(Re)Naming Yourself in Asia and Beyond

(Re)Naming Yourself in Asia and Beyond
Image Credit: ImageZoo / Corbis
What you need to know

The millennial obsession with multiple online identities is balanced by the fact that 'real' names still mean something.

Our names have history, so when they’re changed they reflect the new reality and erase the past. For hundreds of years, Taiwan’s Indigenous people were forced to adopt Chinese names, thereby becoming Sinicized and subsumed within the ethnically Han clan.

In these more enlightened times and given the changing tides of political expediency, Taiwan’s Indigenous people increasingly prefer to use their given tribal names. This suits the Democratic Progressive Party-led government, which intends to distinguish itself from China by emphasizing the culture of its original inhabitants – namely, Austronesian.

After all, it’s tough to sell Taiwan as an independent country when it’s called the Republic of China.

Clearly, names matter and are a powerful assertion of identity and belonging. But it’s not all one-way traffic. Taiwanese, Chinese and many other Asians are choosing English names, while Chinese language students and even casual visitors select Chinese names, if only to have them etched on their skins as tattoos.

Elsewhere, there has been a veritable explosion of naming, especially in our social media-led lives. Screen names, handles and gamertags are adopted for a colorful variety of online encounters, as if the names we are born with are no longer enough. Technology, globalization, anonymization and millennial attitudes are no doubt among the reasons for this.

So, what’s in a name? When Shakespeare posed the question, he replied that a rose by any other name is just as sweet, meaning it doesn’t really matter what you’re called. While that works for Romeo and Juliet, I’m fairly certain the current president of the United States wouldn’t have made it so far if his family name was still Drumpf. Drumpf Tower?

A name isn’t just a brand, either. It’s usually the first thing we learn about someone, followed by where they come from and what work they do. It’s a powerful part of the first impression that kick-starts our social interactions.

For example, if an Indigenous person introduces themselves by their tribal name, they are in a sense demanding recognition of who they are. At the same time, they are redressing centuries of oppression, dating back to the era when Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) settlers insisted the Indigenous population adopted a Chinese name.

Essentially, they were told, “If you take our name and lineage then you will be one of us and we will treat you as such and you will have rights and privileges.” In practice, of course, this was not the case. Many Indigenous families were either given or took the surname Pan (潘), which derives from Fan (番), meaning barbarian – which must have pleased the “civilizing” Chinese.

It was much the same story during Japan’s colonization of Taiwan (1895-1945), when the occupiers passed a law requiring the adoption of Japanese names. The systematic erasure of identity and Indigenous languages continued following the Kuomintang’s (KMT) takeover of Taiwan – when Beijing’s word became the lingua franca.

The argument given then was that since Indigenous languages didn’t have a written form, they could not be officially recognized. It was only in 2006 that an orthography, or set of conventions for writing down Indigenous languages (Romanization) was agreed on, meaning the languages could be taught in schools.

DPP Legislator Kolas Yotaka, a member of the East Coast Amis people, has long fought to use just her tribal name – and use it on official documents. Since 1995, this has been permitted, though in practice it is an incredibly byzantine process and difficult to do. Also, there is still a legal requirement that Chinese characters must be added.

In an email reply on this subject, Kolas said the next step would be to amend the Name Act, allowing Indigenous people to register their names without using Chinese characters. “Therefore, we would be able to use our Indigenous names to register for forms of identification such as a health card, license, tax forms. Even buying a plane ticket wouldn't be a problem.”

While my situation is an incredibly small, new potato compared to the forced assimilation of the nation’s Indigenous people, I can sympathize. About 15 years ago, when I first landed on Taiwan’s shores I was given a Chinese name for official documents, but never found out what it was. A couple of years ago, I returned to Taiwan once more and was told the computer system couldn’t handle English characters, so a bastardized version of my Christian name was transcribed into Chinese characters and entered instead, for my household registration.

More recently, I had better luck with my national health insurance card and driving license, even if the order of the three names I was given at birth were Sinicized and back to front. Ownership documents for a car were more toilsome, however, and my English name runs across multiple fields, along with a made-up Chinese name.

Though I seemingly offended everyone by not wanting a Chinese name, these experiences suggested to me that Taiwan has become more international. It’s probably about time. In Hong Kong, even China, I could be myself and my name was accepted on all manner of official documents.

That said, if the situation is reversed, many Chinese are forced to adopt English names, especially if they want to study abroad. The reason being, Western bureaucracy does not embrace Chinese characters, so names are either Romanized, or an English name precedes the surname to make it more digestible.

As it stands, many of my local and Chinese acquaintances love the idea of having an English name, an exotic addition to their various given Chinese names.

“Many Chinese don’t have have a huge connection to their real name, neither their xing (姓, surname) or their ming (名, Christian name) or xiaoming (小名, nickname) – which often sticks,” says Lindsay Jernigan, who runs the popular naming business BestEnglishName.com, in Shanghai.

“The name often comes from an astrologer or feng shui expert and projects the parents’ idea of their kid’s future. When it comes to their own choice, they are excited to define their own personality for a change.”

Jernigan says that while in the old days having more than one name was practically criminal, these days there may be practical and non-nefarious reasons for doing so. For instance, “Some of our clients were born in the U.S., so they put an English name on their passport and birth certificate, but in China they have a Chinese name; basically two different aliases.

“Millennials usually want to choose a name for themselves. It’s often a 'friends thing,’ something they do together. Maybe it’s for a new job, representing a new start. Chinese millennials are so similar to their Western counterparts and feel connected with everyone online, so they’re not necessarily tied to a place and an English name helps. It’s a name that can go anywhere.”

Yet, at the same time, there are people who insist on authenticity. In China and Taiwan this means being called by the name they were given and insisting that Western audiences make the effort to pronounce them properly – as is expected vice versa. Basically, they don’t want joke names chosen by English teachers.

Writer Pauline D Loh mentions a colleague of hers at the South China Morning Post in the mid-80s, who was so inspired by his visits to Hong Kong’s 7-Elevens that he called himself Durex Wong.

Loh sees the situation of Taiwan Indigenous people in much the same terms as the plight of Indigenous Australians, who were given Christian names that effectively branded them. Taking back their names is an assertion of nativization, independence, confidence and the sign of a changing world order.

The online equivalent of this authentic name game is the “real name” movement, a campaign for people to use their real names and thereby reduce anti-social behavior like trolling. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, claims that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

But this dichotomy between real names and aliases isn’t as contradictory as it first looks. Essentially, we name according to need.

Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) can conveniently mention her Paiwan Indigenous name, Tjuku, meaning “daughter of the leader.” Foxconn’s Guo Tai-ming (郭台銘) finds it useful to call himself “Terry” when negotiating with Trump on the golf course; while Fosun International’s Guo Guangchang (郭廣昌) is a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference representative, so no English name needed. It just wouldn’t be patriotic.

In the online world, for reasons of privacy or convenience, we choose pseudonyms; or are forced, at the risk of being banned, to use real names by Facebook.

In the real world, people make a statement about identity by insisting on their real name, like Taiwan’s Indigenous people, political or business leaders. Or else, they adopt new names to emphasize their credentials as global citizens. Either way, you can read a lot into a name.