Call Me By My Name

And not a nickname solely for your convenience.


TIFFANY FONG | FEATURES



In 1948, professors at Harvard studied whether names had any bearing on academic performance and found that men with uncommon names were more likely to have symptoms of psychological neurosis than those with common names. Thus, leading to the beginning of our fascination with names.

Almost 60 years later in 2004, the National Bureau of Economic Research sent out 5000 resumes in Boston, where half were given a ‘white-sounding’ name and others were given a ‘black-sounding’ name. As all BIPOC already know, the CVs with white-sounding names received more call-backs and not just by a small margin but by 50 per cent. This is further supported by later research which found that people with easier to pronounce names — by Western standards, were more positively evaluated compared to those with harder to pronounce names.

Names are undeniably a part of a person's identity. When asking someone to introduce themselves most will begin with their name, no matter what the context is. However, names are more than just a jumble of sounds used to identify ourselves and other people. Our names give away information about our ethnicity, our religion, even our socio-economic background.

More personally, names carry family history, culture and traditions with them.

In Chinese tradition, names are picked with great care and are imbued with a parent’s blessings for their child’s life. Days, nights, weeks, months are spent thinking about the meaning of each character, how they sound when combined, their interpretations, even the number of strokes are counted to bring the best fortune. Unlike with English names, it is rare to find individuals who share exactly the same name as parents aim for uniqueness.

Which is why it is essential to pronounce names accurately and correctly, all names carry months of deliberation.

My full name consists of my dialect name and as a Singaporean-Chinese, this is my Chinese name. When I first migrated to Australia I wrote my Chinese name phonetically alongside my English name, only to have several classmates butcher the pronunciation of my name and laugh at it. Within a singular moment there was a dismissal of not only my identity but also the significance and meaning of my Chinese name. Feeling ashamed and ridiculed I halted the practice of writing my Chinese name and kept to my English name, grateful to my parents for choosing one.

It was not until several years later that I re-examined my feelings towards my Chinese name. For many with non-English names adopting an English one is a means of assimilating into a new country. For others, it is a matter of convenience, it is easier to choose to go by an English name than to deal with people making little effort to pronounce their names accurately or, even worse, arbitrarily assigning them a nickname without permission. Much better to maintain agency through choosing their English name rather than to have their name that contains history, culture and tradition be dismissed without a second thought.

Despite having an English name, Singapore's arrangement of names also posed a challenge when I moved here. My official documentation in Singapore places my English name first, family name second and finally my Chinese name, following the conventional structure of Chinese names where the family name precedes the given name. The issue in Australia is that my Chinese name effectively becomes my middle name.

Yet, rearranging my name to conform to Western naming standards presented its own set of problems. Once, while opening a new bank account I produced my Singaporean passport as proof of identity and when I filled in my last name as ‘Fong’ —my family name, the banker stated that it was wrong, insisting on placing my Chinese name as my last name. I explained Singapore’s naming conventions but the bankers' insistence on my 'error' was annoying, if only due to the idea that a stranger knows the structure of my name better than me.

But names are not only important to people but they are also important to locations too.

During NAIDOC Week in 2020, Australia Post supported Rachael McPhail's campaign to include traditional place names as part of mailing addresses to recognise and celebrate Indigenous people, challenging the prevailing narrative of terra nullius within Australia. By including traditional place names in addresses, it is a step in recognising the rich culture and history of Indigenous people in Australia prior to colonisation.

Furthermore, to rename a place is to erase its history and its cultural significance. Uluru contains sacred sites that are culturally important to the Anangu people. When renamed Ayers Rock, it perpetuated the narrative of Australia being ‘discovered’, effectively robbing the Anangu people of their historical connection with the land. In 1995, the national park's name was changed to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National park to acknowledge and respect the Anangu people and honour their relationship with the land.

Names are important because they identify. They make something significant.

In a world where the rich are naming their children with increasingly obscure names — *cough* Elon Musk *cough* — the notion of names being uncommon because they are ethnic should be challenged. Names should not be assessed based on how hard they are to pronounce, once again, by Western standards or by how unfamiliar they sound. Instead, a name is a signifier of a person's identity and the history that they carry with them. In high school, I had a conversation with a (white) friend who politely asked if I had a Chinese name and if I would be willing to share what it meant. She repeated it carefully after me, unsure of the tones but treating it with care.

Address people the way they have introduced themselves. Ask them for clarification on the pronunciation if you are unsure. It is better to try and be wrong than to not try at all.