Letters from the dorm: Is it really all in the name?

Letters from the dorm: Is it really all in the name?

"Zzzz…z-i-ao Yeee?"

"Please, call me April."

And here we go again. Admittedly, my given name is difficult for Westerners to pronounce. Most Chinese names are badly pronounced in terms of their tones. But my name usually causes an even greater struggle.

Some of my course instructors, on the first day of class, would hold their breath for a second, and then say: "I will give this a try, but apologies in advance if I say it wrong." Some even gave up completely, and simply addressed me as "the X person". Makes me sound mysterious, right? I can't say that I like it, though. I found asking people to call me April works out a lot easier.

A lot of my fellow international students do the same thing. I don't want to generalise, but American-born Chinese tend to have a Western first name as their official given name.

But Chinese-born Chinese students, on the other hand, normally have a Chinese name show up on the roster. It is a simple way of guessing where someone was born. It is also a reflection of our identities.

I've noticed that people here are often more likely to ask questions about your background if you have a non-Western first name. For example, you might get asked, "Where are you from?" or "Which other languages do you speak?"

It is sometimes hard to tell if people are genuinely interested in your native country, or are asking for other reasons. They might want to show off their knowledge of the world. Or they might want to show that they are welcoming to foreigners.

It seems that a name can really make you stand out from the crowd. From the simple question of a name, deeper questions about your cultural background can follow.

If you ask me whether I am comfortable with people calling me April, I would say I am. But am I losing a part of my cultural identity? And is it right I should change to fit in with my surroundings?

I have friends who refuse to go by the Western versions of their names. I can see why they might want to do this. But for me, I really don't mind. I see Xiaoyi as being the same as April. It is my namesake month, and April has equivalents in different languages.

As someone who loves exploring foreign languages, I like having a name that can be directly translated into any language. It's my way of accepting different cultures, embracing them, and attempting to blend in.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Is it really all in the name?

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