Why I Have a Chinese Name But I Don’t Want to be Called “Sean”

Photo credits to freshofftheboatdaily, since this isn’t mine.

One of my friends on Facebook shared the photo in this post recently, and it immediately struck a chord with me. Names are of enormous importance to many people of different cultures around the world, and sometimes the nuances of naming can vary between communities by the language they speak.

In the Indian subculture that I come from, newborns are given their names by the rite of nāmkarna, a Hindu ritual that uses astrology and natal charts to pick names. We believe that the names that we give our children is somehow determinant of their futures, and often, parents will choose a name (within the rules of the process, of course) that includes a kind of wish for who their child will grow to be, something that almost everyone can understand.

Other times, our names are one of the epithets of a Hindu deity. This can puzzle some people in the West, who might view naming your child after a god as a kind of arrogance or self-importance, but the idea in Indian cultures is completely different. By naming your child after a particular version of god (each epithet references a particular aspect of the god), it is both a hope that the child will live up to the name and also fulfills the idea that God is everywhere and in everyone. Calling the different names of a god is also considered auspicious, so naming people after a god is a part of that sentiment.

The cultural backgrounds behind choosing names can be complex and confusing, but also incredibly fascinating, in my opinion. The generational poems of Chinese naming customs allow for an entire generation of children to be named with something in common. I won’t get into the specifics, but you can read a little bit about generational poems here.

That brings me to the title of this post. As you may know, I have a Chinese name that I use exclusively for speaking in Chinese: 羅常羲 (Pinyin: luó cháng xī, Jyutping: lo4 soeng4 hei1). I got this name after multiple Chinese friends of mine asking me if I wanted one, so when I went to a Taiwanese cultural exhibition in Grand Central Station, my friends had a calligrapher make a name for me.

My real name is kind of clunky to say in Chinese (or rather the Sinicized version of my name), especially given the way people call each other in Chinese. Very often, since people can have similar-sounding or even identical first names, Chinese speakers will address each other using their full names. My name is apparently somewhat obscure, so I might be able to get away with just 常羲, but it would be more appropriate to use the full name. I’m OK with using this name partly due to convenience as well as because I didn’t mind having the name, since I kind of like it.

Now, this may contrast with the sentiment of the photo in this post, since you might expect me to tell my Chinese friends to say my name correctly. The thing is, the issue wasn’t that my friends couldn’t pronounce my name, but rather for the purposes of learning the Chinese language, it wasn’t especially suited to being pronounced the way it really is. And that, I’m willing to concede, and like I said: I don’t mind.

The thing is that when I was in elementary school, many students and teachers found my name (Shashank) difficult to pronounce, and many people wanted to call me “Sean”. Maybe because I was impetuous and defensive, I didn’t like that name. I wanted people to call me the name I chose to be called, and they had to pronounce it the way I wanted them to. Today, people trying to nickname me “Sean” still makes me a little uneasy, so I usually politely request that they use my real name. Even now, I still wonder why it was so difficult for them to say, considering my name is only two syllables.

The point is that I refuse to be called anything except Shashank and nicknames that I actually approve of. This goes for anyone, anywhere. You all deserve to have yourself be called what you wish. People should either pronounce the name correctly or shouldn’t say it at all. Obviously, this can sound a little extreme, and I make exceptions for people whose sound inventories don’t include certain sounds. It’s a problem when I know people are more than capable of pronouncing a name correctly, and still refuse to try and pronounce a name the way someone wants, all because they’re too lazy to ask.

In my freshman year at NYU, I’ve met some people who have non-English names, and purposely go with a heavily Anglicized pronunciation of their name, even though it’d be pretty easy for people to pronounce it as it’s written in the language (obviously within reason). At first, I was a little put off by it, but I have learned that how we pronounce our names is up to us, and if that means “white”-ifiying it versus the traditional pronunciation, so be it. I might not like it, but again: it’s not for me to decide.

The reality is that this idea of not using people’s real names or somehow compelling them to change the pronunciation or the name entirely for someone else’s convenience is often discussed in the context of ethnic minorities. This happens to a lot of people with “unconventional” or “foreign” names, regardless of race. But in the context of minorities in the US like myself, this often feeds into very subtle dynamics of cultural repression and assimilation, and it is something that we must work against. But again: the choice is not always ours to decide (if at all).

The fundamental difference between my Chinese name and “Sean” is that I’m OK with one and not the other. Someone’s name is inviolable, and it’s not up to anyone to tell them to change it or how to pronounce it. The moral of this little story is: always ask someone how to pronounce their name, and earnestly try to pronounce it they way they want, not what’s most convenient for you. If they let you off with a mispronounced syllable or sound, then that’s fine. But respect what they have to say. It’s their name, not yours.

The Language of Naming

In many cultures around the world, the process of naming a child is an important and sometimes grand affair. Parents and other family members take great care in selecting a name for their child, because they hope and feel that it will reflect in the child’s life. When learning a language, it is inevitable that you will encounter such carefully-picked names, and part of appreciating the language can take the form of learning about these names. However, because I can’t possibly cover all the naming traditions in the world, I will go over the three I am most familiar with.

For some cultures, the picking of a name is a deeply religious affair, and must align exactly with what a priest/astrologer tells the parents. For example, many Hindu parents hold a naming ceremony for their children. As you can imagine, there is a slight logistic problem: many hospitals do not release children until there is a name on the birth certificate. It is for this reason that the names of many Hindus as they appear on official paperwork may not be the full name given to them during the ceremony, especially considering that it takes a great deal of paperwork and time to get one’s name changed. But back to the ceremony. Leaving aside the ritual, the actual naming or namkarna of the child varies from region to region. In South India, names are often long, adhering to longstanding traditions, and are given according to various criteria, such as the day/time of birth, the area of birth, star alignments, and the lineages of the parents. North Indians don’t have long names as often, in my experience, anyway. It is important to understand that people in South India may use different names in the workplace, at home, and with friends for any number of reasons. Furthermore, in South India, it is not common for people to actually have last names, and for official paperwork, people will, for all intents and purposes, make up last names.

In China, as this video by Off the Great Wall explains, surnames are a relatively recent introduction into Chinese society. (Warning: Apologies for any discrepancies/misunderstandings; I’m only writing what I’ve read and heard.) The very concept of a surname was originally reserved for the emperor and his family, and later on, the nobility. It was only after the unification of the states that surnames began to extend beyond the upper classes. People often took on the last name of the ruler of their region, or took on last names based on the names of the area itself. Given, or first names, are a different matter. First names are given based on qualities that parents believe are good, but it is considered bad practice to name children after relatives and famous people. Siblings may have radicals or whole characters in their names that are related, such as a brother and sister having the characters for “sun,” and, “moon” in their names, respectively. (Note: this does not hold true for all Chinese people, as some may have their own traditions, and fortune-telling is prevalent among some families, but I couldn’t find much on other traditions.)

Across Europe, the process of naming children is a relatively simple affair compared to those in Asia. In Europe, where Christianity is prevalent, it is very common to name children after people in the Bible, save for people like Methusaleh or Judas. However, due to the pagan roots of Europe, many names of Celtic, Roman, and Gothic origin continue to be given today. In Western Europe, children are frequently named after grandparents or other relatives (which may or may not be departed), either through first or middle names. Spain, along with the Latin American countries, has a very rigid naming tradition in which the first names of grandparents and last names of parents are incorporated into a child’s name.

I hope you found this article interesting, and inspire you to learn about your own name, which should tell you more about where you come from as well! Feel free to share this with your friends on Facebook and Tumblr!