To change or not to change, A case about Chinese name

I was a bit caught by surprise when the job counsellor crossed out my Chinese name written in Chinese characters on the page top of my CV and reversed of my order my family and given name written in English Romanisation. When I asked her why, she gave me a professional smile and said, “…because you might be prejudiced by the employer in the first place.” I was mildly astonished by the assertion of the counsellor who obviously was of Southeast Asian descent herself.

Indonesian Chinese artist FX Harsono’s installation work “In Memory of a Name” at 2011 Edge of Elsewhere, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art (Haymarket, Sydney)

Ever since I came to this country, I was often asked the same question by the local Chinese people, ”and… what is your English name?” I said I don’t have one. And I can see the surprise on their face though it is understandable. What happens is that, when a Chinese come to Australia, most oftenly, one would choose an English name as the given name and/or reverse the order of family and given name to conform with the English naming convention. While in Chinese names, the family name comes first and given name last, in reverse order of western names. So for example, Mr. Zhang Wei (family and given name spelled out in Chinese Pin Yin romanisation) could change his name into something like Wei Zhang or Wei Mark Zhang or Mark Zhang if he adopts Mark as his English name. This is a common phenomenon with the Chinese Diaspora community.

In the west, name is often a distinctive signifier of individualism. Achievements are often credited and recognized under individual names instead of being associated with some collective representation. Remembering one’s name an important part of social etiquette in the contemporary western society and it is also very rare for a westerner to shift to a Chinese name except that a few sinologists use their scholarly Chinese name occasionally to acquaint with Chinese people. But by contrast, Chinese don’t seem to have a very good record of “addicting” to their names.

To begin with, it is unimaginable for one to call out the names of elder generation of the family members, which would be considered as disrespectful in China. For example, one would always call “grandpa/grandma, uncle/aunt, mum/ dad” instead of “David and Marry?!” And habitually, one would prefer to mention the relationships instead of the person’s names. For example, one could keep talking about “my boyfriend” instead of mentioning his name to a third person.

And it seems that Chinese would more easily change their names to adapt to a new situation than the westerners. When Chinese migrate to Australia, adopting an English name is understandably out of the consideration of how to blend in with the local society. The name-changing has even developed into a habit to a point that even those who don’t speak a word of English would nevertheless continue to live with their reversed names all their life. Job-hunting may also have a bearing. The suggestion of the job counsellor might implied that anyone who still use the original Chinese names would be interpreted as having not naturalized enough in Australian society and thus not be suitable for Australian workplace.

More over, the culture of using an English name is also popular at workplace in the foreign-invested/owned companies in China. The so-called white-collar employees who work in fancy high-rise office buildings in Chinese big cities would normally address each other with English names. Otherwise, one could be most likely regarded as “unprofessional.” And there was even a time in China in the 80s and 90s that having an English name is symbolic of fashion and elitism.

The choice of one’s name is reflective of cultural differences and often has something to do with social and political considerations, but often it is associated with one’s perception of his/her own individual cultural identity. But does the name-changing imply Chinese don’t have the same awareness of individualist identity as the westerners? Maybe not.

Guan Wei is arguably the most distinguished contemporary Australian Chinese artist in our time. Migrated to Australia post 1989, he lived and worked first in Tasmania and then in Sydney for almost 20 years before moving back to Beijing but still come back and forth nowadays to show his works to Australians. When I was doing a research on him previously, I realized that never has he on any occasions been known “Wei Guan” or other English names. Once he joked about his name, “Many people nicknamed me ‘one way’, because you know, ‘Guan Wei’ and ‘one way’, similar!” Because that is exactly the impression he has made on people: a “crazy” artist who would persist in his artistic career regardless of practical considerations. Retaining one’s original name is a common scenario among leading Australian Chinese artists today, such as Shen Shaomin, Wang Zhiyuan and Archibald veterans Shen Jiawei, Wang Xu.

The high percentage of Chinese artists “addicting” to their names is not incidental. What happens is that, artists often see their names as individual cultural identity. Especially when they are in another culture, this awareness becomes so heightened that they would consciously resist the social pressure to change. And some of these feelings eventually find their way into artistic expression.

Fx Harsono is an Indonesian artist who has expressed through his works his personal experiences and feelings as Chinese Indonesians who were forced to change their Chinese names into Indonesian sounding names because of the discriminative regulations during the Suharto Government. One of his memorable pieces was “In Memory of A Name” at the 2011 Edge of Elsewhere exhibition at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. It was a video and collage installation showing Harsono repetitively writing his Chinese names 胡丰文 (pronounced “Hu Fengwen” in Pin Yin romanization) with Chinese ink brush until the floor around him were fully covered with “tiles” of papers with his primitively written Chinese name on them. He repeated this obsessive but futile ritual again in “Writing in the Rain” at the 2012 Edge of Elsewhere show, where he was shown in the video writing his Chinese names in ink again and again on a glass wall. But in the meantime, the water was dripping and then pouring down from the above, instantly washed away his writings. After being denied of the cultural identity, one is more likely to fight back and demonstrate rebellious self-expressions, even to an extreme.

Zhang Ziyi, one of China’s most famous film actress, who achieved international fame after leading roles in the Academy Award winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha also opted to retain her Chinese name. Once she was widely reported as saying, “Why should I change my Chinese name? If they (international film awards) want to address me, they should first pronounce my name properly!”

It is hard to draw a line how much one should retain his/her cultural identity. You might admire those people who persist in their cultural identity against social and political pressure, but you might also empathise with the rationality and practicality of those who change to adapt. In an ideally rational society, the choice of name should neither be politicised as provocative declaration, nor be superficially interpreted as “culturally illiterate newly arrived foreigner” as well.

Change or not to change, that’s the question, that every and each Chinese expatriate faces. There is no answer. Perhaps it is largely a personal choice of how much you would like to pronounce your own cultural/ethnic identity and in a truly multicultural society, the choice will be understood and respected.

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