I mentioned before that I made up my own English name loosely based on my Chinese one, and adopted it when I moved across the country in middle school. But since I didn’t make the change official and my parents refuse to call me anything else, most days I inhabit both.
When I’m talking to family or family friends, it’s only natural that my persona is different–that of a daughter. Usually obedient, domestic, Mandarin-speaker. So when someone like a telemarketer or salesperson calls me the same name, because it’s on my credit cards and official records, it jars me. That moment to shift from who I’ve decided to be (my American half) to my more intimate given name is something I bet many immigrants with multiple names in different languages also experience. It’s in the gap between when I’m freefalling between two parts that I feel like neither.
Kind of the same feeling when my Chinese friends switch to speaking Mandarin in the middle of a conversation, usually because they want to explain something that doesn’t exist in English, or when they’re talking about China or Taiwan. It always throws me off, and I admit I rarely respond back in Chinese. That Chinese speaker is not the me in the moment–not the wisecracking, loud, ABC millennial I embody with friends. The language I speak dictates the content, and vice versa. I don’t know how to maintain the same personality, like for example my sense of humor, when speaking in Chinese. I don’t even know the word for sex, so there goes all the juicy conversations.
Also for the most part, I don’t like it when my friends call me my Chinese name without my permission. It seems disingenuous to use the name reserved for family and people closest to me–people who know that side of me. It seems like something they need permission to do, or else I feel like I’m back in fifth grade being mocked.
Even pronunciation can make a world of difference. My freshman roommate was from Nigeria, and had a beautiful name, easily pronounceable in English. One day, I asked her how it was accurately pronounced in Nigerian, and after she told me, I tried to use the “truer” form in addressing her. After a couple times, she asked me not to do it–I realized that she hated it. I should’ve known. People always ask me how to pronounce my last name.
“You can say shaw,” I usually tell them.
“Is that how it’s supposed to be pronounced?” they often ask.
If I’m feeling lazy and never going to see them again, I say “No, but that’s okay.” Because sometimes something as public as a name can feel sacred. So ask all you want, but don’t always expect to get a response.