Friday, March 11, 2011

What’s in a name?

…Well, a lot, apparently. Juliet had no idea what she was talking about.

Along with globalisation, there comes a rather long-winded debate in Vietnam that I just find slightly silly and a bit like arguing that an apple is a fruit and an orange is a fruit but an apple is not an orange (that’s not really a saying, I made that up :P).

So, should Vietnamese (or Chinese or Thai or X nationality, for that matter) people take on English names when living overseas/working with foreigners/not working with foreigners and not living overseas/ever?

I’ve been called Hen or something that rhymes with Heinz ketchup. And regardless of famous English rule of “i before e except after c”, I’ve lost count of the number of time people have spelled my name Hein. Trust me, I know it’s annoying when people mispronounce/misspell your name. But maybe my name is still a relatively easy name to write and pronounce, I don’t see the fuss adopting or not adopting an English name. But other people apparently do put up a fuss.

There are two arguments to this debate:

  • Yes, when you live overseas and your name can be mispronounced into something rude/unpleasant then by all means, go by some other name. 
  • No, even if you’re threatened with death you still should not change anything about the name that your parents gave you because you should have pride/be patriotic/not do it just because having an English name is cool

And then there’s the stance of “Who cares? No one makes a fuss over foreigners adopting Vietnamese names, we even find it interesting/intriguing. Why do we discriminate against Vietnamese people who adopting foreign names?”

You know what, all three points are valid, and yet there are people who just don’t get that!

As I understand it, one of the things that stirred up this debate is a fad amongst Vietnamese Paris Hilton-like celebrities who are famous for being famous who all have English names regardless of there being no need for it. They live in Vietnam, they “work” (whatever that work is) in Vietnam with Vietnamese people, so why? Indeed.  And this, I must say, is a case when it’s really stupid to adopt English names because it doesn’t stem from consideration and respect for others or for yourself, it’s a fad that is …well, pointless. 

A friend of mine worked in a company (in Vietnam!) where it is compulsory for you to have an English name. I think this is ridiculous because 1) even if the company is foreign, they have a base in Vietnam, so deal with it! When in Rome... and 2) it's forcing one culture on another. I'm not going to compare it to the Chinese Qing-dynasty queue order because it's a rather slippery slope, but it is nonetheless, not very respectful of the home culture.

Personally, I think that even if you live overseas, but you have a relatively innocent name like mine, you shouldn’t feel the need or pressure to adopt another English name. I think if foreign people are capable of pronouncing your name in your native tongue and it doesn’t get mangled into something too unpleasant, then they should be given a chance to show you respect by calling you by your birth name. But that’s just my opinion. In this case, if you do adopt your name, it should be considered a personal choice and because you live overseas, an English name just makes your day to day life a little more convenient.

And then there are cases of Vietnamese names when written in English (or French for that matter), just looks rude. My Dung is a Vietnamese name with Chinese roots () that means beautiful countenance but it looks rather problematic on an English-language document.  And then I pity the man whose name is Le Chien who lives in France. Spelling aside, there names like Phuc or Bich that are just bad when you pronounce it wrong. These are cases when I would say, yes, for the purity of both our languages, please adopt an English name if you live overseas or interact with foreigners on a regular basis.  In these cases, it’s not a matter of pride or coolness or patriotism, it’s more a matter of being considerate of both the person who might have to say your name and of yourself, who will otherwise hear very unpleasant things when you are being called.

Not all Vietnamese names get mangled into unpleasant things though. At my office there is a girl named Quynh Anh and it gets mispronounced into Queen Anne which is rather interesting.

As to the case of expats living in Vietnam having Vietnamese names. This is the double standard. Vietnamese find foreigners who have Vietnamese names rather an exciting phenomenon. It’s a case of OMG, Western people actually wants to copy something of ours!!!

This is, I think, slightly different from Vietnamese people taking English names when they live overseas, which is all too usual, so much that sometimes it is considered the norm. Expats living in Vietnam taking Vietnamese names is a lot more unusual and it’s usually a gesture of friendship, it usually happens with expats who actually speak Vietnamese (which is not as usual as you might think) and yes, it does make people friendlier to you in certain circumstances.  

Case in point: I knew a family, whose children went to my school and everyone in their family had a Vietnamese name. Part of that was due to the fact that they’d been living in Vietnam since the time when we still see foreigners on the street and point at them yelling “Tây! Tây!” Now, it’s not so unusual to see expats living and working in Vietnam so that doesn’t happen (as often) anymore, at least in the city. Another reason, I’d hazard a guess, was that at the time when they first came to Vietnam, people were not so used to trying to figure out how to pronounce “complicated” foreign names. But maybe the most important point is, their Vietnamese names didn’t replace their real names. It was more like a nickname and most of the time they were still addressed by their real names.

I don’t think you’ve committed any kind of crime if you want an English name, but I think there should be a reason for it, even if it’s just convenience. This is such a relative issue that you can’t possibly say “you have to do this” or “you can’t do this”, which some people are trying to do.