S01E01 - Say My Name, Say My Name

S01E01 - Say My Name, Say My Name

What’s in a name? Particularly in Australia, having a distinctly foreign name has its positives and negatives, and I’ve always had this inkling that there’s a different way we think about names in Australia compared to Chinese culture in particular, but I could never quite put my finger on it. This episode we explore how this difference in names affects us.

Transcript

Ying Jie Guo

The first given name is Ying, that character, and all my sisters and brothers have the same. So, my name is Ying Jie, our sister is Ying Chin, Ying Yan, Ying Di. We are connected. We are all embedded in that social network. It's a family, it's a clan, it's an expanded social worker rippling out.

Jay Ooi

What’s different about how names are used in Chinese culture vs here in Australia? And what’s the experience of using a foreign name in a western country?

Hello and welcome to Shoes Off, stories about Asian Australian culture. I’m Jay Ooi.

What’s in a name? Particularly in Australia, having a distinctly foreign name has its positives and negatives, and I’ve always had this inkling that there’s a different way we think about names in Australia compared to Chinese culture in particular, but I could never quite put my finger on it. And I know this episode is a little bit Chinese culture heavy, and in some ways Malaysian Chinese culture heavy, and I’m by no means implying that China holds a monopoly on Asian culture, it’s just how it happened to come together. Just, bear with me - I promise you you’ll get something out of this. I wanted to understand how this difference in names affects us, so I spoke to Professor of Chinese Studies Guo Ying Jie from the University of Sydney about this. 

Jay

Can you tell me your experience, coming to Australia and noticing the differences between how we use names here, and how you use them in China?

Ying Jie Guo

Well, people use names very casually here, and it's friendly, is casual, it's informal, which is good. That's what Australia is really about. And Australia is known for that. But took me a long, long time to get used to the use of names, especially if I'm addressing my professor. There's no way I'm going to say, "John." It's just not respectful enough in a Chinese cultural context. You have to say Professor somebody, instead of John or Jack.

So, it's respect is one thing, and it also related to one thing we talked about already, that is hierarchy. And because names, the way you address people is related to that, the hierarchy, the differential positions people have in that hierarchy.

Jay Ooi

So what is this hierarchy that we talked about?

Ying Jie Guo

On a human level, we are all the same. But that doesn't work ... It's not in my interest to do that when I'm in China. Because, if I treat everybody as an equal, then that affects the things I can get away with, what sort of things I can get, what sort of things I can't get done. Even when people take me out to dinner, for example, if I'm dressed very casually, like this, people usually try to ... The one of the first things people do over there in China, is to put you in the box. "You're a professor. Are you a chair of a department, or a head of a school, or the dean of the faculty? Is the head of the school more senior than the chair of the department?"

Jay Ooi

So Chinese culture is inherently hierarchical and it changes the way you address people; the way you use people’s names. And why is this the case?

Ying Jie Guo

I explain many things in China, in terms of the size of the population. Because there's a large population, resources are always scarce, including social and symbolic resources. Social respect, for example, social distinction. These are very precious and scarce resources. And they can't be distributed freely or evenly. There is a way of differentiating the amount of social capital, social prestige one person gets.

Jay Ooi

Okay, in Chinese society there’s a scramble for social distinction. So in Australia, how are we different and what does it mean for the way we use names? Does it affect our identity?

Ying Jie Guo

It does. It does. It affects your identity, because it's related to the way you show respect to different people, and the way you think, where you stand in society. And that's your whole being, that's your identity.

Ying Jie Guo

And, by changing my family name, and the order of my family name, and given names, I'm actually doing something on Chinese. Because, my given name comes first, my family name comes last, and that's not the right thing by my family. And, I'm not doing the right thing by my ancestors, either.

