The less you know your own language and the more you speak English with a foreign accent the more you are looked up to. This distinction continues in every social and professional sphere of life. Your social climbing is greatly facilitated by your fluency of expression in English, your job prospects become almost 100 times brighter if you have a smooth and fluent expression in this language, your entry into many clubs and networking forums becomes automatic and your presence in the virtual and social media world gets noticed.
[To add to an already contentious issue, schools in Sindh, Pakistan will make the learning of Chinese mandatory.] Daily Times
I was reading this article about language and identity from a widely-circulated Philippines newspaper, when the above paragraph jumped out at me. Do they really believe that? Facepalm.
Re: “What is in a name?” May 1 & 5
Grace: Thank you for sharing your stories and thoughts!
I was surprised to read your grandfather’s story. That reminded me of my grandparents’ generation. That was a hard, toilsome era, in which the birth rate was high but survival rate was low. While the medical knowledge and practice was not so advanced, that a baby could be borne healthy, survive, and grow up was not something easy. Therefore, they named their babies such as Mong-chi (Taiwanese, meaning “carelessly raised”) with a good intention that the baby won’t draw any jealousy and misfortune. Therefore, many of them had lowly names.
As for the distance created by alias name, I happened to read an old immigrant’s blog. He noticed that many young people studying abroad only knew the English names of others even though they had been friends for many years. It felt like they did not expect to build up a relationship that would last after their return to the mother country. Being upset about the phenomenon, he noticed how much a name meant to him; thus, he purposely changed back to his birth name from his alias English name, which had been used for decades.
What is in a name? part II
…at some point they start to exchange their Chinese names. This action implies that “now I know you in person,” no matter which name they would prefer calling each other afterwards. Asking and giving our birth given names symbolises a further level of the personal relationship. It is as if one’s real identity has been revealed and is suggestive of the potential for longer and deeper relationships. On the other hand, if a person purposefully refuses to mention their birth given name, the subtle underlying implication is “I am not revealing myself to you” or “I do not want you to know me.” By implication, the English name becomes a mask behind which we can hide.
I included the above quote from Grace Chu-Lin Chang’s article to give context to my story. In my grandfather’s generation, it was standard practice to be given a new name once a child starts school. This new name will be used in all dealings with the outside world, beyond the family walls. Hence the birth name is rarely used from school age onwards, except by family elders, and even then they will prefer a nickname to convey a term of endearment. So the birth name is probably never heard of again.
The new name is to be used in school, work and all outside dealings until the very end. I only learnt of my grandfather’s birth name when I saw it inscribed on his tombstone – and if my memory wavers in any way, I will not be able to locate his resting place because the cemetery records only refers to his birth name. Yet every document during his lifetime bore his common name. So his birth name is used at the beginning and the end, everything in between is the alias.
Having a birth name as well as a common name was the tradition during my grandfather’s time. It seemed to protect his personal identify or create some space for his public one, separating his private and public selves.
Today, I see the same parallels in adopting English aliases as described in Grace’s article. The alias is the mask behind which one can hide, revealing the birth name only to a select few when deeper relationships are formed. In contrast to English given names that are often “by the book”, Chinese names are very individualistic and unique hence highly personal. They are all custom made by stringing words together, so it is rare indeed to meet another person with the same name.
Another parallel for aliases is of course the online identity. Other than professional accounts, many user profiles prefer the anonymity of a creative nickname, again a screen to hide behind.
As someone who brandishes the birth name at introductions, I sometimes scare off people on both sides: Anglophones and Chinese speakers alike. They have both asked me the same question yet for very different reasons. “Do you have an English (Christian) name?”
Anglos want to know if I have a familiar-sounding name that is easier for them – the answer is no, like you my name is integral to my identity so you’ll just have to deal with it. Chinese speakers want to know because they need that alias barrier; otherwise I am way too familiar too soon. I recall Chinese speakers who could never address me by my real name, even when we became good friends or close colleagues. They skirted around the dilemma by saying my name in an anglicised way, thus my name and I can get no closer. The years have past, boundaries remain.
How odd, the same desire for an alias yet they originate from two opposing premises – one is to spawn familiarity, the other, to create distance.
More to come.