While discussing student written responses on Amy Tan I’m telling the class it would be conventional to refer to her as Tan rather than Amy because . . . when I look around and realize that some kids present have no lastname, some have upto four names, some may be using the family name as their firstname & given name as lastname, some may have both an Eastern & a Western name, some may have named themselves just for “Western” teachers like me (oh the irony–who mispronounce their names or can’t even hear the tones) or have simply picked a videogame character to name themselves (true!) or are just trying on diff “English” names like Charlotte, Emily, Anne.

Considering I’ve been forced myself to switch between the anglicized & Bengali versions of my own lastname at diff times at diff schools, I realize the irony of it all talking about Chinese American identity & the English language to a class of multilingual speakers from many countries in a place not the US at a school with a hyphenated identity. I’m not so sure now how to fill those ellipses or if I should care but these kids have made me rethink my own fraught relationship with my own lastname & its history. Perhaps the time has come for me to forget being stressed about anglicization and simply say “What’s in a name?”

ā€” at Singapore.

21 thoughts on “Assumptions”

  1. Names are important. I think it’s reasonable for people to use the one that fits the best whether it be one they were given or one they discovered themselves. However, I also think that, when a name is changed to please others we hide a little bit of ourselves and say to the world, “It’s okay, I will not expose you to the more extraordinary parts of me, I will become mundane for your comfort. I will remake myself to fit into your bell-curve.” My mother-in-law was born Anastasia in a Spanish-descended culture. An Anglo teacher was brought to her little rural school. This woman couldn’t pronounce most of the children’s names and so, even though she was the new-comer, the minority, she renamed most of them (all except for the “Maria’s”). My mother-in-law has been ‘Anne’ for 86 years now. The children were also physically disciplined for speaking Spanish. As an Anglo myself, I see what is being slowly lost with my culture’s demands that everyone else homogenize.


  2. Back in Grade 8 ( or Class 8, as we used to say back then in Calcutta ), we had a teacher who decided to make his own list of the students in the class, in alphabetical order, last name first.

    “When I say ‘A’ all those whose surnames start with A stand up”.

    All went fine until we reached G.

    “What’s your name?”
    “Golam Farook”
    “You stupid boy, why didn’t you stand up when I called F?”
    “Sir, my surname is Golam”
    “Then your name is Farook Golam”
    “No sir, my name is Golam Farook”

    This went on for a while and at the end of it all I never got on the list…. My surname starts with an S, you see.

    There is also the complication of titles used as surnames, I think, so people use the title given to their grandfather / great grandfather interchangably with their surname.

    Have fun in Singapore, good to have you back online.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ” What’s in a name ? ” . The name is very important to someone . Because the name is to be prayer , hopes , ideals , etc .
    Many people call her in accordance with his hopes to his son . So the name is very important .


  4. Amongst the East Asians, I’ve noticed that the Chinese, especially those who have lived outside the Mainland, are at ease in having multiple names for multiple purposes. My Chinese husband first had what he called a baby name using the pronunciation of his Southern Fukienese language.

    By the time he was school age, he needed a more formal name. Someone well versed in the classics was expected to choose it. The first character should be the same for all the siblings, and all the characters should be chosen from the same poem. This more formal name is pronounced in Mandarin. He and his siblings continued to use their baby names when they were speaking Fukienese.

    When he attended an English-language school, he chose an English language name which he continued to use whenever he spoke English.

    His family name, which I have taken, is Tan in his home province, Chen in Mandarin and Chin or Chan in other provinces. It doesn’t matter. The character looks the same.

    I suppose you might say that the Chinese are practical. They know who they are, and they have no problem using a variety of names.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is very interesting to me. Many Indians have two names, one formal and one informal. Traditionally, in a lot of contexts though, we wouldn’t be addressed by our names at all but would be addressed by a designation that had the relationship between the addressed and addressee embedded in it. The anglicization of our “ethnic” names and making our names conform to the firstname/ lastname structure happened during colonization. Hence, our relationship to our anglicized names are more charged and very different, I realized, from the ones of East Asians to their “English” names when I came here. Of course, this applies to only those people who care about words and what they mean!


  5. I feel very ignorant. It was only recently, reading Curtis Mekemson’s book The Bush Devil Ate Sam, that I realised our European first/last naming system has little relevance in large tracts of the world. Curt, working for the Peace Corps in Liberia, had to make a rule that his students could only change their names once a term, because otherwise he found that taking the register got too complicated.


  6. Interesting post! Having never traveled outside the U.S. (apart from a short trip to Canada), I’d never really thought about the differences in names from culture to culture. šŸ™‚


    1. Singapore has people of Indian (Tamilian), Malay and Chinese origin who may have come from different countries apart from the Indonesians, the Vietnamese and people from many other countries who have many conventions of naming due to culture and social pressure.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. There is a great deal of eurocentrism in the fact that for all kinds of purposes, on official forms, passports, on the internet etc., one is asked for “last name” and “first name”, instead of just being aske for a name. It is also leading to a great deal of confusion.
    The Cameroonian members of my family, for example, invariably have their “African” names (both “first” and “last” names bundled together as “last name” in their passports, while their “christian” names end up as first names. So my wife, for example, had “Nkumi Kuma” as her “last name” in her passport, while her brother has “Atongni Kuma”, etc. The Katholic church in cameroon, on the other hand, ignores all the African names except for one (what an arrogant and again eurocentric attitude) so there is the correct last name (for people in whose area there is a family name, but there are more than 200 languages in the country) but only one of the “first names”. My daughter was baptised in Cameroon and as a result, her baptism card does not show her second “first name” Nange but only her “christian” name (Had she been baptised in Germany, both names would be there). Actually, I am not sure when the “Kuma” name became the last name. That might be a recent development,the name they should actually use is the matriclan name (“Givi”), but that one is ommited in both the government’s and the churche’s documents. Eropean, patriarchic and religious traditions have been imposed on the people there.
    The Eritrean members of my family have a system where you have your personal name and a father’s name, but for my nephew, born in Germany, his grandfather’s name has now ended up as his last name, because the German authorities took it as “last name” of his father.
    I think it is time to stop this first name/last name nonsense completely because it is culture specific.

    Liked by 1 person

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