Jay Ooi

So because we use our given names as our first name, even that small change already impacts our identity. We’re ourselves first, before a part of our family - that’s Australian culture. Chinese culture is much more of a collective society, and Australia? We’re much more individualistic. And really, our name is the most basic way to refer to us - it’s the essence of our identity. How I want people to refer to me is a reflection of me.

Ying Jie Guo

Even changing the spelling changes a lot.

Jay

What do you mean by that?

Ying Jie Guo

Well, my given name is Ying Jie. You write it out in characters, it means something. When I write it in Roman alphabets, it doesn't mean anything.

Jay Ooi

This translation from the Chinese written characters to Hanyu Pinyin, or the roman alphabet that we use in English - so much meaning is lost, because each word or character in Chinese has meaning, especially in names.

This really struck a chord with me because I think I’ve always known it, but I’ve never been able to put it into words. So a little fun fact, my birth name isn’t actually Jay. My parents grew up in Malaysia, but our heritage is Chinese, so of course I have a Chinese name. It’s pronounced Ooi Jian Long. At least, I think it is. My hokkien pronunciation is pretty bad, and my ability to actually speak the language is far worse.

I was born in Australia but my parents never gave me a western name, which meant that I went through school with the pinyin translation of my name which is spelt J I A N. No, not J A I N which is how 95% of people write it down when I spell it out, some weird trick of the brain I guess.

Now how would a native english speaker read that? Definitely not Jian. I got every deviation possible of this name growing up. Jee-anne, Jan, Jee-arn, and even some letters appeared out of nowhere, Juan and Jiang. It was confusing to say the least, particularly because there was no right English pronunciation of my name. And it’s not like I could rely on my parents to tell me - they would call me by my Chinese name.

Needless to say, I found it difficult identifying with the Pinyin spelling of my Chinese name - it just didn’t feel like my name.

Ying Jie Guo

And then, it's not just your name, and you think, "Who am I? It's not my person." It's not my person, because your person is actually all these things, is the sound of it, is the meaning of those characters. When the characters are transcribed with Roman alphabets, then that identity is gone, is lost. And, is the connections as well, because my given them is not isolated. I'm embedded in the social network. And that's reflected in my name, because, all my brothers and sisters, start ... The first given name is Ying, that character, and all my sisters and brothers have the same. So, my name is Ying Jie, our sister is Ying Chin, Ying Yan, Ying Di. We are connected. Even the cousins, my cousins, the sons and daughters of my uncles, have very much, very similar names. We are all embedded in that social network.

Ying Jie Guo

And, it's part of my identity, because, when I hear my name, I hear their names, at least part of their names, too. And my identity is related, almost inseparable from theirs, and the whole family.

Jay Ooi

So names in Chinese culture are a way of unifying a family. And I definitely get this sense of my name connecting me to mine. I share the second part of my name with my brother Siang Long. He just had a slightly easier to pronounce name in english - his is spelt S H E N. Another fun fact - Shen Long was the name of the dragon in Dragon Ball Z. But now that I think about it, every time I write down my full name, I do see his - part of my name is a part of his. We are connected in that way, so maybe I shouldn’t dislike my pinyin name so much. But I still wanted to know where my name came from, so I went to the source.

Jay

Okay. And how do you say in teochew your full name?

Siew Gek

Kee Siew Gek. Kee

Jay Ooi

This is my mum, Kee Siew Gek. her and her four her sisters all have the first name Siew.

Siew Gek

Siew is like beautiful, elegant.

Jay

And then the second name.

Siew Gek

Yit is a jade is a stone. Jade, green.

Gek is teo chew. But Gek is in teo chew Yit is in mandarin.

My name is not interesting to describe, Siew Cheng's name my sister's name, my elder sister name because she always, something that she wakes up certain time and cry, something like that. So they name her Si Cheng. Si Cheng is clock, Siew Cheng is clock. So they twist the name into Siew Cheng. So that's how we adapt the word Siew, the name Siew.

