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When Changing Names Means Changing Identities

The complicated reasons Chinese-born men and women raised in the West are reconnecting to the names they were born with.
August 7, 2015, 6:15pm
Image by Kat Aileen

My full legal name is Jessica Ning Yan Wei, though like most middle names, Ning Yan (pronounced Neem-YUN in Cantonese) is almost never used, unless it's by friends who peer at my passport, or, once, by a border security officer at the Zhengzhou Xinzheng International Airport, who asked me to spell it out in Chinese characters. I couldn't. Not that time, and not now, if I'm being honest, though I've since learned to recognize it on paper. I've practiced it a few times. It's hard to get down, a complicated order of strokes and boxes that form these three characters: 韋念恩. I'll keep trying, though, if for no other reason than the fact that NING YAN, as it reads in roman characters, doesn't really mean anything in either language. It's a toneless but phonetic approximation of words in Chinese that mean "remember grace." It was given to me by my grandmother. It was not in the top ten list of Most Popular Baby Girl Names.


While it is a functional Chinese name, almost nobody calls me by Ning Yan anymore. When I hear it pronounced correctly, it's as familiar as the name of a childhood playmate or an imaginary friend. But there it is, on all my legal documents, theoretically me. It's a reminder of an identity that I had forgotten for a long time as I went through my adolescence, and then adulthood, primarily in English. To me, Ning Yan is the name of a person I did not really grow up to be.

Many second-or-more-generation Chinese Americans and Canadians live between two names. Most of the time, Chinese parents, regardless of where they live, give their children Chinese names because it's the natural thing to do: If you speak a certain language, your child will be named in that language. It's practical, handy for when one ever decides to spend time in China, or at least with other Chinese people. Or it becomes a symbolic reminder of one's heritage, of an identity separate from day-to-day life. I, and many like me, remember a time in my childhood when my head would instinctively turn around at the musical lilt of my original given name. In some way, that instinct has been removed as I continue to live as a diasporic Western Chinese, yet it's through this rarely used name that my identity persists.

How do say your, quote, real name?

According to a thesis by Pan Wang, a Montreal-based Chinese teacher, the way Chinese parents decide their children's names has historically been prescriptive, based on class status or projected occupations for the child. "While at one level, Confucius presented names as being important because they served to represent and demarcate sociopolitical distinctions, [names'] value lay in the fact that they could be used to prescribe, and not simply describe, those distinctions," Wang writes. This custom of prescriptive naming aided in establishing a social order among the classical Chinese--for example, emperors in China would be given the name Tian zi (天子), which means "son of heaven," as heaven was considered "the final judge" in Confucius's value system. People were also named for the offices that they wished to occupy, leaving heaven to assess the accuracy of their names.

In modern Chinese naming practices, how a child is named is based on many different factors, including parents' religious beliefs, superstition, and wishes for their children. Megan Millward, a Chinese teacher and volunteer doula for many Chinese women without healthcare coverage in Canada, says many women she works with will ask for a feng shui master or someone with similar knowledge to give their child an auspicious name. In some other cases, parents will assign their child a name based on their astrological sign and time of birth in accordance with the lunisolar calendar. Counter to western European naming structures, which have thousands of different last names but only a few hundred common first names, there are only a handful of common last names in Chinese, but limitless combinations of given names, comprising two separate pre-existing characters. Although one of these characters is often generational and so shared between siblings (for example, my brother's name also starts with the letter 念,pronounced "Neem" which means "remember"), the other expresses the unique potential for the child.


In one case, Millward met a woman who made the first character of her son's name "Jia," (加) which is the first character of the Chinese word for Canada.

"They had just moved here, so for them, Canada is a welcoming place, and they wanted to put it in a name," Millward says. "The second [character] is one of the words for wisdom, because she wanted him to grow up to be wise."

Michelle Tong, a PhD candidate in psychology at Cornell University (and an old friend of mine) was born Tianyi, which means "number one under heaven." It was given to her by her grandmother, and all her cousins share the same first character, Tian. Her mother got the name Michelle from an episode of Full House that was on TV while she was filling out Michelle's elementary school applications, and it's the name she almost exclusively goes by, except to the government and any agencies that only know her as a legal name on a list. When Westerners encounter Michelle as Tianyi, their reactions are invariably the same.

"'How do say your, quote, real name?'" Michelle says. I can hear her eyes rolling over the phone. When non-Chinese people hear our Chinese names, the conversation invariably steers towards how we pronounce them, followed by five minutes of the non-Chinese people saying them wrong and, if we're patient, a lesson on the tonal languages.

