Friday, July 1, 2011

What's in a name?

Leading off from a recent Facebook discussion on the importance of names, I’d like to talk a bit about naming in Taiwan and what I’ve observed of it.

I know a lot of foreigners who applaud Taiwanese who don’t take English names. I have to say I rather like the convention of having an English name, because the culture surrounding what to call someone (vis-a-vis your relationship to them) is so different as to be confusing, especially for people whose roles in your life are unclear – like foreigners, who don’t always fit neatly into defined circles of acquaintance in Taiwan.

I’m going to change names for this but use relevant examples, by the way – I don’t want to publish my friends’ actual full names, even Chinese names in Pinyin.

Here, though, is why I like having an English name to refer to.

I have a student named “Lin Shu-fen”. Shu-fen is a doctor, about fifteen years older than I am, and she and I get along like gangbusters. I’ve taught her for well over a year at this point in a one-on-one course. She has an English name that she’s not only never used, I only know of it through third-person information. She doesn’t care for it and has never told me of its existence.

Many of you are aware that calling somebody by their first name alone is a sign of a close friend or family level of intimacy, and that people in one’s outer circle would generally call her by a nickname – A-fen? Xiao Shu? Something else? – or some variant on Little, Miss, Mrs. Or Old (Lin Xiaojie, Old Lin, Little Lin). Someone who is not a very close friend, spouse or family member would generally not just call her “Shu-fen”.

In Japan they solve this with the suffix “-san” – anybody can be a –san and it can be applied to either the first or last name. In Taiwan it’s less clear, because as a foreigner you might not know off the bat which other name to use, which is too formal and which is too intimate.

For the first year or so of our acquaintance, I had a really hard time figuring out how to address my student by name. I felt in my gut that “Shu-fen” was too familiar, but all of the common nicknames were unclear – which one to use? I couldn’t call her (or didn’t feel comfortable calling her) A-, Xiao- or Lao- because I don’t want to make any statements about our relative positions or ages, and I couldn’t call her any variant on what in the USA we’d refer to as “Ms. Lin”. I was at a loss. Dr. Lin would have been way too formal, as well, and calling her “Lin Shu-fen” to her face? No.

Being a direct person, once I figured we had a strong enough acquaintance I just asked her directly what she’d like to be called, and explained my predicament honestly. She laughed up a storm and told me that “Shu-fen” was fine, and to go ahead and use that. Phew.

Another student, let’s call him “Chang Ying-de” (I am not sure that’s a real name, but whatevs). We were discussing this issue and he said that many of the people he meets as part of his public-relations heavy job call him “Little Chang” even though he’s in his forties. He has an English name, “Bill”, so of course I use that. We talked about what I would call him if he had no English name and, after thinking about it, told me honestly that he had no idea - that he’d probably just have me call him “YD” (for the first letters of his “name”) or get used to me calling him by his first name in Chinese.

He laughed and agreed that Xiao Chang (“Little Chang”), A-ying and “Xiao Ying” would be very strange indeed, but “A-Chang” or “Mr. Chang” in English or Chinese would be entirely too formal.

(Note – the “ying” in his pseudonym is correct, and anyone who called him “Xiao Ying” now would be calling him 小英, the adopted public nickname of Tsai Ying-wen, who is running for President in 2012. Her campaign posters all read “I just want Little Ying!” – 我就要小英!”so he’s abandoned that nickname…”too weird!”)

“Would you be OK with it if I had to call you ‘Ying-de’?”
“Honestly, if you ask me that now, no. That would be too weird. It’s not that I don’t like you as a teacher or enjoy our class, it’s just that you’re not my best friend or close family member. But if I had no English name I would get used to it.”

I’m not sure I would, though. I got used to it with Shu-fen, but I don’t know about doing that as a matter of course. I do of course run into other students, usually in short-term or seminar courses who I see briefly and then never again or not for years, who don’t have English names. I call them by their Chinese first names because I have no choice, but generally speaking I prefer to try to adhere to the local culture as much as possible.

The same holds true for my friends. While I do have friends here I’d consider close, I’d still feel weird calling them outright by their Chinese given names (my student confirmed this – that even his good friends have nicknames for him, and it would really have to be a close, almost brotherly, friendship before someone would actually call him Ying-de). Fortunately, they all have English names – Sasha, Lilian, Roy, Ray, Cathy, Cara – so I don’t need to worry about that. I’d feel less weird calling them by their given Chinese names than I would students, but it’s still a stretch. Yichen, Chiya, Hsin-yi, Xiaozhong, Yicheng…I dunno. I guess I could, but it would feel off somehow.

Granted, I don’t have the same hangups about my own Chinese name, 張白蓮. I’m fine with people calling me “Bai-lian” and would in fact feel weird being called “Chang Xiaojie”, “Xiao Lian”, “A-lian” or any variant thereof. Of course everybody just calls me Jenna, or they’re calling because they’re Zhonghua Telecom, my goat milk company or they’re my Chinese teacher, and they just call me by my full name (Chinese teachers have occasionally just called me “Bai-lian”). I love how the goat milk company, who I never revealed my occupation to, calls me Teacher Chang.

I chose that name, by the way, for specific reasons. Chang because that was the common surname when I lived in Guizhou, and when I chose it, I had no idea that I’d someday live in Taiwan. If I could choose again – I can, but it’s a pain as my Chinese name is on my resident visa and my three chops all say “Chang” – I’d choose Lin () as it evokes my middle name, Lynn. “Bai” because my given name, Jenna, means “white and pure” and “lian” (lotus) because my maiden name meant flower in its native language (白花, or literally “white flower”, is a terrible name. It sounds like something a country girl or possibly betel nut beauty would have). My Chinese name means something to me – that’s why I don’t mind when people use it, and I went to the trouble of getting it added to my visa.

Side note as I end this – I’m endlessly fascinated by the reasons behind one’s choice of name, if one has the ability to choose. Yet another reason why I like seeing English names in Taiwan; people can choose them. It’s true that many people don’t – that they keep whatever name they were given in their cram school or by their pre-school teacher or parents, or they just use initials, a la YD, YR, JK, CC. You get an equal number of foreigners with meaningless Chinese names Occasionally, though, you get someone who has really put thought into their English name – I’ve met an Ansel who was really into photography, and a Margaret who chose her name because her grandmother was named Pearl (in Chinese), and she wanted to honor her but felt “Pearl” was too easy – so she picked a name that meant “Pearl”. I’ve met a Blade – changed from “Kevin” – because he wanted to stand out and have a name that sounded confident (his words).

I love hearing those stories, as well as the fairly common tale of changing one’s Chinese name to affect one’s luck. I don’t think this actually works as I’m not superstitious, although it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy: I do think people take on characteristics of how their names feel and sound even if their meaning isn’t evident, and not necessarily in the most obvious way (I’ve met plenty of lovely Angelas btu never met an Angela whom I’d say was “angelic”). If you change your name because you want a different verbal talisman to associate with yourself, it is entirely possible that the new name will affect your personality because you allow it to do so psychologically.

Of course, Taiwanese parents will often attempt this as well. I once had a student named Wen-ya, which is a name evoking ladylike grace. “I have that name because my parents changed my old name,” she said.

“Because I was too much of a…like a boy…”

“A tomboy?”
“Yes! So they gave me a name that is really for a lady to make me more like a lady.”

“Did it work?”

Although perhaps if she’d chosen it herself, it might have worked just fine.

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