Call me by my name. By Jay Ooi.

growing up asian Jun 22, 2020

Last week, I shared a story (over HERE) about the ways in which non-Anglo names can really throw people off. Little did I know that this story would resonate with so many of you. Thank you for emailing me your stories of sadness, frustration and now, appreciation over your beautiful names.

Funnily enough, I was lucky enough to meet Jay Ooi from Shoes Off Podcast last week who just happened to share a beautiful article with me about his Chinese and Western names. I really wanted to share this story with you as it again highlights the very nuanced ways in which we have had to think about our identities from a very early age. If you’ve ever struggled with your name, or have never taken the time to understand Chinese names, this one is for you.

Jay is a podcast producer, writer and editor based in Sydney. Once you’ve read his story, be sure to head over to the Shoes Off Podcast where Jay has presented many conversations about Asian Australian culture in a very engaging audio format.

Enjoy!

~

‘Jan’. This was what I was called a lot growing up in Australia. See, my parents gave me a beautiful Chinese name, ‘堅隆’ (pronounced more like ‘Chien Long’), but when it’s written and pronounced as ‘Jian Long’, it just never had the same ring and meaning.

I never fully understood my own discomfort with my name until I did some digging last year. I realised this discomfort was one symptom of my conflicting cultural identity, of growing up in Australia to immigrant parents from Malaysia. But I also discovered a lot more about Chinese names that has brought me back to appreciating mine.

Chinese names have meaning

Yes, Chinese names are more than just sounds to identify you with – they tell a story. Each character has its own individual meaning, and when you join them together, they can mean something more.

In my case, ‘堅' (Jian) means strong and firm, and my mum chose it because it goes with my second name ‘隆’ (Long), which means prosperous, grand or to swell. Together, it means if I’m strong and firm, I will prosper.

So what happens when it’s Romanised? When ‘堅隆’ becomes ‘Jian Long’, it doesn’t mean anything anymore. And on top of that, because it’s not its own common Western name, there is no correct way to say ‘Jian Long’ for an English-speaking person. I never felt I had the power to correct people who pronounced it in whichever way they did – and I got so many ways: ‘Jee-anne’, ‘Jee-arn’, ‘Jee-ang’, ‘Juan’, and of course, ‘Jan’. They were all me, because there’s no right way to say ‘Jian’ in English.

So it’s not that I dislike my Chinese name, it’s that ‘Jian Long’ doesn’t have the same pronunciation and meaning.

Chinese names are tied to family

The quickest example of this is the way we use surnames. In Australia, surnames are at the end of your name, but in Chinese, your surname comes first, which means your family comes first. It’s that age-old collectivist vs individualist societies, and it’s even reflected in the different ways we write addresses on envelopes. In Australia, we start with the specific (your name) and get more general, but in China, it’s traditionally the reverse.

But it’s more than just your surname that ties you to your family. Often, you share another name with your siblings and extended family (one of your given names). It becomes a social network that’s reflected in your name.

In my case, I share the name ‘隆’ (Long) with my brother and the male cousins of my dad’s brothers. It’s a name given by my grandfather, and growing up, every time I wrote out my name, I had a sense that I was also connected with my brother, but it wasn’t until I started talking to people about this that it clicked in my head. My second name unifies me with my wider family, and it’s a part of my identity, because when I hear my name, I hear part of their name too.

Reconciling my name with my mum

I had always been afraid of changing my name. What would my parents say? It’s the name they gave me after all, who am I to say I don’t like it? But towards the end of high school, I just didn’t want to be called ‘Jian’ anymore, so I adopted the name ‘Jay’ -  the first letter of my name. You see it, and you know how to say it.

I finally sat down with my mum and talked through this change with her. I told her how I felt about my name and why I adopted ‘Jay’. She says she chose it because she thought it would be easy to say in English, but my experience was the opposite.

“I am sorry that you feel so bad about your name,” she replied. “Yeah, actually it is true, it's hard to pronounce. I made a mistake.

But I had this sense that I was running away from my Chinese culture by not using ‘Jian’ anymore. As much as it’s practical, it also felt like a denial of this non-white part of me.

“It's okay,” reassured my mum. “If you want to have an English name it's okay. I'm perfectly okay. Honestly.”

She tells me that it’s very common for Malaysian Chinese people to adopt a Western name anyway. She was the anomaly that didn’t.

My current name status

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. Despite this, ‘Jay’ doesn’t appear on any official documents, partly because ‘Jian Long’ was me for so many years, and it feels wrong to erase that. 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 what should you call me? I think ‘Jay’ is sticking around, but my Chinese name isn’t going anywhere – you can also call me ‘堅隆’ if you like.

~

You can find Jay, or 堅隆, at Shoes Off which is a podcast that shares skilfully stories about Asian Australian culture.

Original article published on April 11th 2020 HERE.

Interested in sharing a story about your Asian Australian experience with our Shapes and Sounds community? Get in touch with us HERE with a short pitch. We look forward to hearing from you!

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