A Chinese American writer recounts her struggles with Chinese characters, the Roman alphabet and two different naming conventions in her journey to have her name right.
May 24, 2016
“What is your name?”
Most people learn to answer this question when they were still toddlers. You can see thatI am far beyond that age. But whenever people ask me my name, I still have to struggle for a while before I can come up with an answer. I am sure this would surprise my two grandfathers who gave me my name, each offering a character.
The story of my name goes a long way, dating back to my childhood in China. Among all the possible combinations of the characters pronounced “xiao” and “qing”, the ones my grandfathers picked for me are the most complicated ones. Indeed, they may be two of the most complicated characters in the simplified written Chinese system that was adopted by Mao’s communist new China. Altogether, they have almost 30 fractions, too hard to write that I had to use substitutes with the same pronunciations before I got to Sixth Grade.
To finally be able to write her name was certainly a big achievement for this pigtailed sixth grader. Little did I know that the troubles it brought me had just begun. Only this time, the problem was not solely mine. They now baffle people who did not know how to call me. And I mean a lot of people.
Those who read my name did not know how to pronounce it, and those who heard it did not know how to write it. In college, my professor in my Chinese Language and Literature class in Nanjing University in China used to play a trick during the roll call by deliberately missing out my name, and then asking innocently: “Did I miss anyone?”
But that was generally a happy tale.
When I learned the meaning of the two characters in my name — “xiao” for young bamboos and “qing” for a valley full of bamboos — I fell in love with it. Who wouldn’t? It is unique. It is beautiful. It makes others jealous and me feel special.
But I was too young to declare love. Who would have thought that life would bring me to the other side of the world? Who would have thought that when the square Chinese characters are decoded into a slew of meaningless letters they would bring me a different challenge? And who would have thought that conquering the new challenge would not just be everyday trivia, but a process of finding the answer to the philosophical question: Who am I?
Because Chinese characters are mainly pictograms and the combination of different characters can enhance, develop or alter the meaning of each of them, Chinese names generally carry much more information than English names – from parent’s wishes to the political climate when one was born. But while I groan for the loss of the picturesque allusion of my name in the U.S., I discover in awe that the alphabetic names here indeed can tell a lot more tales, not only personal ones but also the undercurrents of this country.
Through the years that have I lived in the U.S., I have witnessed instances where a name is not just a name.
A New Jersey man who gave his children Nazi names – including Adolf Hitler – lost custody of them, and was refused a visitation request by a court. New York politician Anthony Weiner’s run for the city’s mayoral post collapsed amid the online circulation of the picture of his bulgy underwear, and his telling last name became the butt of jokes. And the spotlight focused on the middle name of President Barack Hussein Obama almost became a way to tell Republicans from Democrats.
When race is considered, the name could have an even bigger impact on one’s life. Researchers have found people with typical black names get fewer opportunities when they apply for jobs or mortgages than those with typical white names For examples, the National Bureau of Economic Research said in a recent study that job applicants with white names have a 50-percent better chance of getting callbacks from potential employers than those with African American names.
“It didn’t take long for me to realize that most English-speaking people don’t know how to pronounce words starting with an ‘x.’ So Xiaoqing, pronounced ‘Shiao-Ching’, more often than not became ‘soaking,’ and Rong, my last name, is conveniently pronounced as ‘wrong.'”
Another study conducted by Andrew Hanson, associate professor of economics at Marquette University and released in January, found that having a black name equals to having a credit score of 71 points lower in terms of the chance of response from loan officers when one applies for mortgage.
But on other occasions it could be the opposite. Take college applications as an example. In recent years, the overrepresentation of Asian students in top universities prompted some schools to bypass Asian applicants for other minorities. I know of college counselors who have advised Asian applicants to try to reduce the “Asianness” in their college applications, such as piano playing and math competition trophies, and if possible, to have their legal names changed into a less Asian version.
The most disheartening story happened in 2013 when an Asiana Airline plane crashed at the San Francisco International Airport and claimed the lives of three Chinese teenaged girls. KTVU, a major TV station in San Francisco, told viewers on its lunchtime news program after the accident that it had learned the names of the four pilots on board. An anchor then read out the names in a solemn tone: “Sum Ting Wong,” “Wi Tu Lo,” “Ho Lee Fuk,” and “Bang Ding Ow.”
And as a sequel to the cruel prank, the New York-based NBC TV station chose to censor the word “Fuk” on their screen, which was baffling to many Cantonese-speaking Chinese Americans whose last name is indeed spelled that way.
These name stories brought me mixed feelings. But above all, they scared me. I remember clearly what Confucius said about names. “If the name is not correct, the argument will not stand to reason,” he said.
I didn’t care about the argument in the early years. I couldn’t even speak fluent English. All I wanted was to present my name the correct way so that I won’t be looked down upon, laughed at or become just another anonymous new immigrant.
But what’s the correct way? There seems to be no option other than the most conventional way, with the given name spelled out first and the family name last. Well, the most conventional Chinese way is put the family name first. But of course, to a new immigrant, assimilation is more important than anything else, including maintaining your own cultural identity.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that most English-speaking people don’t know how to pronounce words starting with an “x.” So Xiaoqing, pronounced ‘Shiao-Ching’, more often than not became “soaking,” and Rong, my last name, is conveniently pronounced as “wrong.”
The years I was being called “soaking wrong” were also the years that I gradually found my voice in my host country. I realized I am here not only to follow the model set by other people but also to add my own contribution to the diverse fabric of American culture. I realized my own culture and my experience as a new immigrant have great value. I started to write in English to share my opinions.
Around 2008, I decided to change my name back to the Chinese way, with the family name first, not only because my family name is easier to pronounce but also as a statement of my own identity.
“I can, of course, make things easier by just picking up an English name such as Mary, Rose or Cecilia. But I am sure that will keep me up at night pondering the question ‘who am I?'”
Bad timing, it turned out. Since the Beijing Olympics that year, the world has been more interested in China, and China has started to promote its soft power on the international stage in earnest. More and more Americans have learned to tell a Chinese family name from a given name. So while some people address me by my family name, others insist to call me by my given name, although it is printed after my family name on my business card now.
My two sets of bylines make the situation messier. I was once invited to speak at the annual Cross-Cultural Communications symposium hosted by the Department of Consumer Protection of Connecticut The organizer, Catherine Blinder, the chief education and outreach officer of the department, who I had not met before, said when she did her research and read my stories online, she was not sure whether they were written by the same or two different persons.
I can, of course, make things easier by just picking up an English name such as Mary, Rose or Cecilia. But I am sure that will keep me up at night pondering the question “who am I?”
But really, who am I? Maybe I am two different persons, a Chinese and an Americanized Chinese. Or maybe the two are indeed one person, who just keeps outgrowing her old self. All I can say is it’s not important to me anymore. After all, we human beings are supposed to spend our whole lives answering that question.
I have plenty of time.