That which we call a rose

‘Twas interesting today to note 2 articles on Chinese vs Westernised names in The Sunday Times, shortly after a podcast on the same topic last week by a famous blogger-cum-socio political commentator.
“Why don’t you start using your Chinese name?” my mom suggests, though being Peranakan, she can’t write her own.
Just her saying the name sends shivers down my spine.
“It’s like a prison number,” I shudder. I imagine myself with a placard with my name on it, like Nelson Mandela’s 46664 or Jean Valjean’s 24601 and start humming “Look Down”.
The name, while pretty enough, meaning “Pretty Jade”, and rare enough to be somewhat unique, evokes memories of a certain tuition teacher who used to stand at my gate and screech it for all to hear when she arrived for my weekly tuition lesson. It has been a name usually punctuated by an admonishment for something not done, or done badly, like corrections or homework or a test. Few people have ever said anything complimentary after that name.
“You should break it,” my mom continues, amused, but unperturbed by her daughter’s obviously psychologically-damaging emotional scar. It sounded like it was some of Name Curse or Spell. I mumble something and continue humming “Look Down”.
It’s not that I’m such an Anglophile that I would turn up my nose at my Chinese roots and heritage. (Although, I must probably add here that both sets of grandparents came from Indonesia and no one really knows when my 1st ancestor left China, so I probably can’t claim to that much of Chinese roots)
In fact, a year or 2 ago, I had considered getting my friends to call me by my Chinese name, during a period when I had been trying to brush up on my Mandarin by reading the papers, attending a class and getting an electronic English-Chinese dictionary. X, they could call me for short, I thought. Or MX, which did sound rather cool and edgy in a ‘sup bro-what’s in de hood-gangsta kinda way. But then I realised that “MX” would slowly have evolved to “Max”, which would have been a bit weird. Although I had felt like a weird Asian girl with a foreign name that didn’t quite belong to her as I walked around Paris looking for the statue, church and street (picture of the street sign on this blog’s masthead–I couldn’t find the statue and the church burnt down more than a hundred years ago–so much for being the patron saint of Paris!) of Saint Genevieve, I had come to the conclusion that a name is but a social tag, something convenient for another human to call you, instead of by rank and IC number, like they do in the military. In short, a rose by any other name…
I figured in the end that it was between living as a Singapore girl with a French name mashed up with the world’s most common Chinese surname or having a guy’s name, the latter of which would require plenty of explaining and limit my already-difficult hunt for a husband. And well, the French name *has* worked well so far, so why rock the boat? The current association with “Genevieve” and the pretty and smart CNA newsreader is a nice one too, anyhow.
The fact that my parents actually gave me a 2nd “western” name at birth compounds matters more. I’ve had to fish out my IC on several occasions to verify my full name on forms, just to prove all 24 letters of my name were “real”. No one, except for my Sec 3 and 4 Physics teacher and a few people who couldn’t pronounce my 1st name (that term itself is a problem. Is my Chinese name my 1st name or is Genevieve?), has called me that. For my Physics teacher, it was to differentiate me from the other Genevieve in the class, but she usually had to call me a few times before I realised that she was trying to get my attention. That was rather useful during times when I didn’t know the answer to whatever question she was asking. And seeing it was Physics, that happened quite often.
It’s often intrigued me how certain work and country cultures call each other by their rank, sometimes followed by their surname. Developer Chang, Deputy Director Li, and so on. I guess because the hierarchy at my workplace is relatively flat, nobody goes beyond “Miss” or “Mrs”, usually to pander to age-related respect. While a name is a social tag, it’s also closely related to one’s identity as well. A short form is fine, a tag for marital status is socially acceptable–even gratifying, I imagine, to be a “Mrs” in the sea of grumpy spinsters who are dealing with “Miss”, though a nice way out has been provided in the ambiguous “Ms”. But what does it say about you and your identity when you’re known by just your job title and surname?
I remember being a bit taken aback by how a friend waved “Bye, DD!” to her Deputy Director once. What happens when she’s no longer a DD, I asked. My friend laughed and just said that she had been a DD for over-20 years. Which might be worse, I reckon. Imagine the identity issues the poor woman might have when she finally retires. They might have to create some glorified consultant-type job title for her to cushion her pain.
Revisiting this post on 19th August 2010…
I wonder if this applies to tags given for relationships as well. What is it that causes parents to melt when their precious baby sits up and calls ‘Mama’ or ‘Papa’? Is it a sense of achievement that you’ve arrived in this world as a parent? A sense of being wanted by a helpless baby? I can’t really remember when my nieces 1st called me ‘Ee Ee’ (in fact, they routinely call me ‘Ee Poh’, mixing the salutation for ‘aunty on the maternal side’ with ‘grandaunty on the maternal side’) so maybe this heart-melting thing doesn’t apply to aunts.
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