As a volunteer alumni leader at a university, I spend a lot of time corresponding with fellow graduates of my alma mater. Recently, I got an email from one that started off on a seemingly friendly note: “Xiaoyan, I note with pleasure your joining the ranks of first-name-calling alums.” But then he offered me a bit of advice: “Next step is to get you to tell people they can Americanize the spelling to Cheyenne and then no one will ever again have trouble pronouncing it.”
My heart sank. This was this particular stranger’s fourth time trying to change my name during our email exchanges. When I declined — again — he proceeded to go ahead and address me as “Cheyenne Xiaoyan” anyway. As a woman in my 50s with a professional identity, I was deeply offended. (What’s more, I should not only change my name, but also appropriate a Native American one?)
This is not a new issue for me. When I first came to the United States in the late 1980s, for college, I immediately realized that Americans had a hard time pronouncing my name. (Roughly, it’s see-ow yen.) Some people mocked the name; for others, mastering it was a genuine struggle. Meanwhile, among Asian students, I soon learned, my name put me on the lowest rung of the social ladder on campus. The kids who were born in America, or who immigrated with their parents at a young age, often had American names. The Taiwanese kids had a more user-friendly spelling of their names, like my friend Cheng-Yee Lin, because Taiwan uses a different transliteration system than China. When one’s name started with ungainly consonants like “X” or “Q,” everyone knew you were from the mainland. We carried the scarlet letter of unpronounceable names. So in those initial years, I walked around campus feeling desolate not only socially and financially, but also linguistically.
To fix the situation, I tried on various American names: Daisy, Jenn, Lisa. But nothing stuck, because I would often forget to respond to the new name and I got fed up with having to explain the difference between these fake names and my real, legal name. And as a scholarship student barely scraping by, I certainly did not have the money for an official name change.
Eight years later, having completed college and medical school, I was about to begin an internship in Portland, Ore., and thought I would start with a clean slate by again picking an American name. I chose Alison. When one of my professors asked why — and why that name — I described the struggles I’d had over the years. Also, I’d grown tired of having my name be an issue every time I met new patients or new colleagues in the hospital. As for “Alison,” it was just a random American name, I explained. But my kind professor wasn’t having it: “Your name is your identity — stick with it,” he said. I did.
To a Chinese person, a name carries a lot of weight, including family history, linguistic associations and parental aspiration. The tradition is to use the surname, typically that of the father, as the first character in a child’s name. This equates to the Western “last name” — in my case, “Huang.” The surname precedes the given name, which may comprise one or two characters. (In China, I would be addressed as “Huang Xiaoyan.”) Throughout history, the choice of the child’s given name has carried tremendous importance in Chinese culture. To this day, when a baby is born, parents consult genealogy, and pore over dictionaries as well as historic or literary texts, seeking to balance sound, meaning and calligraphy. Because Chinese civilization is built upon our profoundly metaphorical language, the words chosen for a baby’s given name are perceived as being critically important in the identity of that person. When I was born in Beijing, my parents carefully selected my given name using the traditional methods. But on his way to the district office to file my birth certificate — or so my parents told me — my father, in his usual romantic and impulsive way, decided unilaterally to change the name. He settled on “Xiao Yan.” “Yan” is a key component of my mother’s name, referencing Yan’an, her birth place — also a center of the Chinese Communist revolution — while “Xiao” means “small.” The name expresses his love for both of us. (I don’t recall what my original name was to have been.)
To Americans who might be puzzled or frustrated by what appears to you as an idiosyncratic way of how we Chinese spell our names with English letters — there’s an explanation. The Hanyu Pinyin system, developed in China in the 1950s to officially encode the pronunciation of Chinese characters using Latin letters, was designed more to accurately map Chinese characters phonetically than to be friendly to English speakers. (The full Hanyu Pinyin rendering of my name would also include various diacritical marks, to capture intonation.)
In the 34 years that I have lived in this country, people have become much more accepting, welcoming, and even appreciative of foreign names, along with their “unusual” spellings and pronunciations. But there are still moments of tension. As a practicing cardiologist, I notice that it is Asian American women in particular who get challenged. Certainly, my Pakistani colleagues have their own stories to tell. My colleague Alefiyah Rajabali, for instance, practices electrophysiology, a subspecialty of cardiology that is 94 percent male. When a male staff member asked in a condescending tone what “she goes by” and if he could call her Allie, she replied: “That’s neither my first nor my last name. I’d address me by my last name, just like any other physician, Dr. Rajabali.” When I asked her about this exchange, she told me: “Culturally, a name is a prophecy for us, a prelude to our destiny.”
As a Chinese American, I feel the same way. It was my choice to keep my name, and its spelling. Don’t ask me to change it. I can help anyone in pronouncing my name correctly. Its “difficulty” is my challenge and my burden — one I now fully embrace. I don’t mind polite questions about how to say it, or even decent guesses. But please, respect my choice: Call me by my name.