“What’s your name?”
The bespectacled Chinese girl next to me looked up, slightly surprised that I started talking to her.
“Chinese or English?” she asked with a quiet voice.
“Chinese,” I said.
“I’m Chenzhi,” she said.
Later in the discussion class, I was grouped with Chenzhi and Sydney, a white Iowan girl next to me. As we wrote down our names on the sheet we had to fill out, Sydney asked Chenzhi,
“What’s your English name?”
Chenzhi paused, smiled slightly, and said “You can call me Zoey.”
This entire exchange fascinated me. Notice the slight difference in the words used; “I’m…” versus “You can call me…” I’m not saying that what Sydney did was wrong, because yes, Chinese names are difficult to pronounce because many of the sounds don’t exist in the English language. However, just look at the verbs used:
“I’m” is more possessive by the person speaking
whereas “You can call me…” is more focused to help the other person. Which again, is fair enough but still…
I used to think it cool how East Asian international students chose their names. It was like a rebirth of sorts, choosing a name with meaning, be it from a show or a book. And some students do fully accept this title. For example, my roommate goes by Cherry. If she was asked to introduce herself, she just says her name is Cherry and doesn’t use her Chinese name unless she is with her Chinese friends.
But then some students choose to use their given names, regardless the difficulty. I met a coworker yesterday who chose to stick with her given Chinese name. It took me a while to get it because again I’m not used to the Chinese sounds. But then she explained to me why she didn’t use an English name:
“I can change my English name whenever. It means nothing to me; I can be Ivy, then Summer, then whatever. But I am Jialing, and that’s what my friends and family have called me.”
This changed my perspective immediately. Yes, it is a rebirth by getting a new name in a different language, but at the same time, it’s like a new identity. Which again, the decision of renaming oneself is all in the person. If someone decides on a name, then we must respect that and learn to pronounce the name. Especially if it is hard.
So often I think that international students change their name to make it easier, to make it more comfortable. But why not make it something new for the students? Yes yes, English is a big language but I think that especially as the world is becoming more globalized, we need to learn to embrace these different, unique, and ultimately beautiful names. It’s okay to be uncomfortable and fail at pronouncing someone’s name. Lean into that tension, be displaced for a bit, and be invited into something new.
From now on, I’m going to push myself to ask for a person’s birth name. Even if it means that I’ll be humbled by not knowing how to always pronounce it, I’m respecting them that way in that. And if an international student wants to use an English name, I’ll work with that too.
Because thing is, a name isn’t just a name; it holds a story behind it. If it’s a new name, it’s because it was chosen from a favorite show or book. If it’s a birth name, it’s the name parents, family, friends, and lovers have called them. And ultimately, with a name, new stories are built. I believe that our responsibility, at the least, is to respect the name.