Jay Ooi

So that’s one way that Chinese names can have meaning. There are other traditions in Chinese culture - seeking out fortune tellers, figuring out what elements the baby needs based off when they’re born and so they’re named around that. So yeah. there’s a lot of meaning in Chinese names, but where did my name, Jian Long, come from?

Siew Gek

grand father want the second name to be Long.

Jay

That's dad's dad right?

Siew Gek

Dad’s dad. Long was the company name of his company, Long. So he said that okay, your son who have the second name as Long, so we choose the first name. So we try to get the first name that is easily pronounced in Australia. I already plan okay that I want to migrate. So I thought okay Siang is Shen, Shen Long. Shen will be easier to pronounce, I don't know much about Australian way yet. Okay? He was born there. So we name him as Shen.

Jay

And then me?

Siew Gek

And then you need to use the Long as well, so we say Jian, strong, you know firm, Jian.

Jay

And how do you know this word? Is this a common word that you use in Chinese?

Siew Gek

Yes, it's a common word for name.

Jay

Oh for names.

Siew Gek

Jian is for name. Yeah, it's a common word for name. Yeah, correct.

Jay

But it's not a common word that you use in conversation?

Siew Gek

You do, you do.

Jay

In what context?

Siew Gek

In what context? Let me tell you. Jian Chang. So when you want to say that person is very strong and healthy, Jian Chang, your first name Jian Chang. So they use it, they do use it.

Jay

And what does Long mean?

Siew Gek

Long is prosperous. Is prosperous.

Jay

That's very Chinese.

Jay Ooi

So altogether, my name means that if I’m strong and firm, I will prosper. So Chinese. 

Jay

You mentioned that with my brother's name, you chose it because it translates well into English. Did you choose my name as well because it translates well into English?

Siew Gek

I thought it translates well, Jian. So you don't think so?

Jay

But in terms of like, the spelling and how people pronounce it.

Siew Gek

The spelling, how people pronounce it. I think it's a bit hard for people. They might say is Jian.

it's not easy. I did regret.

Jay

When did you regret?

Siew Gek

Because when you go to school, I think that they can’t really pronounce your name correctly. 

Jay

so growing up what did you call me growing up?

Siew Gek

Jian Long, I call you Jian Long.

Jay

And what did my brother call me? Do you remember?

Siew Gek

Jian Long, I think he also follow us and Jian Long.

Jay

No, he definitely didn't use the Chinese name.

Siew Gek

So he used Jian.

Jay

He probably said Jian.

Siew Gek

Jian, yeah okay.

Jay Ooi

Jan - I got this a lot in high school, and this irked me because I was already different enough being this chubby nerdy Asian kid that was definitely still in the closet - I didn’t need a female name on top of that. And who was I, a 10 year old, to tell my parents that I didn’t really like my name. 

When I hit university, I was sick of being this guy with a weird name, so I adopted the name Jay. Anything to not stand out more than I already did.

But it was weird at first. I wasn’t even used to being called Jay yet - it was just the first letter of my name, and it was a name in itself. I just decided to start using it because I was so over my weird Chinese-pronounced-in-English name. Whenever I saw my old high school friends, they would still call me Jee-anne or Jan. It wasn’t until I started working, and no-one there knew me as Jian Long, that I started to become Jay more. And eventually I changed my facebook name to Jay, and that definitely felt like a big milestone. Jian Long just feels like a past life, a past person. The chinese pronunciation “Jian Long”, yes I identify with that, but the one spelt J I A N, no.

I don’t think my mum knew about any of this, so I read this out to her.

Siew Gek

I am sorry that you feel so bad about your name. Yeah, actually it is true, it's hard to pronounce. I made a mistake. Because I was thinking that by then when you grow up, you want to adopt a Christian name, you can adopt a Christian name.

Jay

So you would have been okay with me to adopt a western name?

Siew Gek

Yes.

Jay

At what point, like what age would I have been able to do that.

