Columns, Opinions

Liang ’19: What’s in a name?

By
Staff Columnist
Sunday, March 5, 2017

I enjoy writing down my middle name for people and then watching them butcher it out loud. Go ahead, try it: it’s written in English as Chih-Wei, but the actual phonetic sound varies depending on whether someone is using a Mandarin, Cantonese or Taiwanese dialect. All for a name meaning “Great Intelligence.” Go figure.

For three generations, my family has kept this tradition of making our Chinese names official on paper while keeping them hidden in our middle names. You can call us Grace, Raymond, Angela and Julie. We all have normal American first names and traditional Chinese middle and last names. I say “normal” in that we will never be chastised by recent Oscar hosts for not having “a real name.” It’s normal in that my first name ranks on the list of “hottest names that will get you the most dates,” along with creative names such as Tyler, Andy and Zach. I’ll only get cringing attempts at airports and the DMV, rather than on a daily basis. Though of course, my last name still means I’m going to have fewer job interviews, according to studies from Ryerson University and the University of Toronto.

I like my name — all of it. It’s indicative of my rich Chinese and American heritage, and I’m proud to live up to it. But I understand why my parents named me Mark Chih-Wei rather than Chih-Wei Mark. As immigrants, they chose to play a game with the odds stacked in my favor as much as possible — in a country that still doesn’t play fair to everyone. They named me in the same way that many East Asian international students at this school choose an American name, either to fit in or better their job or social prospects. There are critics to this choice of my parents to “hide” my “real” name into the background. There’s also equal criticism of those who choose to keep their names when integrating into different communities — for example, when a Texas legislator recommended in testimony that all people of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent should change their names to be “easier for Americans to deal with.” Here’s to all the Joe’s and Shao-Wei’s and Crystal’s who have to navigate that maze, because I still surely am.

We are entitled to these names because these identifiers arise from our lived cultural experiences. Names have a unique paradox of being both inherently ours and exhibited for the world to see. It’s like the unwritten rules in the American deaf community, where sign names are mutually decided by an individual and the collective whole, rather than cherry-picked by anyone wanting to feel “hip.” Some people like Muhammad Ali have rejected so-called “slave names,” offering signs of white resistance and embracing other cultures. Others, like a good chunk of East Asian immigrants, take the opposite stance. They embraced “American (i.e. white)” names as a promise for financial and social gain in a new country. These names become contracts between people and between worlds.

We reach interesting problems when that kind of relationship becomes one-sided. It’s Kimmel laughing at a name like Yulerie, but accepting Patrick; or when someone like Rachel Anne Dolezal changes her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo, which has roots in Igbo and Fula origins despite her being neither Nigerian nor raised Muslim. Names should be dialogues, not call and responses. Some people may argue that names are just that: words that are simply what people choose to identify with. But that’s just not true — names carry huge cultural and social significance and should be treated as such. Just look at couples figuring out what last name to take after marriage, or people choosing to change their names to fit into new communities or identities. You have to have agency in your name, but you also have to respect the sensitivities and power constructs that come with them. By all means, change your name to Nick or Stacy if you so wish. But if you even for a second consider Jesus or Leong or Devante, try again.

Some final advice: Unless you lived with a Chinese family who gave you a name or actually did your research, please stop calling yourself “white lotus flower” or “Tiger Lily” or whatever name you think sounds good in a different language but has no actual significance (also, don’t tattoo it to your butt). I know your heart is in the right place, but changing a name to become culturally “aware” is just wrong for someone who doesn’t face the same experiences as those who have to face discrimination. Just use the phonetics, and if you think Chinese butchers your Anglo-Saxon name, welcome to my world.

Mark Liang ’19 can be reached at mark_liang@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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