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What’s in a Name?

As I’ve been having and hearing conversations about ethnicity and inclusion, one topic has come up more than once. It goes something like this:

“Sometimes People of Colour feel the need to change their name to make it easier for White people to pronounce. For example, you often see Chinese people anglicizing their names.”

Usually when I hear this, the speaker’s intention is to support Chinese ethnicity, and encourage them to be proud of their culture.

I totally agree with that concept, but I don’t feel that I’ve compromised my ethnicity by having an “English” name. And I believe many other Chinese people feel the same.

But I have definitely experienced exclusion and discrimination about my “Chinese name”, which the perpetrators may have been oblivious to. Let me explain.

Names as identity

When my parents named me, they gave me an “English” name, Rosie – this is typically referred to as my “first” or “given” name. My last name (aka family name, or surname), is Yeung. When I introduce myself to anyone new – whether Chinese or other – I say my name is Rosie Yeung. That’s how I identify.

They also gave me a name in traditional Chinese language, which I’m not going to tell you (for reasons I explain later). I don’t think of them as two separate names; they’re all my names, they’re who I am. Maybe the closest comparator, is to White people’s “middle names”. You usually call people by their first and/or last names; but you don’t typically find out a person’s middle name(s), let alone call them by those names.

My parents and family (all Chinese) refer to me alternately as Rosie or my Chinese name, and I answer to both. Actually, it’s a little weird when they call me Rosie if there are no White people around.

Rosie is not a translation or anglicized version of my Chinese name. It’s just my name. It’s not a name to make it easier for White people to pronounce. And this is true of most of my Chinese friends. Their first names are their given names, and are not a “compromised” version of their Chinese names.

So where does the discrimination come in?

It’s happened to me many times, and it goes something like this.

Them: "What’s your name?"

Me: "Rosie."

Them: "And what’s your Chinese name?"

Can anyone else relate to this?


Othering by stereotyping

FYI - I hate that question, “What’s your Chinese name?” I see it as the equivalent of: “Where are you from?” “Canada.” “But where are you really from?”

Here’s my question back to you. Why do you want to know?

You may think you’re just making conversation, or showing interest – but I receive it as a type of discrimination against my identity and my ethnicity.

This might become more clear if we change the scenario a little bit. Let’s run the conversation again:

Them: “What’s your name?”

Me: “Ching Chang Chong.”

In this conversation, would you still ask me what my Chinese name is?

I bet your answer is no. Because Ching Chang Chong sounds Chinese to you. Rosie doesn’t. (By the way, I am purposely using “Ching Chang Chong” as an example, because it is a stereotypical “Chinese name” that has been used against me and other Chinese people as a racial slur.)


Othering by exotifying

Before I met Dr. Abdulrehman, I knew the whole Chinese name thing offended me, but I couldn’t explain why. Until he said this on our podcast episode:

“Sometimes…we can exotify people, where we approach diversity or difference anthropologically. Where we just want to kind of always know, well, ‘What makes you different? Please, tell me.’… So they're like a circus act show.”

That’s when the lightbulb went off for me. Every time a non-Chinese person asked me for my Chinese name, I felt like a circus monkey being asked to perform. And the only purpose seemed to be for their amusement. It’s not like they ever called me by my Chinese name afterwards. They couldn’t even pronounce my name.

Toy Story 3, Disney Pixar

Dr. Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran, in their book “Subtle Acts of Exclusion”, compare seemingly innocent questions like this to being told, “You’re a curiosity”, “You don’t belong”, or “You are not normal”.

I never once wanted to tell those people my Chinese name. I wanted to say, “It’s none of your business.” My close friends, even the Chinese ones, never ask for my Chinese name. Because they don’t need to know it! They’re know me as Rosie. So why would my co-workers, business acquaintances, or classmates – people who can’t even speak Chinese – need or want to know my Chinese name? Other than as a spectacle, like going to an art gallery and viewing a piece of Chinese art. You can’t possibly appreciate it, because you don’t know the culture, history, or context behind it. But hey, afterwards you can say that you’ve seen Chinese art.

That’s how I feel when non-Chinese people ask me for my Chinese name. It has meaning and sentiment for me, and my family. It won’t mean anything to you. You can’t say it, or understand it, because you don’t know the language. So I don’t want to tell you. But because I’m polite, or you’re my boss, or a million other peer pressure reasons – I do it.


Why so serious?

At this point, I can imagine the taken-aback reactions. Similar to my experience with a White man complaining that “you can’t even shake a woman’s hand these days”, I can picture people saying things like:

“You can’t even talk to Chinese people anymore. Better just to keep my mouth shut.”

“Why is she so sensitive?”

“Sheesh, they’re not being offensive. They probably just wanted to acknowledge your Chinese culture, or show interest and curiosity by asking. Aren’t diversity experts all saying we need to learn more about culture, and be curious? Well I’m not going to do that if I’m just going to get slammed.”

My response to this is another Dr. Abdulrehman quote from our podcast:

“Sometimes people think that they're being well-meaning and wanting to learn by barraging people with, ‘Oh I want to understand you and your point of view.’ But cross-cultural competence is first about identifying your own biases and your own misunderstandings. And then leaving the door open to understand about the worldview of other people. And then lastly, for having a working relationship.”

What does this mean, practically?

First, let me be fair. It’s rare that I’ve ever been asked my Chinese name from someone who has no relationship with me. There’s usually some kind of context, like I’m travelling with a co-worker and we’re talking about our passports, or something.

Even so, that still doesn’t mean I want to tell you my Chinese name. It’s personal and private to me, and we don’t just give out our personal information without good reason.


Changing the conversation

I like how Jana and Baran suggest we change the conversations, so these “subtle acts of exclusion” (their re-naming of the term microaggression), happen less often.

Specifically when it comes to my Chinese name – it could go something like this:


Them: “What’s your Chinese name?”

Me: “Before I respond, can I ask why you’re asking me that?”

Them: “I was just curious what your Chinese name is. Don’t Chinese people usually have an English name and a Chinese name?”

Me: “I’m guessing you don’t mean anything negative by it, but asking for my Chinese name without context makes me feel like some strange object of interest. I do have a Chinese name, which is something that’s personal and meaningful to me, and only my family, and Chinese people who know how to pronounce it, call me that. It’s not something I share with people to satisfy their curiosity.

If you’re interested in learning more about the syntax and structure of Chinese names, and how they work generally – I’m happy to share what I know. I think that would be a better place to start learning about Chinese culture and discussing names, than just asking someone what their Chinese name is.”


Jana and Baran have examples of how “Them” could reply, but I’ll stop here, because this is just my personal opinion. I know lots of other Chinese people wouldn’t be bothered and are fine to share their Chinese name. So I don’t want to over-generalize or say it’s a problem for everyone. For me, and maybe some others, it is.

By the way, I’m also guilty of subtle acts of exclusion against people, in ways I’m still discovering. In no way am I saying I’m only on the receiving end of this.

What I hope we can take away (including me), is that if we are going to ask or speak about another person’s ethnicity – first, self-reflect. Why am I asking? Am I genuinely interested in learning? Do I just want to show off what I already know about their culture? What am I going to do with the information I’m asking for? Will I use it to relate better to them going forward? How will this strengthen our rapport (or does it)?


Self-reflection questions

(Questions inspired by Catalyst Honours 2020)

Think: What surprised me the most about what I learned from this post?

Feel: What am I feeling most challenged by related to this?

Do: What can I do immediately to change the conversation?

Share your stories and comments.

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