Siew Gek

It doesn't matter to me that when you are up to age that you want to have a Christian name, you put yourself a Christian name. A lot of Chinese in Malaysia do that.

Jay

I know, but I didn't know that was an option.

Siew Gek

Oh, sorry.

Jay

You never told me. Hey, do want an English name? You can have an English name if you want. I'd never realized that growing up.

Siew Gek

The reason I didn't tell you is how the Malaysian people do. They adopt their own Christian name.

Jay

but we were living in Australia.

Siew Gek

Sorry about that because that was the intention that if it is too hard, they name their own Christian name. Yeah.

So, are you happy with your Jay?

Jay

Yeah. Yeah.

Siew Gek

Okay that's good. Call yourself Jay it is okay. Yeah.

Jay

does that feel like I'm running away from my Chinese culture?

But like you're saying that we look Chinese so we should have a Chinese name.

Siew Gek

That is way I think but how many percent of Chinese thing like me now, they all have Christian name. It's okay, It's okay. If you want to have a English name it's okay. I'm perfectly okay. Yeah. Honestly.

Jay Ooi

At least I’m feeling a bit better about taking on the name Jay. Plus, I chose it because I also didn’t want to stray too far from my Chinese name, I’m still sort of connected to it through the first letter. I’m Jay, and by extension Jian Long. And whilst I may have had a bit of an identity crisis with my name, but not everyone does.

Juxien Tan

In many instances I tell people my name is Juice, because in my mind it's easier than saying Juxien and when people ask me, what is your actual name? I tell them and they're like that's not hard to say and they'll say it back to me and they'll say it almost perfectly. So I think also because I've been using my nickname for a long time, it's just easier to remember than Juxien.

Jay Ooi

I asked him if he’s had any particularly bad experiences around his name in Australia, and the one thing that he thought of?

Juxien Tan

something that I do think about, and again, I'm not sure if this is a thing, is adding an Asian name on my Tinder profile.

Juxien Tan

Yeah. So I don't know, it's something I've thought a lot about before, I was like, actually I wonder if that contributes too, not that I don't get matches, it's just that I wonder if it just contributes to not having as many.

Jay Ooi

Whilst I don’t have stats specifically about using an Asian name, there are stats that show that Asian men in general are seen as less desirable when it comes to online dating. But apart from maybe not getting as many Tinder matches, Juxien is quite fond of his name.

Juxien Tan

one I actually like Juxien, it's a very nice name. I actually quite like it. Also it's something that my grandfather named most of his grandkids.

Jay Ooi

So Juxien feels that connection back to his family through his name. But growing up in Australia, you often don’t think about these things, you just want to fit in says Professor Guo.

Ying Jie Guo

And that's understandable. They don't want to stand out. They don't want to be different until they are probably old enough to say, "I'm different, so what?" And that's probably a strength as well as a weakness.

Ying Jie Guo

I can see why so many Chinese students adopt the Western name. It's convenience. Many of their lecturers can't pronounce their names. You hear all sorts of things that can be annoying. So, instead of having that, you might as well have Jack, or Peter, or John, or something easy to remember, and easy to say.

Jay Ooi

Yes, adopting western names can make life easier, partly because it mitigates situations like this.

Fiona Price

And then they give me these names like, 'Yeah, just call me Cinderella.' Should I call them Cinderella? Shouldn't I be trying to pronounce their real name? Wouldn't that be more culturally respectful of their heritage, and ..."

And they were really stressed about it.

Jay Ooi

This is Fiona Swee Lin Price - she’s half caucasian, half malaysian chinese and she runs seminars for university staff on how to pronounce Asian names.

Fiona Price

just about everybody I spoke to raised, said, "Do you know what we really struggle with? It's Asian students' names. Oh my God, they are so difficult. I just can't pronounce them. Every time one of them comes to counter, I can feel myself die a bit inside because it's just so frightening. And I don't know the names of all these x's and q's and things, and I don't know how to pronounce them.