"This individual asking me this is really just attempting to show respect for something new that they learned about me, which they associate with my identity," Michelle says. When her friends encounter her as Tianyi, or conflate certain aspects of Chinese culture with her identity, they are reminded that she is different.


"My friends here will say, 'Whoa! That was weird. I didn't know you were so Chinese!'" She says, "Not, 'I didn't know you could speak Mandarin fluently,' but more like, I didn't know you were this thing."

She spots subtle shifts when people encounter her Chinese name before they talk to her: slow, over-enunciated conversations with simpler words, a polite terseness. Michelle says, "There's a set of assumptions about me, but as soon as I say something, I can see behavioral differences. I guess the way that I speak"--that is, without an accent, fully fluently in English--"situates me as, 'Oh, she's not Chinese.'"

Whoa! I didn't know you were so Chinese!

As children of the Chinese diaspora, Michelle and I occupy a middle space: We can't pass naturally in China, with our accents and Western-raised sensibilities, which permeate everything from our dietary preferences, political expectations, behavior towards authority, and social culture. But we are not white enough to be free of the subtle discrimination and expectations that are tethered to our names and faces. Instead, we exist in a cultural gap that we must navigate for ourselves.

"Tianyi represents this whole part of me that's much different than the group that calls me Michelle," Michelle says. She likens her name to the language of Mandarin itself, which she speaks mostly with her family. "It kind of partitions the world. It's almost a cue into which identity to activate."


The first time I met Kai Cheng Thom was in a smoky loft in the gay village in Montreal, at a launch party for a new online Asian Canadian-centered magazine called Yellow Noise. I marveled at the faces around me, excited by this celebration of our common experiences. Kai Cheng took the stage in a crop top and a swishing tie-dyed skirt. In her performance, an excerpt from her semi-autobiographical solo show, Swallowing Chains, a transgender third-generation Chinese Canadian tells the story of her family: "You see, your Poh Poh came from a place far away / a land across the sea, where our ancestors lived / where our language and the color of our skin comes from."

The 24-year-old grew up primarily known as Ryan in Vancouver, and she began identifying as her given Chinese name when she was beginning her transition at 21. She was known as Kai Cheng in her early childhood, but as English started to infiltrate her household, her parents naturally started using her English name. In her mind, reclaiming a Chinese identity goes hand in hand with exploring her trans identity.

"They're very much the same process in my life," Kai Cheng says. "They're both kind of like remembering who you are or what you would have chosen, had there not been these external pressures."

Kai Cheng is also not a gendered name in English (although, she tells me, it is apparently a very masculine name in Toisanese, her family's native dialect), and her decision to reclaim her Chinese name, she says, was inspired by a tradition that was common in the Black Power movement.


"The way I use my Chinese name is connected in a large way to how certain black activist communities started reclaiming non-anglophone African, or otherwise black names, in their artistic practices."

Reclaiming a Chinese identity goes hand in hand with exploring her trans identity.

She doesn't know what Kai Cheng actually means, but she's fine with that: She believes that not knowing the precise origins of her name says a lot more about her identity as a child of diaspora. Her grandparents somehow derived the name Kai Cheng from a literary tradition in Toisan, but both of them were poorly educated, and in the case of her grandmother, illiterate. It's a name that has been through cross-continental and cross-cultural distortion through the vast waves of Chinese immigration, or diaspora, throughout the world.

"The fact that I don't know what [Kai Cheng] means holds a lot of understanding around who I am, and what my identity is," she says, "and I think this may be the same for a lot of diaspora folks. The fact that we don't speak our language says a lot more about us than if we learned it and suddenly did."

Through this lens, she can view both her ethnic identity and her trans identity in a similar way. She brings up the indigenous traditions of East Asia, South Asia, and pre-colonized Europe, when people were sometimes seen to have different forms of gender not related to genitalia. She gives the example of indigenous inhabitants on Turtle Island, who would consider a tradition of two-gendered people, who could access two spirits--male and female.

"These forms of living in a different gendered way, what we would consider transgender now, were lost as a result of colonial processes that stripped people of their traditional practices," she says. It's this connection to the root of her identity that informs how she has determined her ethnic and gender identity.

"It seems like we're constantly catching up with ourselves," she says, "like reclaiming something that was lost, in the process of a transition before birth."