“Yuheng.” This was the third time this semester I got a message that misspelled my name. I immediately went to check my profile. It said “Yuhang” with an “a” in the display name.
This is one of the moments I wish I used an English name. But what exactly is an English name?
When I was in elementary school, my teacher helped me come up with an English name: Tom. I did not like this name. In the place I grew up, it was often associated with Tom from “Tom and Jerry.” Kids made fun of it quite often.
When Candidate Weekend approached, I grabbed this opportunity to give myself an English name, a fresh start to a new chapter in my life. I researched on the most popular boy names and the meanings they contain. However, every time I was about to settle on a name, my brain would not stop searching for people around me and characters in films who bear the same name, and they just did not sound like me. I would always tell myself “eh, let’s look for another one.”
In the end, I chose a name based on my favorite fiction character Raymond. The name is one of the more uncommon English names in my hometown and people do not immediately associate it with any figures. It offered a fresh start that other English names didn’t provide.
In orientation, the Chinese students, including me, wore a name tag with our Chinese name on it, while all of us preferred to be called by a different name. We had to pair both the Chinese and English names with each other.
Our team leader, a native English speaker, asked: “Why not use your own name?”
Why not? Why do I feel obliged to use an English name and not my Chinese name?
Maybe it was because names are perceived differently in Chinese and English. We usually call each other by our full name, with first names as nicknames. In fact, I was often addressed as “Old Zheng” or “Little Zheng” by my friends.
Or maybe it was because it was socially normalized to have an English name. To take your local barbershop, hotel or restaurant up a notch, your staff members need to have an English name; to study in an English speaking country, or work for an overseas company, you need to have an English name. That is the default mindset that few would question if there is anything wrong with using just their Chinese names.
Maybe it was because the spelling of a Chinese name by pinyin, one of the common romanization systems for Chinese, can be foreign to native English speakers. Once transliterated, a Chinese name loses not only the characters but also the tones; in Mandarin, a syllable without tone can correspond to many characters and meanings.
Maybe it was because I did not like my Chinese name after all. It means astronaut in Chinese, something my short-sighted self cannot relate to .
Having used Raymond for a week, I still did not feel comfortable with this name. It did not sound like it belonged to me. Why not just use my Chinese name if I could not find a better name to represent myself?
Right before everyone recognized me by Raymond, I started to use my Chinese name, Yuhang. I started to feel this was my name. No preconception. No stereotype. No socio-historical context in an American university.
But using my Chinese name came with misspellings and mispronunciations.
You hang. My name can easily turn into a cold-blood imperative for those who are less familiar with the pinyin system.
“Why didn’t you correct them?” one of my friends asked me after class. “It’s a torture to hear them say it like that.”
“It’s okay. Close enough,” I laughed. Would it be a little demanding to correct them when they almost get it right? I am already thankful for them remembering my name. More often than not, the attempt to learn my name goes like this:
“What’s your name?”
“Can you say that again?”
Then it is followed either by “eh, I won’t remember it anyways” or never saying my name again.
I once again got into a battle with myself over whether I should adopt an English name or keep my Chinese name. Besides misspelling and mispronunciation, I began to notice that I lost some potential connections. It was easier and less awkward for them to not have me explain the pronunciation over and over as they could not remember my Chinese name and pronunciation. It seemed easier to adopt an English name to better fit in within cultures abroad.
Sometimes I read posts telling people to keep their ethnic name. It bothers me to think of my name as an ethnic name — it suggests an otherness.
The self doubt around using a Chinese name would revisit me every once in a while. At NYU Abu Dhabi, surrounded by a more diverse student body, I have encountered many unfamiliar names, some with accents, some of them transliterated from another language. It has forced me to rethink what constitutes an English name. I see people so comfortable with using their names that are not conventional English names.
As English became a widely used language around the world, the question of who has the authority on how to use English also arises. Why should I feel obligated to have an English name?
What is a name, if nothing but a reference to ourselves? It is something you say out loud with pride because it is part of who you are; it is something you pronounce without fear that people could not get it even after you repeat it several times.
I’ve begun to like my name. I like how my teachers say it, how my friends call me by my name, either with excitement or disappointment. More than any other name, I think it fits me the best. My name is Yuhang. It is as much my Chinese name as my English name.
Yuhang Zheng is a Staff Writer. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.