Jay Ooi

These Asian names were causing university staff a lot of stress, which is ironic because I changed my name to Jay to fit in to mainstream Australian culture, but here we have a course trying to bridge this gap the other way - mainstream culture understanding minorities better. Anyway, what Fiona did was she went away and interviewed and researched and came up with a workshop called Working with Asian Names, and she’s been doing this for over 10 years now. 

Fiona Price

probably one of the key points is that there is a cultural difference in the way people look at names. And the very English speaking western thing, it's absolutely crucial to pronounce someone's name right. That's showing respect. It's building rapport. You must pronounce the name right, and they get to pick how they want their name to be said and what name they get to use... If someone had been raised in Asia, the most important thing about showing respect to someone it's to show respect for relative status.

I mean, explain to them, "You prioritise name pronunciation much more highly than they do. If you are a staffer, if you are a lecturer, and they're a student, you pronounce their name wrong, they probably wouldn't correct you because they're showing respect to you as the teacher who's the person who is the elder, who's the person of higher status. And they'll feel it's very rude and disrespectful to correct you. They'd rather give you something that you can pronounce or let you mispronounce it and just be okay with it."

Jay Ooi

Yepp, we’re definitely more precious about our names in Australia. It’s that classic example of my name is Jonathan not John, or you can call me Bobby but you have to call me Robert. In Australia, you are the gatekeeper to what you’re called, whereas in Chinese culture it really depends on where you stand on the social hierarchy in relation to the other person.

But this difficulty to pronounce foreign names has some not so great consequences in a western country like Australia. Studies have shown that using an Asian name will score you less job interviews than if you whitened up your resume. It’s something I definitely thought about when I was transitioning into my name “Jay”.

Fiona Price

Well, what I've been talking about is one of the exact reasons why that's the case, I would say. Well, do you want to ring someone up and tell them to come in for a job interview if you don't know if you can pronounce the name recognisably on the phone? I mean, do we want that? It actually causes a of stress. A friend of mine who's got a Chinese name, not a very hard one, actually say that it's a real professional problem. People would actually avoid talking to him because I can't remember his name, and he eventually adopted a western name. Professionally, it actually made things easier.

Jay Ooi

So what’s the verdict? Should those of us with difficult to pronounce foreign names change them for the sake of ease? On one hand yes, it really is more pragmatic in many ways, and even though I did this, I really wish we didn’t have to and that we can celebrate our heritage through our names. But I think whatever you choose, it’s okay. It’s okay to keep your foreign name, and it’s okay to adopt a Western one, and each will have its positive and negative consequences. But regardless of whether we do or don’t, there are other ways to make life easier for people with foreign names.

Fiona Price

It might not be a bad thing to lower this "you're racist if you get someone's name wrong" thing and actually teach people how to pronounce names instead so they feel comfortable with Asian names.

it would actually be better for society as a whole and for workplaces that are working in a multicultural, globalised work environment, to become more comfortable with dealing with names that are not their own. And also to not feel this terrible fear of getting judged and shamed and possibly lose their job if they don't get it right. It would be better if someone could actually teach them how to use the names and make them feel a bit less frightened, which would also mean they could engage more positively with that person when they turned up.

Jay Ooi

Right, so let’s not judge people as harshly when they get our name a bit wrong, and let’s help them get it a bit more right.

Ying Jie Guo

but then, something worries me more deeply. That is to say, it's an identity change. I've come across Chinese students who began to distance from themselves, their former identities as symbolised by that name. So, moving away from their Chinese names is not simply having a more convenient English name, is actually part of a move away from their former identity. They are becoming somebody else.

And, I have noticed Chinese students who deliberately do that, and is actually an aspiration.

And, I've heard, sometimes in the corridor, overheard, rather, conversations, "Oh, I came from China. I don't like this, and the way people make noises when we talk." They're talking down their Chinese friends and people. And they're trying to stand out, and distinguish themselves. And, to me, they are moving away from their former identity. They're trying to transform themselves into something else.

