“Abigail, Adeline, Aurora, Beatrice, Bernice, Claire, Charlotte —”
“Charlotte. I want Charlotte.”
They say your name is the first gift your parents give you. But not for me. As a two-year-old about to enter an English medium Catholic school, I decided to give myself a gift, or rather, pick randomly from a list of the most banal Western baby girl names my parents read aloud.
Looking back, it’s infuriating how nobody raised an eyebrow about some nuns forcing a bunch of Asian kindergarteners to pick a white-sounding name as a requirement for admission. But it did not matter at that time. I liked the name Charlotte, I liked the way the R rolled off the tip of my tongue and I liked how exotic it sounded.
So when my eighth grade art teacher called “Sum Yi” when he read off the register, I froze. “Soom Yee?” he tried again in the most non-American way possible. I gritted my teeth and clenched my fist, adamantly refusing to raise my hand.
“It’s her! Charlotte is Sum Yi!” that annoying boy wagged his finger at me as I shot him a death glare. After ten traumatic years at the Catholic school, I had just transferred to a private international school. The last thing I wanted to be reminded of was my local school roots.
Sum Yi was the name my parents gave me at birth. It meant happy spirit, but clearly I wasn’t too happy about it. Growing up, I had never identified as Sum Yi. It sounded too provincial, too Cantonese, not exquisite enough, not white enough, not good enough to fit the multidimensional, multicultural being that I thought myself to be. The funky way that it came out of my art teacher’s mouth epitomized my humble origins — and I despised that.
Desperate to rid myself of such humility, I petitioned my parents to let me change my name legally. They reluctantly agreed and I was overjoyed by the prospect of having Charlotte printed on my ID card — a process one called “the restoration.”
And to add in that extra sprinkle of whiteness, 12-year-old me decided to put in the middle name I had been using with my best friend in playdates: Arianni — an underground people based on a hollow earth conspiracy theory
With the new name of Charlotte Arianni Fong, I confidently strolled into art class.
“Kristy… here, Michael… here, A – um, Ariana?”
The whole class snickered. That damned boy snorted loudly. Mortified, my cheeks flushed red and I sank deeper into my chair. In an attempt to appear Westernized and sophisticated, I had overdone it.
Charlotte Arianni Fong remains on my ID card and I still catch myself blushing when I try to explain its genesis to curious acquaintances. It is the product of a society that places anything Western on a pedestal and degrades its own culture as primitive and less sophisticated. We live in a world where students are asked to “Anglicize” their names
. Even our own university’s system does not support non-Anglophone names
Forcing children to forgo their birth names and take on Western names that have no relation to their ethnic background not only diminishes their cultural identity, it also ingrains the Western hegemonic mindset that permeates much of former European colonies. Children are told that Western-sounding names are the norm, that it’s what they need to succeed in this Eurocentric world. Their own names with rich cultural history and meaning are shameful, embarrassing, something that needs to be swept under the rug. If they are told that there is something intrinsically wrong with their names, what will they think of their skin color, their language, their culture? Are we not just training up another generation with an inferiority complex that severs their roots to instead become carbon copies of Hollywood movie stars?
Yet simply calling everyone to embrace their names and cultural identities would be arbitrary. We are all products of the societies and communities that we find ourselves in, no matter how hard we try to isolate ourselves. For those of us with Western names, we have lived through years going by that name. Some of us have grown to coexist and even embrace that name. I would be confused if someone came up to me and called me Sum Yi. It’s just not something I’m used to.
It is irksome and even offensive when someone asks me what my “real name” is when they don’t hear an ethnically Cantonese name. Charlotte is a part of who I am, much like Sum Yi, it represents a part of my identity. It is a name that I’ve come to accept and love. It is just as real as Sum Yi. Those who have adopted Western names should not feel pressured to completely cast them away either — their names just as validly represent who they are.
Therefore when my teammates at my local football club couldn’t pronounce Charlotte, I gave birth to Charlie and embraced it as my own flesh and blood. Yet another name born out of circumstance and personal choice, it constitutes a piece in the larger pie of my entire being. It is the part of me that I’m most comfortable with right now, so I brought it with me to NYU Abu Dhabi.
My mom shakes her head in disapproval when I tell her about the many me’s. “Can’t you just pick one and stick with it?” she sighs. “You have so many versions of yourself that you don’t even know who you are anymore.”
I disagree. Since when are we monochromatic one-dimensional beings? Identity and the construction of self are about as complicated as complexity gets. We present different versions of ourselves to different people, the self that we are most comfortable with in front of that particular person. And who is to call us out for being fake? What is fake and what is real, when they are all pieces of the same puzzle?
I am Charlotte. I am Sum Yi. I am also Charlie.
But call me Charlie, I like it that way.
Charlie Fong is News Editor. Email her at email@example.com.