“Why do you use a Western name?” I’ve heard this question so many times — I encountered it before, but ever since I started to work on this trip, I think I’ve been questioned (in various ways) a zillion times. And the question tends to either denote or precede the following questions:
- Why don’t you use your “real” name? Are you a fake? Are you trying to hide something? (It doesn’t seem fair that I tell you my full name and yet you tell me only a Western name that isn’t on any of your official document, does it?)
- Aren’t you supposed to be true to your culture? Why adopt a name that has no real links to your (Taiwanese) identity?
- Should one get to choose a name for him/herself? Why not use the name given by your parents?
Not that I mind these questions, since the more communication, the better, I believe, albeit that sometimes the questions are voiced in a more…distrusting manner than other times. Still, ever since several months ago did I already feel the strong need to clarify this issue, and although I have a gazillion things to prepare before this trip, let me spend the following quarter of an hour on explicating to you, hopefully once and for all. Below are the reasons (yes, in plural):
- From a “cultural” perspective: Taiwanese tend to adopt English names when first starting to learn the language, very often because teachers and most other people believe that adopting an English name contributes positively to familiarizing the pupils with the English-speaking cultural background, which helps learning the language, as can be understood. Later in their lives, some (aspiring/adventurous/curious) people like me take up a second or third foreign language, and it’s common that they adopt accordingly a German, French, Japanese, Spanish or Greek name. In my case I use corresponding German and French counterparts to my serviceable English name (serviceable not in the sense of easy-to-pronounce, as I later found out: many Asians and Spanish-speaking people, for instance, have difficulties pronounce the not exactly common name Damian).
- Another cultural perspective: Some Taiwanese, while likely not the majority, like to take up English or Western names perhaps on account of a combination of “convenience” (in contrast perhaps to the superficially more exacting demands of our language) and “exoticism,” although this is far from my case.
- A reason perhaps unique in my case: I tended not to reveal this reason, but honestly, as I grew older, I gradually notice that, (while I certainly do not grow less open-minded in any aspects,) I don’t truly enjoy hearing people call me by an often indecipherable, remote approximation of the accurate pronunciation of my name — both of my domestic languages I use (the so-called “Mandarin” and Taiwanese) boast an intimidatingly difficult array of consonants and vowels, and both of them also employ a number of differentiated tones: many (or most) foreigners who have spent a considerable amount of time learning them actually never get the tones (four for Mandarin, seven or eight for Taiwanese, depending on which accent you adopt) entirely accurate. I used to have a very agreeable Polish friend, who was a bit irritated when I happened to get his name “Bogdan” wrong after our having spent much of 2 weeks in the same German class and field trips, so why can’t I?
- Many peoples in the world prefer to be called by certain variations of or substitutions to their registered name: Charlie for Charlotte, Kathy for Catherine, M.J. for a certain undesirable first name. Sure, the examples above exist mostly in areas where Christian names are normally used, but the logic should be applied to any other type of choosing a name.
Don’t get me wrong: when people ask me the “name question,” I take it with an open heart, thinking questions can always lead to better understandings among different cultures — on a proviso that they’re equally willing to be as open-minded about hearing my explanations. I wish the account above will ease some possible doubts, and certainly hope that this Q&A makes our connections closer :o)