembered my Chinese name (and could not for the life of them remember my other one). I have always been really indifferent to how people called me be it Gab, Gabi, Gabriella or whatever other set of jumbled letters that came out. At this point, I have to admit that I actually prefer if they call me 海芸.


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