Op-ed: Abandoning my name for cultural conformity


Even though I enjoy my English name, I’ve always felt that it is just an identification code no different than my student ID number. / Illustration by Ally Rzesa

By Xinyan Fu, Columnist

When in a Western country, I always introduce myself as “Eliza.” Very rarely do I tell people my Chinese name, “Xinyan.” I find that most Asian youth share this habit. Adopting an English name is a widespread phenomenon in Asia, especially with individuals going abroad to work or to study. This is partly because people—including Asians—believe Asian names are hard to pronounce.

Choosing a Western name can be challenging and daunting, especially for individuals unfamiliar with English. Because of this lack of comprehension between people and language that’s lost in translation, most Asians will just randomly select common names like Tom, Bob, Amy, or Mary. Others, especially young people dissatisfied with such ordinariness, opt to select a unique name for which they look to movies and television shows. Others even make up their names with random words—I’ve met a Cherry, a Seven, an Eleven, a Wordless, a Pony, and even a God.

I always joke about those random word names. However, I never really doubt the necessity of picking up an English name. I started to consider the necessity for Asians to adopt English names after I watched a video made by a group of Chinese students at Columbia University. It educated people on the meaning of their Chinese names and called for everybody to respect their names. Chinese students made this video because Columbia students found the name tags with Chinese names ripped off every dorm, even though those with English first names and Chinese surnames were preserved nicely. I was just as enraged as the video creators, not only because ripping off non-Western names is rude, but because in China, our names mean a lot to us.

Usually, in China, names for newborns are chosen by elders of the family to represent the beautiful wishes and expectations they have for the child. My name, Xinyan, means “the beautiful scenes of the rising sun.” My mom said she picked this name because she wants me to be as energetic as the sunrise, and also because the character “Xin” is from one of her favorite high school teachers. I bear my name as a gift from my parents, because it conveys the love and hope they have for me. Traditionally, Chinese people deem names as a symbol of family roots. It is common for one generation in the family to have similar names, which in Chinese is called zibei or banci. Normally people in the same generation share the same character of their names. For example, the zibei for my mother is Ying, so my aunts’ names are Hongying and Liying, while my mother’s name is Wuying. Zibei is an ancient tradition which first occurred thousands of years ago. It aims at conveying the hope for the whole generation and reminding people of their roots since the names always rhyme.

Therefore, even though I enjoy my English name, I’ve always felt that it is just an identification code no different than my student ID number. I choose “Eliza” from my favorite character in my favorite book, “Pride And Prejudice.” It wasn’t my first English name. Just like people buy new clothes to replace old ones, I’d change my English name over and over after I grew sick of it. The same goes for my friends. We change our names whenever we want, whether it’s because it sounds less cool than it did before, or because we are no longer intrigued by the movie from which we chose our name. Such rapid changes wouldn’t really affect our lives because in China the English names are only used at school.

Since elementary school, my English teachers in China always told us that everyone should adopt an English name, and that, in class, people should only call one another by these names. This followed me to high school, where my AP World History teacher—a middle-aged, American man—commented on each of our names as we introduced ourselves. I still remember how he said that my name, “Aurora,” was “sort of odd” and something he has “never heard.” That night, I changed my name for the fourth time.

There is nothing wrong with adopting an English name; however, people should have a higher acceptance of non-Western names. It is nice for people to ask and to try to remember my Chinese name because, for me, it is the real representation of myself. International students should teach others how to pronounce their names, and domestic students should try to remember the pronunciation. Students should work harder to learn and respect others’ names, because names are not only the representation of people, they are also the illustration of people’s culture and roots.