Jay Ooi

Okay, so we’ve learned that names are inherent to our identity. Chinese names often reflect the collective cultural values, but showing respect is more important than the name itself. Chinese names have meaning, and often that meaning is lost when it’s translated into our english alphabet. Western names reflect our individualistic society, and we own how our name is said. And often foreign names create social anxiety, mainly because we’re not exposed to them and we don’t know how to say them. And adopting a Western name can make life easier, but it can also go hand in hand with adopting western culture and denouncing your eastern culture. And life in between for us Asians in Australia can be tricky to navigate.

But where does that leave me? What does Jay mean to me now? I think a lot of us feel kind of torn between two worlds, and I wish there was a clearer conclusion to this. I honestly do like Jay - it’s the person I’ve become, but even within that there’s a link back to my Chinese name. Do I want to officially change my name to Jay and get rid of the “Jian Long”? No, not really. Partially because it was me for so many years, plus it does tie me to my wider family. It feels wrong to erase that, but at the same time, it feels wrong to embrace the bastardised english pronunciation of my name again. Yes, I am both culturally Australian and Malaysian Chinese, so I don’t want to pretend like my heritage doesn’t exist. but no, I don’t feel like trying to teach every person I meet how to properly say my name in Chinese - that just feels a little too entitled and impractical. 

So I think Jay is sticking around, mainly because I’m used it and it is pragmatic, but my Chinese name isn’t going anywhere. I’m going to be a little less Western and give you the choice. Jay is great, but you can also call me “Jian Long” if you like.

This episode of Shoes Off was written, produced, and edited by me Jay Ooi, with some music from Colin Ho. Special thanks to all the guests in today’s episode - Ying Jie, Fiona, Juxien and my mum. If you liked Shoes Off please subscribe, you can find it wherever you get your podcasts. If you have something or someone I should talk about or to, please contact me at shoesoff.net, and if you have a mate who you think would enjoy this, share the cultural goodness with them. Thanks, and catch you next episode.

Siew Gek

But you are not looking like the way Malaysian Chinese look actually .

Jay

What does that mean?

Siew Gek

Because your feature, you got a higher nose.

Jay

I do have a higher nose.

Siew Gek

And then your head is quite round.

Jay

So if I went back to Malaysia and I dressed up like my cousins, you don't think I would pass as Malaysian?

Siew Gek

No, no. Because you two couldn't pass when we went to one of the park.

Jay

What?

Siew Gek

No.

Jay

Why?

Siew Gek

They can look at you, you are from oversea.

Jay

How do they know?

Siew Gek

Well, the Chinese way say that you eat the rice there, you look like the people there. There's a Chinese way of saying. Yeah.

Jay

So you think if I grew up in Malaysia I would look very different. I would physically look different?

Siew Gek

If you were brought up there, you will be different.

Jay

I will look different?

Siew Gek

The way you carry yourself will be very different.

Jay

Carry yourself.

Siew Gek

Your manner, your posture, the way you talk. Yeah, it'll be like Malaysian. So because you were brought up here, so when you went to Malaysia people can pick up that you are not here not from there.

Guests

Dr Yingjie Guo

Ju-xien Tan

Fiona Price

Siew Gek Kee

Resources

http://www.hireimmigrants.ca/wp-content/uploads/Final-Report-Which-employers-discriminate-Banerjee-Reitz-Oreopoulos-January-25-2017.pdf

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-38751307

https://crawford.anu.edu.au/news-events/news/104/job-hunt-success-all-name

https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/02/23/516823230/asian-last-names-lead-to-fewer-job-interviews-still

https://www.hrmonline.com.au/section/featured/asian-workers-disadvantage-in-australia/

 

 

S01E02 - Bobalicious

S01E02 - Bobalicious

Trailer - Welcome to Shoes Off